Hikes & Trails

Hiking Gulf Hagas the ‘Grand Canyon of Maine’

POSTED ON January 8, 2020 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Nestled within the rugged wilderness of Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness, Gulf Hagas is a natural spectacle that bids an adventurous welcome to those who seek its beauty. Revered as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” this slate gorge chiseled by the West Branch of the Pleasant River offers a dramatic backdrop for a day of exploration. The sheer walls rise up to 130 feet (37 m), cradling roaring waterfalls and tranquil pools that dazzle with clarity and a sense of undisturbed timelessness.

As hikers traverse the 8-mile (12.9 km) Gulf Hagas Rim Trail, they are treated to a symphony of water cascading over ancient rock formations, creating a series of beautiful waterfalls, the most notable being Screw Auger and Buttermilk Falls (location).

The trek to Gulf Hagas is an immersion into an untapped world where the forest canopy envelops the sky and the air carries the fresh tang of pine and the earthy scent of moss-covered stones.

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History of Gulf Hagas

Gulf Hagas - Buttermilk Falls

The origins of Gulf Hagas can be traced back to the last ice age, when powerful glaciers shaped the landscape of Maine. As the glaciers retreated, they left behind the jagged terrain that would eventually be carved by frequent flooding and the ceaseless flow of the West Branch of the Pleasant River, resulting in the Gulf we know today. Gulf Hagas Brook (location), an important tributary, continues to sculpt the gorge, maintaining its raw beauty.

With human history, the mid-1800s marked the Gulf Hagas area’s pivotal development when the Katahdin Iron Works began to harness the area’s resources. Located near modern-day Katahdin Iron Works Road, the ironworks spurred industrial growth but also led to the logging operations resculpting Maine’s forests. Eventually, the logging trails would pave the way for hiking paths as the region transitioned from a hub of industry to a haven for nature enthusiasts.

The efforts of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club have been central to preserving the area around the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail. The AMC was founded in 1876 and extended its work into Maine, being instrumental in establishing trails and promoting conservation. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club, a volunteer-based organization, has worked tirelessly to maintain the trail portions, ensuring that both Maine residents and visitors can access Gulf Hagas and enjoy its splendors responsibly.

In 1969, the National Park Service recognized the Appalachian Trail’s national significance, designating it as a National Scenic Trail, which includes the segment passing near Gulf Hagas. This marked a major milestone, which has only solidified the Gulf’s status as the Grand Canyon of Maine, securing federal support and guaranteeing its preservation.

Today, Gulf Hagas remains one of the most remarkable natural wonders in the region. Access to the Gulf is managed to protect its fragile ecosystem while offering a unique wilderness experience.The Katahdin Iron Works Road provides the most direct access to Gulf Hagas, with trailheads conveniently situated for visitors.

As stewards of this treasure, organizations and Maine residents alike continue their work to maintain the heritage and natural beauty of Gulf Hagas, ensuring it remains an enduring place of discovery for future generations.

Key Facts about Gulf Hagas

Waterfall in Gulf Hagas, Maine

  • Location: Katahdin Iron Works State Historic Site, in Piscataquis County, northwestern Maine. Map
  • Total Length: approximately 8 miles (12.9 km) long.
  • Time to Hike: between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the chosen route and stops along the way.
  • Trailhead(s): Katahdin Iron Works (KI) and The Hermitage parking areas, accessible via Katahdin Iron Works Road (location). Other access points include the Head of the Gulf and the Pleasant River Tote Road.
  • Difficulty Level: moderate to strenuous, depending on the sections and paths chosen. Extremely challenging around Screw Auger Falls.
  • Establishment: The area surrounding Gulf Hagas was designated as part of the Appalachian Trail corridor in 1972.
  • Total Elevation Gain: approximately 1,300 feet (396 meters).
  • Best Time or Season to Hike: late spring through early fall, with peak conditions in summer.
  • Lowest Point: The Pleasant River crossing at around 700 feet (213 meters).
  • Highest Point: on the Rim Trail, at approximately 1,300 feet (396 meters) above sea level.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Billings Falls Gulf Hagas, ME

Embarking on the Gulf Hagas hike is an immersive journey through one of Maine’s most iconic landscapes, often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of Maine” Here’s an insightful overview of the trail, difficulty levels, and the myriad of route options that meander through the pristine wilderness of the North Maine Woods.

