This story was originally published in March 2021.
Betta Stothart’s first job in Maine was as a raft guide on the Kennebec River, and her second was as a journalist at Maine Times. Today she is a public relations consultant living in Falmouth.
If you’re fired up about the outdoors, there are lots of outrageously cool sights in Maine to explore. Rugged mountains, wild and scenic rivers, awe-inspiring coastlines. There’s also a particular rock in the Katahdin Region that holds special meaning for outdoor fanatics.
Pockwockamus Rock is surrounded by wilderness and within view of majestic Katahdin, but you don’t need a canoe or even a pair of hiking boots to reach it. In fact, almost anyone can stop by to see it. For many, catching a photo there has become ritualistic.
Situated near the Penobscot Outdoor Center and on the access road into Baxter State Park’s south entrance, Pockwockamus Rock is a massive boulder with a uniquely flat face, which has a primitive folk-art-style depiction of a Maine woods scene with an inscription: “Keep Maine Beautiful.”
Who painted the rock?
Pockwockamus Rock has a surprising history that involves a group of teenagers who were volunteering in Baxter State Park in the late 1970s. As the story goes, the rock had become a target for vandals who seized any chance to coat it with profanities and other unsavory content. The graffiti-covered rock was widely considered a blot on an otherwise stunning landscape.
It was seen by hundreds of visitors, dignitaries and rangers who would pass it annually on their way into Baxter State Park. Finally, in 1979, a teenage girl and her Youth Conservation Corps buddies came up with a scheme to paint the rock with an inspiring scene, and with a simple yet compelling invitation. They did. And it reshaped a bit of Maine history.
Dot Lamson, an environmental educator charged with leading the teenagers that summer, recalled that the crew convinced her that simply painting a blank canvas over the graffiti wouldn’t work.
“They hoped that by painting it with a wilderness scene, others might leave it alone,” she said. “It worked.”
Nearly a half century later, Pockwockamus Rock stands as a beacon and a landmark in Maine. Its message, “Keep Maine Beautiful,” has stood the test of time, and today – in the era of social media – the words emerge as a call to action for any who cherish Maine’s wilderness character.
Who loves the rock?
In a 2020 interview with the late legendary outdoor writer George Smith, who owned a camp on the edge of Baxter State Park, Smith called the rock an iconic reminder of the great conservationist Percival Baxter, who had the extraordinary vision at the turn of the 20th century to protect a 200,000-plus acre wilderness for the people of Maine.
“As we enter Baxter Park, we leave all our worries and concerns at the rock,” Smith said. “The rock contains an important message – to keep Maine beautiful – and we are all thankful to Gov. Baxter for his work to do that.”
Another well-known writer, Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News, says the rock’s message becomes even more poignant after spending time within the conserved wilderness of Baxter Park.
“After tenting under the Milky Way, swimming in crystal clear streams and hiking some of the most magnificent mountains in the Northeast, the importance of the ‘Keep Maine Beautiful’ message becomes even more obvious and pressing,” she said.
Her family has made it an annual tradition to stop at the painted rock and snap a photo.
“The landmark has become the punctuation mark at the end of our annual trip,” she said.
Last summer, the writer passed on the tradition to the next generation when she helped her niece climb Pockwockamus Rock to sit on top of it for the very first time.
Countless other Mainers have made the obligatory stop at Pockwockamus Rock and fulfilled the gratifying custom of capturing a photo there, said Matt Polstein, owner of New England Outdoor Center, which operates Twin Pines Lodge and the Penobscot Outdoor Center, located within a short distance of the rock.
“If you don’t have the ability to climb Maine’s highest peak, then snapping a photo at Pockwockamus Rock is a ritual that every Mainer should do before they die,” he said.
Who will continue the tradition?
Once crafted by the original group of teenage volunteers, the painted rock was masterfully maintained for 23 years by Abbott and Nancy Meader, an Oakland couple. In an article in the Spring 2014 issue of “Forever Wild” (the newsletter of the Friends of Baxter State Park), Nancy Meader noted that she and her husband worked on the rock four times – in 1990, 1998, 2007 and finally in 2013. They made only a few incremental alterations, notably adding a prominent trout to the lower front, which they felt was a critical missing element.
In 2013, the Meaders announced they would relinquish their Pockwockamus paintbrushes and made a plea to artists to come forth and assume the responsibility of maintaining Maine’s most famous painted rock. As of this writing, it is not clear if anyone has stepped up to the plate.
How to get there
Pockwockamus Rock is located about 14 miles north of the Town of Millinocket. From the center of town, follow signs north to Baxter State Park and the Penobscot Outdoor Center. After 8 miles, you’ll see the North Woods Trading Post on your right. Stop in for a snack and then continue north another 6 miles. The rock isn’t going anywhere and will be sitting squarely on your right. Don’t forget to take a photo of yourself, which you can share with others on the New England Outdoor Center Facebook page.