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Walks of Wonder

Wading through the clear, cold water, his water shoes slipped on the smooth stones that covered the riverbed. He extended his arms to both sides, found his balance, then continued forward, the water swirling around his knees. The trail waited on the other side, marked with white rectangles painted on tree trunks.

Crossing the West Branch of the Pleasant River is a part of the grand adventure of hiking Gulf Hagas, a section of the river filled with stunning waterfalls and bordered by dramatic slate cliffs. Located in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness as an offshoot from the Appalachian Trail, the Gulf Hagas hike has become a popular backcountry adventure for those looking for a bit of a challenge.

After successfully fording the river, the hiker sat on the rocky bank, exchanged his water shoes for boots, then hit the trail, carefully navigating over masses of twisted tree roots and rocks. The first major waterfall, Screw Auger Falls, was just ahead, its cascading water plunging into a clear pool, sending up mist to coat the surrounding cliffs.

Gulf Hagas, the Grand Canyon of Maine — Challenging

Known as the “Grand Canyon of Maine” or the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Gulf Hagas is a slate gorge carved out by the West Branch of the Pleasant River near Brownville. Over the course of three miles, the river drops about 500 feet, forming several spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes. In some places, the rock walls the border the river are more than 100 feet tall.

The public can explore this fascinating geological feature on well-maintained but challenging hiking trails that travel along the river to visit several waterfalls with fun names such as Screw Auger Falls, The Jaws, Buttermilk Falls and Stair Falls. Typically people hike out on this riverside trail and return on an inland trail for a loop hike that is 8.6 miles or 9 miles, depending on if you start at the east or west trailhead.

Dogs are permitted if kept under control at all times, however this difficult hike may not be suitable for all dogs and be prepared to treat cuts on footpads due to the sharp rocks in the area.

Directions: From Brownville Junction, drive north on Route 11 about 3.5 miles and turn left onto Katahdin Ironwork Road. Drive about 6.5 miles to the KI checkpoint and gatehouse, where you are required to register and pay a fee of $7 per Maine resident. After the gatehouse, continue on the road and cross a bridge, then take a sharp right turn. Drive about 3.5 miles and turn left at a fork in the road, following signs to Gulf Hagas. Drive another 2.9 miles and the Gulf Hagas parking area will be on your right. This is the east trailhead for the hike, closest to Screw Auger Falls. To reach the west trailhead, closer to the Head of the Gulf, continue on the road for another 4.4 miles and the Head of Gulf parking area is on the left, just past the trailhead.

Culter Coast’s cobblestone beaches — Moderate

Cutler Coast Public Reserve Land totals 12,234 acres on the Bold Coast, a scenic area of spruce-fir forest, peat bogs, dramatic oceanside cliffs and cobble beaches fronting the Bay of Fundy in Washington County. Located in the town of Cutler, the reserved lands are state-owned and feature more than 9 miles of hiking trails.

The trail network includes three trails — Coastal Trail, Inland Trail and Black Brook Cove Trail — as well as three designated campsites that are first come, first tent. If you choose to hike in via Coastal Trail, it leads to the dramatic cliffs of the Bold Coast in about 1 mile, and an amazing cobblestone beach a bit farther along.

Dog are permitted if kept under control at all times and on a leash at campsites. However, your dog may not enjoy navigating the jumble of large smooth rocks that make up the cobblestone beaches. They make for tricky footing even for booted feet.

Directions: If approaching from the south, drive to the Route 1-Route 191 intersection in East Machias and turn right (south) onto Route 191. Drive 16.9 miles to the trailhead parking area, which is marked by a blue sign on your right. If approaching from the north, drive to the Route 1-Route 189 intersection in Whiting and turn left onto Route 189. Drive to the Route 191. Turn right onto Route 191 and travel 10 miles to the parking area, which is on your left.

The Debsconeag Ice Caves — Easy

Formed by a jumble of huge boulders being plowed together by glaciers during the last ice age, the Debsconeag Ice Caves are located in a huge swath of conserved land called the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area located just south of Baxter State Park. This mossy, beautiful forestland covers more than 46,000 acres and contains trees that are more than 300 years old, as well as the highest concentration of pristine, remote ponds in New England.

The easy hiking trail to the ice caves is just over 1 mile long and weaves through tall pine trees and boulders covered in moss and ferns. At the caves, metal rungs, courtesy of the Nature Conservancy, are anchored in the rock so that visitors can climb down into the dark, ice-filled cavities. As you descend, the temperature drops — a sensation much like stepping into a freezer.

During the spring and summer, the ice coating the walls of the caves starts to melt and form icicles. From the main cave (big enough to stand up and look around), hikers can clamber over boulders and shimmy into smaller cavities, though this type of exploration is not for people afraid of confined spaces. In addition to your typical hiking gear, be sure to pack a headlamp, ice cleats and gloves. Dogs are not permitted.

Directions: Take the Golden Road in Millinocket to Abol Bridge (about 18 miles). After crossing the bridge, turn onto the dirt road on the left and follow the road for a little less than 3 miles. Bear left when the road splits and drive about a mile to the parking area on the right. The trail starts a short distance from the parking area, on the other side of a rock barrier. The trail is blue-blazed. About half way down the trail, the trail intersects with a wide, grassy trail. Turn left. A blue blaze on a boulder will confirm you’re going the right direction. Look for the trail to head back into the woods. Always follow the blue blazes.

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