Route Options from Trailhead to Finish

The hike traditionally begins at the Gulf Hagas parking area, located off Katahdin Iron Works Road. From here, adventurers access Gulf Hagas through one of the primary routes, the Pleasant River Tote Road or the Head of the Gulf Trail. The Pleasant River Tote offers a gradual approach toward the gorge, with alternative crossings available for non-Maine residents at designated river crossings.

Following the Appalachian Trail corridor briefly, hikers then turn left onto the Rim Trail, a loop encircling the gorge that features the spectacular Billings Falls. The round trip spans approximately 8 miles long (12.9 km), with the trail marked by white blazes leading through dense forests of white pine trees and past the slate gorge.

Hikers may also choose to incorporate the Appalachian Mountain Club’s maintained trails, like the West Branch and Pleasant River trails, into their journey. Each path offers unique highlights, from swimming holes to historic mining sites, before looping back to the Gulf parking area.

Trail Highlights and Notable Trails

Katahdin Iron Works

The entire Gulf Hagas area is a National Natural Landmark, boasting rich biodiversity alongside its geological wonders. For day hikers looking to capture the essence of New England’s wilderness, the Gulf Hagas is a storied trek through one of the most breathtaking corridors of the Appalachian Trail.

Significant spots include Buttermilk Falls and the picturesque Hammond Street Pitch, where the water’s symphony provides a serene soundtrack for the hike.

Gulf Hagas is in proximity to Baxter State Park, known for its natural beauty, and Katahdin, the tallest peak in Maine. Consider exploring both destinations if time allows.

Mindfulness of private land rights around Ki Jo Mary and the North Maine Woods is important for all hikers. Moreover, preparations for the hike should consider the rough terrain and sometimes remote conditions, with the National Park Service and Maine Appalachian Trail Club strongly recommending a trail map.

Trail Difficulty and Popular Sections

The Gulf Hagas Rim Trail is a challenging path that requires agility and endurance. Navigating this rugged terrain involves encounters with the wild Gulf Hagas Brook, steep inclines, and rocky passages. For seasoned hikers, this trail is an exhilarating test of skill, particularly in areas near Screw Auger Falls and Stair Falls, where careful footing is paramount. The difficulty is often considered moderate to strenuous, and those unfamiliar with demanding trails should proceed with caution.

Please note: The route information provided is based on the most recent trail data available; however, trail conditions can change. It’s imperative for hikers to check the latest trail maps and updates on the Maine Trail Finder website before embarking on the Gulf Hagas hike.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike and Weather Conditions

Stair Falls Gulf Hagas, ME

Nestled within the North Maine Woods, Gulf Hagas experiences a diverse climate, reflecting the region’s rugged beauty. So, understanding the weather and trail conditions throughout the seasons is crucial for planning a successful and enjoyable experience.

Spring (March to May)

As winter recedes, spring brings a rejuvenating transformation to the Gulf Hagas. Expect temperatures ranging from 2°C to 15°C (36°F to 59°F). The trails may be muddy with melting snow, so sturdy footwear is essential.

Springtime unveils budding flora along the Gulf Hagas Brook, enhancing the scenic allure.

Summer (June to August)

Summer ushers in warmer temperatures, ranging from 13°C to 26°C (55°F to 79°F). This is peak hiking season, attracting day hikers and Appalachian Trail enthusiasts.

The Grand Canyon of Maine is bathed in lush greenery, with Screw Auger Falls and swimming holes offering refreshing respites.

Fall (September to November)

Autumn paints Gulf Hagas with a stunning tapestry of reds and golds. Expect temperatures between 2°C and 16°C (36°F to 61°F). The trails become adorned with vibrant foliage, providing a breathtaking backdrop for hikers.

