The Best Way to See Fall Colors in Maine

February 7, 2019   3 Comments »

The Best Way to See Fall Colors in Maine

February 7, 2019 3 Comments »

I looked down at my boots and smiled at the colorful leaf-covered trail. I enjoyed hearing the crunch of leaves under my boots and the sound of water trickling in the river next to me. The last few days on the trail were like a long, deep inhale of fresh air; my yoga teacher would have been proud. I couldn’t believe my time off the grid was already over. For the last 3 days I had been lacing up my boots and hitting the relatively empty trails, while all of the other tourists were starting their cars to go see the iconic fall colors in Maine.

Maine huts and trails fall hiking

I heard about the Maine Hut and Trail System while riding a ski lift in Steamboat Colorado in the dead of winter. My life can be full of crazy connections, but when I met a random man and his family in the gondola lift, and found out we knew a mutual person in Maine, I figured this was some sort of divine intervention. He told me I should visit Maine Huts and Trails as our mutual friend worked there now. I loved hut to hut hiking, plus it was a great reason to get back to Maine in autumn.

Fall Colors In Maine Without the Crowds

When you think about autumn leaf peeping, Maine normally comes to mind. It’s a state with an inordinate amount of trees and it also is home to the Sugar Maple Tree, which is known for its bright red leaf in September/October.

I decided to go hiking in the Maine Hut and Trail system in peak leaf peeping season, for obvious reasons…photography! I thought it might be crowded, but to my surprise, I had the trails and huts to myself. While everyone was fighting for B&B’s on the coast, I had a whole hut to myself in the middle of the woods. That’s one of the many reasons I loved this trip; I felt like I had found a hidden Maine gem.

I didn’t have to deal with any traffic, high fuel prices, expensive hotels, or crowds. The leaves were turning, and I was in the thick of it hiking in the Maine High Peaks Region. Plus, I got to go off the grid; a luxury I don’t get that often.

Hut to Hut Hiking with Support

I love multi-day hikes where you don’t have to carry food or camping gear. I’ve done many of these types of hikes in Europe; the Camino de Santiago, Camino Ronda, and Saint Olav Ways. These kinds of routes have been slow to arrive in the US. Maine Huts and Trails is really the first system I’ve found in the US that reminds me of Europe with lodging and food available. While staying at Grand Falls Hut, I met a group of women from the San Francisco Bay Area who flew all the way out to Maine to experience the Maine Huts for 4 days. They heard about it on a Facebook hiking community page.

“Food was provided and we didn’t have to carry it in on our backs,” explained Shiva Wilson on why they chose Maine Huts. “Being able to stop somewhere to sleep and be fed is great. It’s so cozy and everything you need is provided.”

hut to hut hiking maine

The huts supply all the food you need!

Maine Hut Map and Plan

I met my friend Carolann at the Maine Huts and Trails office in Kingfield. She was familiar with the trails and system and planned to hike with me for the first 2 days. It was great to meet the people in the office since they had helped me plan the trip and route. There was a map there and we could get a good look at our whole route at once.

There are 80 miles of primary and secondary trails in the Hut system. However if you were to truly walk from hut to hut and out to the trailhead/parking it’s a total of 48.5 miles. I planned on covering a portion of that, staying at 3 huts and covering about 25 miles. And a small portion of that was going to be off my feet and canoeing between huts!

My plan was to hike in with Carolann to the Stratton Brook Hut, the highest and newest hut and stay overnight. Then we’d leave the next morning and stop at the Poplar Hut to check it out and then drive a small portion and I’d go the rest of the way to Flagstaff Hut on my own for overnight. Finally on the last day, I’d meet a Maine guide and we’d hike and canoe together to overnight in the Grand Falls Hut.

 

Plan Your Own Hut to Hut Hike

Check out my article about everything you need to know about hiking Maine Huts and Trails including a recommended gear list and transportation tips!

