Road Trip through the Maine Highlands on the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Scenic Byway

Getting away from crowds is not hard in the Maine Highlands. With acres of forest, miles of hiking trails, and the largest lake, longest river, and tallest mountain in the state; getting away from it all is exactly what visitors are seeking when they come to the Maine Highlands. 

And there is no better way to explore this gorgeous wilderness than a drive along the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Scenic Byway. This recently designated National Scenic Byway winds along 89 miles, beginning at the southern entrance to Baxter State Park, passing near Millinocket Lake, and traveling over to the lumber town of Patten along Route 11. The byway then ends at the Matagamon gate at the northern entrance to Baxter. 

All you need is a car with a good set of tires, a sense of adventure, and this helpful road trip guide (and some bug spray and a comfortable pair of hiking shoes wouldn’t hurt either!)

woman sitting on dock looking out on South Branch Pond in Baxter State Park

Maine Highlands Road Trip Guide

Note: This post is written in partnership with Visit Maine as part of a paid campaign. All opinions are my own.

Your Maine Highlands road trip can start and end in Bangor, Maine’s third-largest city and once the lumber capital of the world. You will need at least a week to complete this road trip, which covers the highlights of the Maine Highlands and travels along beautiful drives such as the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Scenic Byway.

Stop 1: Bangor

Bangor greetings mural

Bangor, the Queen City of Maine, serves as a gateway to Northern Maine. Located on Interstate 95, it is easy to access from the Northeast or by air via the Bangor International Airport. It may be tempting to immediately head to the lakes and mountains, but don’t skip over spending time in this charming city.

Located on the banks of the Penobscot River, Bangor has a rich history as a lumber capital, reflected in the historic homes of former lumber millionaires and the landmark home of author Stephen King. It is worth taking the time exploring this history through a walking tour offered from the Bangor Historical Society

Downtown Bangor offers plenty of dining options, from cute cafes like Fork & Spoon to farm-to-table restaurants like Timber. Those looking for excitement can try their luck at the Hollywood Casino Bangor Hotel, or try to catch a concert at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion.

There are also many family-friendly walking trails at the nearby Hirundo Wildlife Refuge and Orono Bog Boardwalk or a stroll through the Mt. Hope garden cemetery. 

Stop 2: Greenville & Moosehead Lake

Moose in the woods

Once you have had your fill of Bangor, it is time for the hour-and-a-half drive up to Greenville, located at the southern tip of Moosehead Lake. The largest lake in Maine, Moosehead Lake stretches 40 miles in length and is a perfect destination for fishing, boating, hiking, snowmobiling, ATVing, and wildlife viewing.

For gorgeous sunset views right on the lake, bunk down at The Lodge at Moosehead Lake. But for more space and self-catering, try one of the cabin options from Moosehead Hills Cabins. The village of Greenville is small, but offers a few restaurant options, shops, and a small grocery store for stocking up on supplies.

If you are ready to hit the hiking trails, pick up a pamphlet for the Moosehead Pinnacle Pursuit at the visitor’s center. The challenge is to summit six mountains in the Greenville area: Mount Kineo (which is accessible by ferry), Number Four Mountain, Whitecap Mountain, Eagle Rock, Big Moose Mountain, and Borestone Mountain. Summit them all and you will receive an official MPP patch and sticker. 

Steamship Katahdin
Steamship Katahdin on Moosehead Lake

A more leisurely way to explore is by hopping on a scenic float plane tour or taking a narrated three-hour tour on the steamship Katahdin. One activity not to be missed is searching for wildlife. Given the name it is no surprise that moose are abundant in this area and the best way to spy one is on an early-morning moose safari with Northwoods Outfitters.

These tours combine a driving tour with a canoe paddle on the lake to search for moose. If you are more of a DIY type, you can head north at dawn to the tiny town of Kokadjo to see if you can find any moose along Lazy Tom’s Bog. Don’t fret if you aren’t successful, you will have more opportunities to look for moose along the Golden Road on your way to Baxter State Park.