Fall is an ideal time to witness the changing colors along the Gulf Trail and enjoy the crisp air.

Winter (December to February)

Winter transforms Gulf Hagas into a serene wonderland, with temperatures ranging from -12°C to -1°C (10°F to 30°F). While the trails may be challenging due to snow and ice, adventurous winter hikers can explore a quieter side of Gulf Hagas. It’s essential to check trail conditions and plan accordingly.

Understanding the seasonal nuances ensures a well-prepared and memorable exploration of Gulf Hagas throughout the year. For the most accurate and up-to-date weather information, refer to the North Maine Woods official website.

Recommended Gear

Gulf Hagas Recommended Gear

Exploring the rugged terrain of Gulf Hagas requires appropriate equipment to ensure safety and enjoyment. Here’s a comprehensive list of the recommended gear when tackling the trails, such as the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail.

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  • Footwear: Good hiking boots or shoes are strongly recommended to navigate the varied and sometimes slippery surfaces found along the Pleasant River, Gulf Hagas Brook, and Rim Trail. They should have excellent traction for river & stream crossings and durability for handling the rocky outcrops akin to the Grand Canyon of Maine.
  • Clothing: Adaptable layers are a must, as temperatures can vary from the North Maine Woods to the Gulf Hagas parking area. A moisture-wicking base layer, an insulating mid-layer, and a waterproof outer layer will protect against the elements throughout the year. Be sure to check the trail map for any additional clothing recommendations during different seasons.
  • Navigation: A physical trail map is recommended, even if you’re familiar with the Gulf Trail or using digital maps. It’s helpful to have these for navigating around places like Screw Auger Falls and the Head of the Gulf.
  • Hydration and Food: As you’ll be near water sources like the West Branch of the Pleasant River, bring a water filtration system and a hydration pack or water bottles. Enough food and snacks for your intended duration, especially if planning a round trip, are also vital.
  • Safety and First Aid: Prepare a first-aid kit that includes bandages, blister protection, and any personal medications. Knowledge of the route and understanding key points like the Slate Gorge or Gulf Hagas Area increases safety.
  • Miscellaneous Accessories: Other small but significant items include a compass, multi-tool, headlamp or flashlight, and a fire starter. For historical and natural sites like Buttermilk Falls and Billings Falls, bring a camera or smartphone for photographs.
  • Cash and Permits: Remember, it’s only cash for the parking lot fees, and ensure all permits for private land like the Ki Road area are in order before you head north.
  • Backcountry and Overnight Gear: If you’re turning left from the Upper Valley Road for an extended adventure or camping trip, gear up with a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a portable stove to round out your expedition.

Navigating Gulf Hagas: Maps, Markers, Permits and Regulations

Gulf Hagas Rim Trail

Before heading out on your adventure, it’s essential to ensure you have the necessary information to make the most of your hike.

Permits:

  • Most of the area surrounding Gulf Hagas is privately owned by the North Maine Woods organization, and as such, they manage access to the area.
  • You can obtain the necessary permits at checkpoints leading into the North Maine Woods, and these are typically staffed with gatekeepers during the hiking season. It is also important to note that cash payments are required for all fees, including parking and camping.
  • For the most up-to-date information on permits and fees, visit the North Maine Woods official website.

Maps and Navigation:

  • A reliable map is crucial to navigating Gulf Hagas’s intricate network of trails. The Silverlight app provides a digital map with marked trails.
  • Detailed physical trail maps are available for purchase at the aforementioned checkpoints when you enter the North Maine Woods.
  • For digital preparation, printable maps and trail descriptions can be found on the Maine Trail Finder website.
  • Once on the trails, you’ll find a series of markers guiding your way. The Gulf Hagas Rim Trail, for example, uses blue blazes painted on trees or rocks along the path. It’s important to stay observant and follow these blazes, as several side trails can lead hikers astray.