Hike to Stratton Brook Hut

We started on a relatively flat section along the river, and I was a bit snap happy with the pretty fall scenes, but soon we started the climb uphill towards the newest hut in the system, Stratton Brook Hut. It was a pretty steady and easy hike up with a well-groomed trail. Carolann explained how they built and maintained the trail system, which is always amazing to me. I think so often we take trails for granted, but when you are building them from scratch, it’s a very scientific, laborious process. Plus, these trails have to be wide enough to handle hikers in the summer and cross country skiers and grooming machines in the winter. It wasn’t surprising when I learned Maine Huts and Trails has a full time trail builder/maintainer on staff.

We ran into a few mountain bikers occasionally, but other than that we didn’t see another person on the trail! We stopped for some lunch at the Crommett Overlook and arrived at the hut in the late afternoon. It’s always such a great sight (and relief) to see your destination for the night. We checked in with the two full time staff there at the hut and settled in.

The hut design was beautiful, a big open area and fireplaces for gathering, playing games, and relaxing. Plus a small dining room, and the showers/bathroom available for guests in the main lodge. In a separate building you found the bunk houses, most with 4 bunks in them. I had reserved one bunk, but since there was only Carolann and I, plus one other person staying at the hut that night, they gave us each our own rooms!

I had a beer, took a hot shower, and sunk into a big leather chair enjoying the magestic two sided stone fireplace. The staff, Kelly and Charlotte, prepared dinner as we relaxed and talked to the only other guest there.

Nancy, a 65-year-old local book publisher and Master Gardener, was hiking hut-to-hut solo. She had stayed at some of the huts before doing out and back hikes, but this was the first time doing the full hut to hut. She gushed about what a great time she was having by herself and how good the Huts and Trails organization was. And like us, she too hadn’t met many people on the trails and was surprised.

I asked her why she loved the hut-to-hut system, “People can go ahead and be out in the woods for a longer time instead of just an out and back. This allows you to immerse yourself in the woods.”

The 3 of us, along with Kelly and Charlotte, had a big feast that night. I started to learn a bit about the Hut staff; normally 2 to 3 people live and maintain the hut for the season. They do the cooking, cleaning, some maintenance, and they keep the place warm! This was an incredible job for a young person who loved being outdoors and off the grid; and to no surprise there are lots of those people in Maine!

Visiting Poplar Hut

The next morning I went out to check out the leaf colors at the lookout before our hearty breakfast. We packed lunches, said goodbye to the staff and Nancy and I took off towards the Poplar Hut. The fall colors seemed to be coming out a bit later this season, so we were just at the beginning of it. However, you could see a difference between yesterday and today, so we were definitely in for a lovely autumn show this week.

We stopped at the Poplar Hut so that I could see what the first hut built in the system was like. Trees and vistas surround most of the huts, but Poplar is like a big cabin dropped into the middle of the dense forest! There was very little clearing so you really got that feeling of being surrounded by woods.

Carolann pointed out to me all of the changes they made from the first hut to the Stratton Brook Hut based on what they learned along the way. It was fascinating and I had a new appreciation for how hard it is to build a big cabin/lodge system in the middle of a forest off the grid.

I was able to see also how the huts are supplied which is certainly not at easy logistical task. There are fire roads that lead to the huts so they can be provisioned, but they are only allowed for the provisioning staff. I was there as one of the managers was making a delivery of food and fresh flowers for the week. In the winter it is done mainly by snow mobile and sled.

Hike to Flagstaff Hut

Carolann then dropped me off at a trailhead to get to Flagstaff Hut (cutting out a bit of hiking) and I was suddenly on my own! I never saw another person as I followed the well-marked trail along the lake edge. I took my time and stopped to enjoy the lake views and make a bit of noise to scare off any curious Moose!

The sun came out to join me – making it a spectacular day of hiking. I arrived at Flagstaff Hut, the most popular hut thanks to its prime lake location. Surprisingly I was the only person in the hut for the night – all that delicious food and hot water for a shower was all for me!

I got cleaned up and went out to the shore to watch the sunset. It was a perfect setting and many people simply come to this hut and hike on the surrounding trails or canoe on the lake. I enjoyed a can of wine and incredible dinner complete with apple pie! Afterwards the hut master took me on a tour of the inner workings of the hut composting and power solutions for being off grid. Once again I went to sleep in awe of how hard it must have been to create this hut system and how thankful I was that I was there.

