Hiking in Maine: Great Circle Trail is the state’s newest backpacking route


A fiery sunset over Wadleigh Pond on the Great Circle Trail, northeast of Millinocket. Carey Kish photo

The sky is afire with pink, orange and purple as I shiver in the autumn chill on the shore of pristine Wadleigh Pond. One last glance, and I turn to make my way back to camp and my companions. The blazing fire warms us, as does the nip of bourbon passed about amid the banter of good friends gathered together for a few precious days on the trail.

It’s the second day of a four-day adventure through Nahmakanta Public Land, a 43,000-acre chunk of state-owned and managed property in the heart of the 100-Mile Wilderness northwest of Millinocket. We’re enjoying a sneak preview of sorts. This is Maine’s newest backpacking route, and with each mile we revel in the remoteness, raw beauty and rugged character of the place.

The Great Circle Trail, as it is now formally known, was still a work in progress when I forged these memories in late October a year ago. But I had gleaned enough information, including a GPS track, from my friends at the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to follow the route for a good look-see. And as I have described, I really liked what I saw. You surely will too.

In late September, Parks and Lands officials announced the opening of the Great Circle Trail, so the word is finally out. The 30-mile route connects several existing trails and a segment of new trail amid the rolling terrain that surrounds the 1,100-acre expanse of Nahmakanta Lake. Hike the entire length as my group did last fall and you’ll gain a healthy 3,000 feet of elevation along the way.

Hikers take in the view of the 100-Mile Wilderness from ledges high on Wadleigh Mountain on the Great Circle Trail. Carey Kish photo

The Great Circle Trail has been in the works ever since it was conceived by Jay Hall, Maine Parks and Lands’ Nahmakanta Unit forester, way back in 2005. The idea was ambitious: a long trail that would encircle all of T1 R11 WELS and the southern portion of Rainbow Township. The route would link sections of the Turtle Ridge Trail and Debsconeag Backcountry Trail, which were each completed in the early 2000s, as well as utilize a few miles of the Appalachian Trail.

To connect the dots and include other significant recreation features – Tumbledown Dick Falls, Third Musquash Falls, Third Musquash Pond, Wadleigh Mountain and Pollywog Gorge – more than 14 miles of new trail needed to by constructed, complete with bog bridges, stone steps, water bars, log ladders, bridges and signage. This extraordinary work was completed over 12 seasons from 2006 to 2021 by crews from the Maine Conservation Corps, Appalachian Mountain Club, Caribou Parks & Recreation Department and Unity College.

Scattered along the Great Circle Trail are eight primitive campsites, each with a picnic table, fire ring and simple privy. At Wadleigh Pond, the site also features two log shelters plus an old stone fireplace and chimney. At least nine trailheads with parking serve as access points. For the record, we hiked the trail counterclockwise, starting and ending at the popular Turtle Ridge trailhead on Jo Mary Road.

Tumbledown Dick Falls is one the many highlights along the Great Circle Trail. Carey Kish photo

The Great Circle Trail is a significant addition to the inventory of multi-day backpacking opportunities around Maine, like the Grafton Loop Trail, Deboullie, Baxter, Cutler Coast, Little Moose and the AT. The view up Nahmakanta Lake from its south end beach alone is worth the trip, but then so are the little ponds in the Debsconeag Backcountry and at Turtle Ridge, the rushing waters of Nahmakanta Stream and Pollywog Stream, and Pollywog Pond and Wadleigh Pond. Never mind the dark skies.

“Why hiking trails, you may ask?” writes Hall in his recent summary report, “Maine Gains Another Backpacking Trail,” on the Great Circle Trail project. “Trail lovers yearn for the adventures and challenges waiting around the next bend and over the next summit. But even more fundamentally, I believe trails with trees touch us at the very core.”

There are many ways to enjoy the new Great Circle Trail, from day hiking short stretches to overnight camping to a three- to four-day backpacking trek. However you choose to explore the wild country through which it threads, I hope you’re as delighted and moved as my friends and I were on our journey. It’s a truly special experience.

Get more info and a trail map for Nahmakanta Public Land at parkandlands.com and start planning.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish


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