Read more: Things to do near Moosehead Lake

Stop 3: Baxter State Park (South)

woman sitting on rock overlooking pond and valley

The south entrance to Baxter State Park at the Togue Pond Gatehouse is your next stop. Baxter State Park is a jewel in Maine’s State Park system, most famous for being home to Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine and an endpoint to the Appalachian Trail. Of course a hike up Katahdin is not to be taken lightly, but if you have trained and are up to the challenge, you need to get a very early start for this 10+ hour hike.

Of course, Katahdin is not the only mountain to climb in the park. Baxter State Park covers over 200,000 acres and offers 220 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy to expert. The park is also a popular spot for wildlife viewing, especially those looking for moose around Sandy Stream Pond.

Just keep in mind that parking at any of the trailheads in Baxter State Park that lead to Mt. Katahdin requires reservations in the summer. Also, parking near popular wildlife watching spots, like Sandy Stream Pond fill up by 6am and the park rangers offer 3-hour “moose passes” for those that arrive in time.

If you are planning on hiking in Baxter State Park, be sure to do your research first. In addition to Mt. Katahdin, the Knife Edge Trail is not something to be taken lightly and certainly not for those with a fear of heights. Be sure to read more on

Also, driving through Baxter State Park takes 3-4 hours on narrow gravel roads so while you may see moose (I did!) and pass some scenic areas, know what to expect before you go. Also, keep in mind that Baxter charges a $15 day use fee for out-of-state visitors.

Camping is available in the park, with reservations, but there are also many less rustic options just outside of the park. A great option for exploring the area is the New England Outdoor Center on Millinocket Lake.

Stop 4: Millinocket Lake

front tip of orange kayak on lake

From the southern entrance of Baxter State Park, you will officially begin your drive along the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Scenic Byway over to Millinocket to stay a couple of nights at the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC) on Millinocket Lake. 

NEOC has an amazing location right on Millinocket Lake and a selection of small, large, and premium cabins and lodges that sleep from six to 14. I was hosted at the gorgeous full-service three-bedroom, two-bath Loon Lodge. The stunning two-story family room features floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the woods and the lake beyond. 

This is a perfect location to enjoy lake life! NEOC offers fat tire bikes to rent for exploring the Katahdin Area Trails (KAT). There is currently a 4.5 mile loop circling out from and back to the Millinocket Lake trailhead located next to NEOC and they are in the process of building more sustainable purpose-built single track mountain bike trails in the area.

Guest can also borrow canoes or kayaks to explore the lake. For those looking for more adventure, NEOC runs rafting tours in the summer on the Upper Penobscot River with Class II – V rapids, or milder family floats on the Lower Penobscot River with Class I rapids. 

moose on the lakeshore next to a rock

Of course, I loved the Moose and Wildlife Tour I took with NEOC. This three-hour tour goes out in the morning or early evening on the Center’s pontoon boat or van. We headed across the lake to the streams and inlets along the far bank to search for moose. 

At first, we encountered quite a few beavers swimming through the water and slapping their tails at us to warn us to keep away. This was pretty exciting for me too as finding a beaver in the wild was always on my bucket list. But towards the end of the tour our luck held out and we found two moose. From too far of a distance for great photos, even with my super zoom lens, but still exciting. Of course, if that doesn’t work out, you can try driving Golden Road in the early morning as there are often moose in or near the side of the road.

Nighttime brings great stargazing opportunities and in the winter, even chances to see the Northern Lights. And when you don’t want to cook, the lodge is home to River Drivers’ Restaurant, offering a diverse menu of American fare far beyond what you would expect from a remote lodge like this.

Read more: Adventurous things to do in the Maine Highlands

Stop 5: Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument

telescopes in Katahdin Woods & Waters

From Millinocket, continue along the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Scenic Byway via the Golden Road and Route 11 to one of the National Park System’s newest additions, the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument. Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument covers 87,563 acres of mountains and wilderness.

This public land adjacent to Baxter State Park was acquired over the years and recently designated as a National Monument as part of the National Parks Service. But there are no monuments there. Actually, there is very little there currently outside of backcountry campsites and a few hiking trails.

This land, which is the ancestral home of the Wabanaki, is primarily forest, with the eastern branch of the Penobscot River running through it. The roads on these lands are gravel and not as frequently graded or maintained as those in Baxter State Park so it is very bumpy and slow going. In fact, of the 17-mile loop road in the southern portion of the park, it took a good 45 minutes to get a few miles along the road from the time I left the paved road near the entrance to the park.