Hike and Canoe to Grand Falls Hut

“Sunny days are overrated,” my guide Kimberly said as I looked at the gray sky wondering if I needed to have my rain gear on before we started our hike. This is just what you want in a guide – a positive attitude! Kimberly had hiked in to meet me that morning at the Flagstaff Hut and join me for a day of my journey.

Maine Huts and Trails offer guiding service too if you desire, so I thought I would try it out today since we had a portion of the journey that would be canoeing and I was a novice canoe-er!

Kimberly was a certified Maine Guide who was an expert backpacker, hiker, yoga instructor and skier. She started by telling me that she likes to do intentional quiet times on the hike so that we could absorb the forest around us. I liked the sound of that. However, what happens when you get two avid female travelers and hikers together for 11 miles? We have endless things to talk about!

I rarely get to travel with female guides and I often think it’s a shame there aren’t more in the adventure travel industry. However when I do get one I always love it as I form an immediate connection typically and the hike has a whole different vibe. Kimberly and I talked non-stop as we hiked along. In between talking about epic hikes around the world she would point out mushrooms and let me know if they were edible or not, identify a bird, or show me a beaver dam. I can safely say I now have another great girlfriend in my inventory of outdoorsy friends!

How to Hire Kimberly for Your Maine Hike

I must admit, I really want to go back and plan a women’s hut-to-hut trip with Kimberly as our guide. A little hiking, canoeing, and yoga…wouldn’t that be fun! Sign up here at my Ottsworld Tour newsletter and make sure you put Maine in the destination.
However, until I get that going, if you want to hire Kimberly yourself contact her here

We hiked 4 miles, paddled 6 miles on the Dead River, and then hiked 2 more miles to Grand Falls Hut. The leaves were popping today along the river; apparently fall arrived! Since it was the beginning of the weekend, this was also the first day where we actually ran into a few other hikers. When we arrived at the Grand Falls Hut it was practically full – a stunning change for me considering I had been alone every other night!

As fun as it was to experience the huts all on my own, it was really cool to see the overall vibe of a full hut.

Jennifer and Peter Lakis were there for their anniversary. “Block your ears honey…I just booked this on Sunday (a week before!),” Peter said as he talked to me about how they found the Huts. He was new to Maine and people in his local community suggested it as a great place to hike. They were staying two nights at Grand Falls Hut because they wanted to get off the grid and hike. “It’s a great ‘gateway drug’ into the backcountry for us. We’ll definitely come back and check out the other huts!”

We ate big bowls of pasta at long communal tables and enjoyed wine and beer as everyone got to know each other. It was a great mix of local Mainers and out of town folks. “Maine Hut association helped designed the whole itinerary,” Shiva from San Francisco said, “They were very patient and helped with changes. The gear shuttle service was a big deal too!”

Yes, that’s right, Maine Huts and Trails will even move your gear for you from hut to hut to allow you to simply enjoy the trails without a big burden on your back!

Kimberly, I, and all of our new friends sat around the firepit trading stories and making s’mores that night. It was the perfect end to my hut experience before dozing off in my simple but comfortable bunk.

The next day I hiked around the waterfall a bit before taking a ride back to civilization.

Same Same But Different

Even though this experience was all part of the Maine Huts and Trails system, each trail and hut has a personality of it’s own. Every day on the trail was different. Stratton Brook was uphill climbs among forest and the newest hut with the best design. Hiking around Poplar was dense forest and waterfalls. The hike to Flagstaff was along the lakeshore, which had a whole different feel to it. And finally the hike to Grand Falls was really marshy and full of mushrooms that then turned into hiking/canoeing along the river. It was the perfect hiking diversity that I look for.

I still can hardly believe how few people were out on the trails and staying in the huts in the heart of the leaf peeping season in Maine! In my world – hiking (and sometimes canoeing) from hut to hut is the perfect way to experience fall colors in Maine. You can go slow, take pictures, and really immerse yourself in the outdoors! Then relax for the night in a bed that is reasonably priced! And you can see scenes like these!

Ok – I’m done gushing about the Maine Huts & Trails – just go to their website and learn more about their non-profit organization and organize your itinerary with their experts!

Disclosure:

I was a guest of Visit Maine during my hike, however all opinions expressed here are my own.


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