“I can hear the water!” my 9-year-old niece called out as she skipped down the trail, launching off one rock and onto the next.
“Be careful,” I instructed for about the hundredth time.
The hike into Little and Big Niagara Falls in Baxter State Park is an easy one, but it still includes plenty of rocks and roots that might trip up an excited little girl — or anyone not paying attention to their footing.
It was our family’s annual camping trip in the park. And on the first day, instead of hiking one of Baxter’s big mountains, I decided to select a trail that would be suitable for my niece, Willamina. She was eager to join me in hiking one of the park’s 3,000-footers, but I knew she needed a little more experience under her belt before tackling that kind of mountain. Fortunately, there are plenty of easier hikes in Baxter State Park.
Home to 215 miles of trails, Baxter is a great place to improve your hiking skills, as long as you select your adventures carefully. For example, if you’re a beginner hiker, I wouldn’t suggest that you climb Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain and the most popular destination in the park. But you can certainly work your way up to that goal.
Often where my family camps in the park can help narrow down our hiking options.
The park covers more than 200,000 acres of dense forest and mountainous terrain. Since there are just a few narrow gravel roads open to vehicles, it takes a long time to travel from one end of the park to the other. So to save time, we usually select hikes that are relatively close to our campground.
On our most recent camping trip, we stayed at a group campsite in Nesowadnehunk Field, which is on the west side of the park. From there, the 1-mile hike into Little and Big Niagara Falls was just a 30-minute drive south, starting at Daicey Pond Campground. And it’s one of the most rewarding easy hikes in the park.
Our group — which included my niece, mother, husband, mother-in-law, aunt and uncle — began our adventure by harvesting and promptly consuming wild blueberries and raspberries that were growing in the field at the trailhead. That’s the thing with 2-mile out-and-back hikes — you rarely feel rushed. So we dawdled in the sun.
Before entering the woods, we signed into the trail register. My ever-curious niece asked about its purpose, so I explained that by leaving just a little information — our names, when we started hiking and our destination — we were ensuring that the park rangers would know our whereabouts. That way, if we didn’t return and sign back out of the register at a reasonable time, rangers would take note and start to search for us. My niece seemed to approve of that simple yet important system.
Another reason I chose the waterfall hike was because it follows the National Scenic Appalachian Trail. I thought it would be fun to tell my niece about the 2,190-mile footpath that spans from Georgia to Maine. But I didn’t expect her reaction.
Clockwise from left: Two bright orange mushrooms stand out beside a trail leading to Little and Big Niagara Falls on July 23, in Baxter State Park; A sign marks a side trail leading to Big Niagara Falls; Water rushes over Big Niagara Falls. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
“Oh, I want to hike all of it,” Willa declared as we hiked along, following the AT’s iconic white rectangular blazes, which are painted on tree trunks along the trail. (The other trails in the park are all blazed in blue.)
“Well, it takes several months to hike. And you camp in a tent the whole time, every night,” I said, trying to explain the enormity of the pursuit.
“Would you do it with me?” she asked. “Not right now, but when I’m older, like 16 or 17. How old will you be then?”
I did a calculation in my head. “Maybe. If you still want to do it,” I said.
Due to recent rain, plenty of water was rushing over Little and Big Niagara Falls, which are located on Nesowadnehunk Stream. The smaller of the two waterfalls came first. There we sat on a smooth granite outcropping and dipped our feet into the water. It was the perfect place for a picnic lunch, which is exactly what we did.
We hiked another 0.3 mile to reach Big Niagara Falls, which, to Willa’s delight, was even more tumultuous than Little Niagara. Again we took the opportunity to unlace our boots and dip our bare feet into the fast-flowing water, though we were careful not to slip into the current and be swept away.
The hike into the waterfalls is just one of many great family hikes in Baxter State Park. Some other popular easy-to-moderate hikes include the 3-mile Blueberry Ledges Trail, which visits ledges on Katahdin Stream, and the 0.7-mile hike into Sandy Stream Pond from Roaring Brook Campground. And my sister and cousins always enjoy walking with their children on Abol Stream Trail, which starts at Abol Beach and leads outside the park to Abol Bridge Campground & Store, where they can buy ice cream. It’s a little under 2 miles, one way, and fairly flat.
Several easy-to-moderate trails visit and travel around scenic ponds in the park. To find a hike that best suits you, I suggest purchasing the guidebook and detailed trail map (which are available at many of the stores in Millinocket and leading into the park). It’s also beneficial to chat with park employees, whether it’s at the park visitor center or at any of the ranger stations located throughout the park.
On our hike back from the waterfalls, Willa announced that the trail was just the right length. She was ready to do something else, like swim at The Ledges or canoe on Kidney Pond. It’s a good thing I didn’t try to haul her up one of those mountains.