Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous. A 2.1-mile hiking trail, marked with blue blazes, climbs steadily to the peak of Big Moose Mountain, which is 3,196 feet above sea level. The slope of the trail starts out gradual, then becomes increasingly steep, especially after the old fire warden’s cabin, which is located about 1.4 mile into the hike.
How to get there: Follow Route 15-Route 6 into downtown Greenville. You’ll pass a number of shops as you drive downhill toward Moosehead Lake. After passing The Big Apple on your right, then the Corner Shop on your left, turn left onto Pritham Avenue, remaining on Route 15-Route 6. (If you continue straight, you will be on Lily Bay Road, which takes you on the opposite side of the lake.) Follow Pritham Avenue approximately 5 miles, around the west side of Moosehead Lake, then turn left onto North Road, which leads into the Little Moose Public Reserved Land unit. Follow North Road 1.4 mile to the Big Moose Mountain Trailhead parking lot, which will be on your left. Along the way, a couple roads branch off North Road to the right. When in doubt, drive straight ahead.
Information: Located just outside Greenville on the west side of Moosehead Lake, Big Moose Mountain’s long ridge tops off at 3,196 feet above sea level, making it one of the biggest mountains in the area. Formerly called Big Squaw Mountain, the mountain was home to the first full-time manned fire tower in the United States. Constructed of wood logs in 1905, the original fire tower measured 22 feet tall, but this was soon replaced by a 12-foot-tall steel tower, topped with a big square cab with windows on all four sides. This tower was manned by a fire warden until the 60s, when aircraft patrols took over the task of detecting forest fires throughout the state.
Today, a 2.1-mile hiking trail follows the path the fire wardens used to take to the summit of the mountain. Maintained by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, the trail is located in the state-owned Little Moose Public Reserved Land Unit, which covers more than 15,000 acres and is open to a wide variety of public recreation.
The trailhead, located on the west side of the gravel North Road, is about 1,350 feet above sea level and is marked by a sign, parking area and kiosk displaying a trail map and visitor rules.
Dogs are permitted if kept under control at all times. Hunting is permitted on the property, so be sure to wear plenty blaze orange during hunting seasons. Fires are not permitted, and visitors are expected to carry out all trash, leaving the landscape as they find it.
Just beyond the kiosk, located beside the trail, is a cubby that contains a trail register. Sign the register and note when you entered the trail, just in case an accident happens and someone needs to come looking for you. (It is also general hiking safety practice to leave your hiking plans with a loved one at home for that very reason.)
At first, the trail is narrow and weaves through the woods, marked with blue blazes painted on trees, which are mostly hardwood. In this part of the hike, take the time to notice the many big birch trees in the forest, including a few notably large yellow birch trees, which have the most beautiful golden bark.
Soon the trail meets the old fire warden’s path, where you’ll veer left and continue to climb up the southeast slope of the mountain. This trail is wider, but it is still marked with the occasional blue blaze. When in doubt, stay on the wide warden’s trail and keep an eye out for the next blue blaze. In February of 2017, some of the blazes were freshly painted, while others were very faded.
At 1.4 miles, the trail comes to the old fire warden’s cabin at an elevation of about 2,300 feet above sea level. In February 2017, I didn’t dare to go inside because the cabin was clearly falling apart, with wood placed diagonally inside to brace the walls and holey roof. Please exercise caution.
After the cabin, the trail crosses a ravine, then bends sharply to the right to trace the edge of the ravine as it climbs. (In February 2017, we became confused in this area because we couldn’t see the next trail blaze.) At this point, the trail becomes extremely steep and continues like that, for the most part, for the final 0.7 mile of the hike.
About 1.7 mile from the trailhead, a short side trail leads to a viewpoint on your left.
Continuing on the main trail, you’ll hike through a dense evergreen forest to reach the summit about 2.1 mile from the trailhead. At the summit is a clearing from which you can enjoy open views of the mountainous Moosehead Region. The landmarks visible from the top of Big Moose include Mount Kineo, the Spencer mountains, Mount Katahdin, the Bigelow Range and Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest lake.
Also at the summit is a small communications building with solar panels on its roof. The fire observation tower that once stood there is gone.
Here’s a photo of the cab in the 1930s provided by the Maine Memory Network: https://www.mainememory.net/artifact/79247.
In 2011, while the State of Maine upgraded telecommunications systems atop Big Moose, the decision was made to remove the remains of the steel tower (which no longer included its cab) from the mountain. The Maine Forest Service removed the steel frame by helicopter and stored at the Natural Resource Education Center, which received a $7,500 grant from the Plum Creek Foundation and a grant for $8,500 from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Found to restore the tower. The restored tower is now on display outside the NREC Moosehead Lake Region Visitors’ Center in Greenville, right beside Route 15 as you’re driving into town.
For more information about this hike and other trails in the Little Moose Public Reserved Land unit, call the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands Western Public Lands Office at 207-778-8231 or visit maine.gov/littlemoose.
Personal note: Wading through three-foot snowdrifts, I slowly approached the summit of Big Moose Mountain on Feb. 12, with my husband, Derek. The temperature was around 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind was mild, and the steep climb had kept us warm. In fact, we had both stripped off our warm winter coats to hike in thin fleece jackets and snowpants.
Atop the mountain, fresh, fluffy snow covered everything and sifted through the air. The evergreens looked more like frozen sculptures than trees. A thick coat of ice and snow weighed down their branches, which were tipped with long, tapering icicles that had formed in absurd angles in the wind. The only footprints on the trail ahead of us were those of a snowshoe hare.
I’d hiked Big Moose Mountain two times before, so I knew that the top of the mountain offered a spectacular view of the Moosehead region. But that wasn’t the case on that day. The view was erased by thick, white clouds. In fact, I think we were technically in the clouds. As we trudged toward the peak, I felt a sense of reverence for the eerie, frozen mountainscape. To be in such a wild, beautiful and harsh environment was peaceful and exhilarating at the same time. I kept pausing to inspect how the ice had formed on a tree branch or the wind had carved waves into the snow.
Atop the mountain, we escaped the cold wind by standing to the side of a small communications building, which was half buried in snow.
“That might have been harder than [hiking] Katahdin in the summer,” Derek later said to me.
“I dunno,” I said, though I had struggled even more than him on the snowshoe up Big Moose. In several steep sections, I simply couldn’t gain purchase. The thick layer of fluffy snow collapsed under my snowshoes and sent me back downhill. I had crawled and used trees fight my way uphill. But eventually, I discovered if I kicked the front metal claws of my snowshoes deep into the snow, they would bite into the harder crust underneath and I would stop sliding down.
“I have to admit. I wasn’t sure we’d make it to the top,” I told Derek on the way down the mountain.
That would have been OK. Sometimes the best decision is to just turn around, but Derek and I hadn’t been in danger, we’d just been tired. Snowshoeing up a mountain in thick snow, breaking trail the whole way, is a lot more difficult than hiking that same mountain in the summer. We knew that, and we had been prepared with extra gear, including extra food and water to keep up our energy, extra socks and mittens, and a SPOT satellite tracker for safety. We also brought hand, toe and foot warmer packs, which I ended up using to thaw my frozen fingers.
Having hiked a lot together, Derek and I make great hiking buddies. We know our limits, and we look after each other. When I was having difficulty climbing up the steepest sections, Derek stopped to offer a hand or advice, but he didn’t baby me or suggest we stop. And when Derek started weaving a bit on the way down — a sure sign of being tired — I suggested we stop and have a snack and drink. And when we fell on our butts in the snow, something that happened a lot to us both on the way down the mountain, we always asked if the other was OK before laughing.