Gulf Hagas, The Grand Canyon of Maine
West Branch of the Pleasant River
Having recently visited the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, I was determined to visit Gulf Hagas, the Grand Canyon of Maine, this year. While much smaller (only about 4 miles long and 100 or so feet deep) and even more remote than the other two "grand canyons", Gulf Hagas is filled with breathtaking vistas, waterfalls, pools, and sheer rock walls. The gorge is adjacent to the Hermitage, a nature conservancy with 35 acres of some of Maine's oldest white pines. Both, Gulf Hagas and the Hermitage, are National Natural Landmarks.
There are at least five named waterfalls and numerous smaller ones in Gulf Hagas. The waterfalls and rapids of the West Branch of the Pleasant River (WBPR) create one of the best venues in the state for white water kayaking, class V creeking. The pools beneath the waterfalls and the rock chutes also provide great swimming fun. In addition, the area provides a multitude of opportunities for hiking and camping.
Located in central/northern Maine, Gulf Hagas is part of the Appalachian Trail (AT) Corridor and includes a small portion of the AT's 100 Mile Wilderness. The nearest city, Bangor, is about a two hour drive away. Accessible only by foot (the AT), or by vehicle using gated and fee-controlled dirt logging roads, reaching Gulf Hagas is an adventure in itself.
Two Trailheads to Approach the Gulf Hagas Loop Trail
From the east via the Appalachian Trail (Our approach):
- From the WBPR parking area it is a short walk to the intersection with the Appalachian Trail (AT). Heading north, on the AT at 0.2 miles you reach the WBPR.
- Ford the river, approximately 150 feet, in knee deep water.
- The AT turns left and travels about a mile through the Hermitage to Gulf Hagas Brook and the Gulf Trail junction. The AT turns right and heads north to White Cap Mountain.
- Cross the log over Gulf Hagas Brook (about 20 feet) to the junction of the Rim Trail and the Pleasant River Tote Road.
From the west to the Head of the Gulf:
- From the Upper Gulf (Hay Brook) parking area, the trail follows the old Pleasant River tote road.
- Cross Hay Brook (over a bridge) and continue to follow the Head of the Gulf Trail paralleling the WBPR.
- Reach the junction with the Pleasant River Tote Road and Rim Trail (about 1 mile).
Note: Since KI Road connects both parking areas, both trailheads can be reached from Greenville or Brownville Junction.
The Trail and the Hike
The 5.2 mile Gulf Hagas Loop Trail is made up of 2 trails, the Rim Trail and the Pleasant River Tote Trail. Despite the fact that this is a rim trail and tote road, it is rugged and more strenuous than you would expect.
Our approach to the loop trail:
From our approach from the east via the AT, in addition to having to ford 150 feet in knee deep water to cross the West Branch of Pleasant River, we had to cross a single log bridge, about 20 feet, over the Gulf Hagas Brook just to reach the start of the loop trail. (Remember, you have to ford 150 feet of river and cross a 20 foot log bridge TWICE for the round trip!)
Between the WBPR and Gulf Hagas Brook, this portion of the Appalachian Trail through the Hermitage is relatively flat and easy compared to the Rim Trail.
Since we did not take the route to the Head of the Gulf, I can't describe the trail. But, this route does have a bridge over Hay Brook. It is recommended to use this approach in the spring or after a rain when the water in the WBPR could be higher and swifter. According to the map, it appears that the distance to the loop trail is about the same by this approach as it is with the AT approach.
The Rim Trail:
The Rim Trail is the typical dirt, rock, and root trail encountered on many Maine forest hikes.
While there are several side trails to the canyon edge or even a few down toward the water, for the most part, the Rim Trail is well back from the edge. In fact, if you didn't take some of the side spurs, you would only rarely see the canyon.
Again, don't be fooled by this hike. It is more difficult and strenuous than you may expect. The loop trail is a total of 5.2 miles with over a mile (one way) for the approach. With several side trails to scenic vistas and waterfalls or the river's edge, the total hike can easily approach 9 or more miles.
The elevation change over the course of the loop trail is about 700 feet, most of it on the Rim Trail. Add in the elevation changes for the side trails and a trip or two to the river, the total elevation change can easily approach 1000 feet. We found that the further along we progressed on the Rim Trail, the steeper the ups and the downs. The roots and boulders only made the ups and downs more difficult.
The Pleasant River Tote Trail:
While it may have once been a tote road, it doesn't look like a road anymore. It is relatively flat to rolling, but because of numerous wet areas, there are several sections with narrow log walkways that require some balance to navigate. With the wet areas, the bugs were occasionally bothersome of this trail.
There are 2 cut-offs from the Rim Trail to the Pleasant River Tote Trail return route:
- The first cut-off is just past the side trail to Hammond Street Pitch. The connection to the tote trail is very short (measured in feet). Turn right at the intersection to begin the return back to the parking lot. This short loop (about 2 miles round trip) would include Screw Auger Falls (a very popular waterfall and swim area) and Hammond Street Pitch (the deepest point in the Gulf).