Regulations

  • Gulf Hagas and the surrounding areas are protected lands, and visitors must adhere to regulations to preserve their natural beauty. This includes following Leave No Trace principles, such as carrying out all waste, respecting wildlife, and keeping to the trails.
  • Campfires may be restricted, especially during dry conditions, and camping is only allowed at designated sites. Off-trail hiking is generally discouraged to protect delicate ecosystems.

Accommodation, Camping, and Overnight Stay

Gulf Hagas Trail Entry

For those seeking an immersive Gulf Hagas experience, strategically choosing your accommodation enhances the adventure. Here’s a comprehensive guide to popular campgrounds and lodging options:

Campgrounds:

  • AT Campsite: Located along the Appalachian Trail near Gulf Hagas (location), this primitive campsite is ideal for thru hikers. Check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for regulations and permits.
  • West Branch Pleasant River Campsite: Situated near the Gulf Parking Area and Further afield (location), the Pleasant River Tote Road, this primitive campsite offers proximity to Gulf Hagas. It is a convenient option for those looking to explore beyond the state parkCheck North Maine Woods’ website for permits (northmainewoods.org).
  • KI/Jo Mary campsites: These are also available just off the Golden Road and provide a more historic setting, with many of the structures erected in the early 1900s. Reservations can be made on the KI/Jo Mary website.

Lodging Options:

  • AMC Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins: The AMC Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins offers a more luxurious stay within a 30-minute drive from the Gulf Hagas parking area and even closer to the trailheads, ideal for hikers looking for comfort after a day on the trails.
  • AMC Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins: Similarly accommodating, the AMC Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins offer cozy lodgings by the shores of Long Pond, providing another picturesque option within proximity of the waterfalls and head of the gulf.
  • Moose Point Lodge: For those aiming to combine convenience with a touch of secluded luxury, the Moose Point Lodge is a quintessential choice. Though it takes under an hour’s drive from Gulf Hagas, it remains one of the most sought-after accommodations in the region.

It’s important to note that to camp in these areas or use the facilities, visitors must secure their permits from North Maine Woods, which can be arranged online or at the checkpoints for a fee.

Detailed information for all required permits and the most recent updates on availability and bookings can be found on the North Maine Woods official website.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Bangor International Airport (BGR)

Gulf Hagas is located in the scenic North Maine Woods region, close to several major cities in New England. Here are some options for getting there:

By Plane:

The nearest airport to Gulf Hagas is Bangor International Airport (BGR), which is approximately 71 miles south of the trail. From there, you can rent a car or take a shuttle service. The drive takes about 1.5 to 2 hours through scenic countryside roads.

By Car:

  • From Boston, MA: Take I-95 N to Augusta, ME then take US-201 N towards The Forks and continue on ME-15 N to Greenville. From Greenville, take Pleasant Street, which becomes a dirt road, and follow signs for the Gulf Hagas parking area.
  • From Portland, ME: Take I-95 N to Augusta, then follow the same directions as above.
  • From Bangor, ME: Take I-395 E towards Brewer and merge onto US-1A N. Continue on this route until ME-11 N towards Brownville, and then follow signs for the Gulf Hagas parking area.
  • Alternative Route through E Road: For a more adventurous route, take E Road from Milo towards Gulf Hagas. This route offers glimpses of Maine’s rustic charm and the opportunity to explore off-the-beaten-path areas.

Getting Around:

The only way to reach the Gulf Hagas trailhead is by car, as there are no public transportation options available. The hike itself is a loop trail that starts and ends at the same location, making it easy to navigate without getting lost.

Follow Pleasant Street to reach the parking area, providing convenient access to the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail and other trails.

Conclusion

With its stunning waterfalls, gorges, and beautiful wilderness, Gulf Hagas is a must-visit destination for adventurers and nature lovers alike. Whether you’re looking for a day trip or an extended stay, this hidden gem in Maine is sure to leave you with unforgettable memories.

So pack your bags, grab your hiking boots, and get ready for an epic adventure.

Don’t forget to check out other destinations in our National Park Guides series for more inspiration and ideas on planning your next outdoor excursion.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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