This past weekend I went on a 5-day hut-to-hut tour at Maine Huts and Trails.
What is Maine Huts and Trails
Maine Huts and Trails is, as the name suggests, a collection of backcountry huts along a trail in northwest Maine, run by a non-profit organization, also called "Maine Huts and Trails."
As of this writing, the completed first phase of the project has 4 huts, spaced about 10 miles apart. The long-term plan is for a set of 12 huts, from near Bethel to near Moosehead Lake. The current trail is anchored at its southwest end near the Sugarloaf cross-country ski area.
The 4 huts that I visited were Stratton Brook, Poplar, Flagstaff, and Grand Falls.
The principal (I'm trying to avoid using the word "main" because it sounds too much like "Maine") trail, called the Maine Hut Trail, currently extends for about 14 miles past the 4th hut, for a total of about 45 miles. There are currently about 7 trailheads. There are only a few skiable side trails, primarily around Stratton Brook Hut, but there are some trails suitable for snowshoeing. And, in the summer, there are more trails available for hiking and mountain bicycling. But, for skiing purposes, this is primarily a linear trail.
Their excellent trail map is available online (note that, due to the level of detail on the map, it sometimes takes a while for the map to display), and you can ask them to mail you a paper copy of the map. The trail itself is well marked with clear signs.
The Maine Hut Trail is well-constructed with sturdy bridges. The trail is flat to moderately hilly. 3 of the 4 huts are at the top of climbs of at least a few hundred feet. The Stratton Brook Hut is the highest elevation of the 4 current huts, with a climb of over 600 feet, briefly steep near the top.
There is a small yurt halfway between Poplan Hut and Flagstaff Hut, convenient for a lunch stop.
The trail is groomed for skiing, not to the extent as you would expect at a "cross-country ski area," but well enough that the snow does not get lumpy. Tracks are set when possible. However, the grooming equipment is not sufficiently heavy-duty to break up ice. (Note that my tour was during the second week of March.)
I was very happy with the skis I used, Fischer E99. I think the width is 65 mm, which is just wide enough to fit into the tracks, where tracks were available. A ski of this width should use backcountry boots/bindings such as NNN-BC.
In March, metal edges are useful, and a waxless base is preferable. In February, metal edges are probably not necessary, but 65 mm would still be the ideal ski width.
Climbing skins are not needed.
The word "hut" needs to be explained/defined. At Maine Huts and Trails, each hut consists of 2 (or more) separate buildings, with the sleeping quarters separated from the common facilities. (I believe this is for fire safety reasons, but I am not sure.) They refer to the building with the common facilities as the "lodge", and to the sleeping quarters as "bunkrooms." The 2 oldest huts (Poplar and Flagstaff) have more than one separate building with bunkrooms. The 2 newer huts (Grand Falls and Stratton) have a single bunkroom-building, connected to the lodge building by a covered walkway.
The common facilities are, if not luxurious, certainly "well-appointed." (The photos on the Web site for Maine Huts and Trails are accurate.) The lodging quarters are spartan.
The common facilities in the "lodge" building include toilets (about 4), showers (about 4), a dining room, common rooms, and a special "drying room" for towels and clothes.
The "bunkroom" buildings (I started to use the word "barracks" for these buildings) have several rooms, each of which contains a number - generally 4 to 8 - of bunkbeds, each bed having a sturdy rectangular pad, and other than a single overhead light per room, I think that is the complete description.
Bunkrooms are typically heated to about 50° F. (10° C.), although, on the 3rd night of my tour, due to a malfunctioning thermostat, the bunkroom remained comfortably warm throughout the entire right. Sleeping bags are recommended. I neglected to bring a sleeping bag, but learned to dress up in multiple layers before going to bed.
The older huts have electrical outlets, but you are advised not to use them, due to the limited electricity available, "off the grid."
An overnight stay includes hot dinner and breakfast, served family-style, and the ingredients to make a cold lunch (sandwich or burrito) to take with you on the next day's ski tour. Free coffee is available in the "lodge" building. Tea and hot chocolate are available at nominal cost. Beer and wine are also available for purchase, reasonably priced.
For a modest additional daily fee, Maine Huts and Trails will transport a piece of luggage, up to 25 pounds, from hut to hut or to/from a trailhead. The luggage must have back straps so that you can carry it yourself in the unlikely event of a failure of the transport service. I used a rolling suitcase that was "convertible" to a backpack. Everyone else in my group used a real backpack.
Because of the complexity of transporting luggage between 4 huts and various trailheads, and the small number of transport snowmobiles, the service commitment for the transport is about 8 and a half hours. This means that you must pack everything up before 7:30 a.m. (before breakfast), and you might not receive your luggage back until 4 p.m.
Our group also took advantage of a separate service, on the first day of our tour, to transport the skiers and skis back to the starting point, after we pre-positioned most of our cars at the parking lot at the furthest trailhead. I'm not sure whether this transport service was provided by the Maine Huts and Trails organization itself, but it was reasonably priced, and well worth it, for our group. Note, however, that it does require quite a bit of time, either at the beginning or end of a multi-day one-way tour, to make up the distance. In our case, we spent the extra shuttling time on the first day, and then skied only about 3 miles up to our first hut (Stratton).
Stratton Brook Hut has nice views of Sugarloaf Mountain and the Bigelow range of mountains. There was a small waterfall near Poplar Hut that required a short steep hike; I didn't go to that one. Flagstaff Hut is near Flagstaff Lake. The trail from Flagstaff to Grand Falls huts adjoins the Dead River, which is surprisingly wide for a river so far from the ocean. The overwhelming favorite scenic highlight is Grand Falls, not far from Grand Falls Hut, via a short and easy hike. I will take the risk of being accused of exaggeration when I describe it as a miniature of Niagara Falls.
My photo album (unless I decide to delete it from Google storage) is at:
If you don't want to look at the whole photo album, please enjoy this 8-second video of Grand Falls:
Blazing your own trails
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