- The second cut-off is just past a side trail to Buttermilk Falls. This quarter mile trail has an uphill component to it before reaching the tote trail. Turn right on to the tote trail to begin the return back to the parking lot (The cut-off trail continues straight ahead as the Appalachian Trail Cut-Off trail). Returning at this point would cover about 2/3 of the total loop trail and include many of the highlights. But, by returning here you would miss out on the sheer rock walls and the Head of the Gulf. (Because of time restraints, we actually took this intermediate loop).
This hike can be particularly difficult for small children. One option for small children would be to hike through the Hermitage, a relatively flat walk through an old pine forest along the AT after fording the river (about 2 miles round trip). A second option would be to go about a mile further to Screw Auger Falls. In addition to fording the river, this option would also involve crossing the log over the brook.
Screw Auger Falls
- The West Branch of the Pleasant River
- The Hermitage
- Screw Auger Falls, Gulf Hagas Brook
- Hammond Street Pitch, the deepest point in the gorge (over 100ft.)
- Cole's Corner (an overlook)
- The Jaws
- Buttermilk Falls
- Billings Falls
- Stair Falls
Screw Auger Falls, Gulf Hagas Rim Trail - Maine video uploaded to YouTube by RVDreamscom on Jul 25, 2011.
Gulf Hagas - Labor Day Weekend 2011 video uploaded to YouTube by aaronwclark1 on Sep 5, 2011 (Gulf Hagas Maine, white water kayakaing. class V creeking. northeast paddling. Mike Smith, Ian Campbell, Laurie Brown, Aaron Clark)
Gulf Hagas - Labor Day Weekend 2011
More Photos of Gulf Hagas
From Bangor, There are Two Access Points to Gulf Hagas:
#1 Via Katahdin Iron Works Gate:
Travel north on I-95 to exit 199 (Alton/Lagrange/Milo). Turn left onto ME-16 north and travel 24.2 miles to Milo. Turn right and follow ME-11 through Brownville and Brownville Station.
From Brownville Station (Katahdin Iron Works (KI) Gate):
- Travel 5 miles north of Brownville Station on Rt. 11
- Turn left (west) onto KI Road for 6.5 miles
- Pay your fee ($6 Maine residents/$10 non-residents) and purchase a gorge map
- Cross the bridge over the West Branch of the Pleasant River and turn right. Not long after you make the turn you will pass Silver Lake (on your right) with views of the mountains to the east. (A great place to stop for a picture or a picnic).
- From the bridge travel 6.5 miles (bear left at both "Y" intersections) to the WBPR parking area on the right
- This was the route we took.
- If you continued on KI Road 6 miles, you would reach the Upper Gulf (Hay Brook) parking area.
#2 Via Greenville and Hedgehog Gate:
Travel north on ME-15 to Greenville (70 miles). In Dover-Foxcroft, ME-15 combines with ME-6 and continues north to Greenville. (If you reach Moosehead Lake, you have gone too far).
From Greenville (Hedgehog Gate):
- From Greenville, turn right (east) onto Pleasant St. which becomes East Road, then Greenville Rd. and eventually KI Road
- Take Greenville Rd. 13.5 miles to the T-intersection with KI Road. On the way, pay your fee and purchase your map at the Hedgehog Gate
- Turn left onto KI Road and travel about 1 mile to the Hay Brook (Upper Gulf) Parking Area on the left. (turn right onto KI Road and you will arrive at the WBPR parking area).
- All of the usual suggestions and precautions when hiking apply. Wear appropriate clothing and closed toe shoes (consider bringing an extra pair for fording the river). Bring plenty of water and a snack. Be prepared for changes in weather with a jacket and/or rain poncho.
- Wear sun screen and bug repellant. Since most of the hike is under a forest canopy and the tote trail has some wet areas, if I had to choose between the 2, I would go with the bug repellant.
- This is a carry in/carry out area. Anything you bring, take the trash back out with you.
- The nearest restrooms are at the gatehouses.
- Gulf Hagas is in a remote area and has been described as primitive. Do NOT expect cell phone coverage. There will be a few people in the area and at the gatehouses (when they are open), but getting help for an emergency could take a significant amount of time and effort. Bring a first aid kit to take care of minor problems yourself. Let someone NOT on the trip know your travel plans.
- In the spring or after a rain, the WBPR can be deeper and swifter than usual. The Head of the Gulf approach (with a bridge) would be the safer choice.
- The bed of the WBPR is rocky and can be very slippery. While some hikers will ford the river in bare feet, it is much safer to bring an extra pair of water shoes or crocs. The rest of the hike will be more comfortable when you put your DRY hiking shoes back on.
- There are no sources of drinking water in the area. The water in the brook and river may not be safe to drink. It should be treated before human consumption.
Gulf Hagas Gorge and the AT 100 Mile Wilderness
Gulf Hagas Gorge is south and west of the mountain in the AT 100 Mile Wilderness
My Other "Grand Canyon" Hikes
- Day Hiking Bright Angel Trail, South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park
Bright Angel Trail, a corridor trail, is one of the most popular trails at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Despite Backpacker Magazine declaring it one of America's Most Dangerous Hikes, with water sources and shade, it can be one of the safest.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Mark Shulkosky