There are no services and certainly no cell service, but that is what people like about it. The raw roughness of nature. Over time, the services will continue to be upgraded, with more parking areas and marked hiking trails. But for now, one of the main draws is that Katahdin Woods & Waters was recently designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary and typically has the darkest metered skies east of the Mississippi. 

If you camp overnight, you can enjoy the amazing night sky views, as Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument was also recently designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. 

Night sky in Katahdin Woods & Waters
Photo credit: John Meader

Dark Sky Maine and the Friends of Katahdin Woods & Waters will often lead star parties up at the overlook with beautiful views of Mt. Katahdin. I was fortunate enough to be joined by John Meader, an astronomer with Northern Stars Planetarium and Vice President of Dark Sky Maine.

We set up telescopes and our cameras in anticipation of stargazing, but unfortunately, after blessing us with a beautiful sunset over Mt. Katahdin, the clouds moved in to obscure the stars. If you are interested in stargazing, keep an eye out for future events or consider camping in the park to take advantage of those dark skies.

Stop 6: Patten

The last stop on your road trip on the Katahdin Woods & Waters Scenic Byway is in Patten, where you can visit the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum. On the way, stop at the scenic overlook at Ash Hill and stop for a BBQ lunch at Flatlander’s Smokehouse. 

Plan to spend a couple of nights near Patten in a cabin at Shin Pond Village. From here, you can enjoy short hikes to scenic spots like Shin Brook Falls or rent a side-by-side and spend the day exploring the many miles of ATV trails in and around Patten.

The side-by-sides are so much easier to drive and maneuver than a traditional ATV so they are a lot of fun even for inexperienced operators. Shin Pond Village has both two-seaters and four-seat vehicles for families.

If you take one out, the top of Roberts Mountain offers a great scenic vista of the area. This whole adventure reminded me a lot of when my daughter and I did a full-day off-roading adventure up in Northern New Hampshire.

woman in red jacket and black pants sitting on rocks looking at Shin Brook Falls

Patten is also less than 45 minutes away from the Matagamon Gate at the northern entrance to Baxter State Park. This section of the park is not nearly as busy as the southern section closer to Mt. Katahdin and parking reservations aren’t required. Just minutes down the gravel road past the gate, I noticed some movement in the road ahead and sure enough, there was a moose! I was surprised to see her in the middle of the day but it was luckily a nice surprise and I was able to creep along until she decided to return to the woods.

The best area to explore for the day from the northern entrance is the South Branch pond section. Just make a left at the South Branch Pond campground sign. Before you get to the main campground parking, you will see a trailhead on the right for South Branch Falls Trail. This short .5 mile trail brings you down to a nice waterfall with very little elevation. Just keep in mind though that these trails are plenty of rocks and roots and uneven footing.

You can park at the campground day-use parking and walk back up the road slightly to the entrance to The Ledges trail, which is about .6 miles to the viewpoint, which offers a view over the pond and mountains. Just remember to sign in and out at the trail registers. When I visited in June, was the only one using the trail so far that day and it was pretty amazing to have all these beautiful sights to myself.

You can also rent a canoe for $1.00 and paddle around South Branch Pond.

Return to Bangor or Continue your Road Trip


By this time your legs will be tired and your heart will be full of happy memories and the sense of renewal that only time in nature can provide. It will take only an hour-and-a-half to return to Bangor and conclude your trip.

On your way, you can stop to take a stroll on the Orono Bog Boardwalk, a one-mile loop walk at the forested wetland edge in the Bangor City Forest. Another option for an easy hike or a paddle on Pushaw Stream at the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge. The Hirundo Wildlife Refuge offers seven miles of trails, some of which are wheelchair and stroller friendly. This is a great spot for birders and wildlife watchers. The Refuge provides free canoe rentals in the summer (donation requested) and guided paddle events throughout the season.

After your stay in the Maine Highlands, you are bound to fall in love with the Pine Tree State. The call of Maine will continue pulling you back again and again, with always something new to explore.

However, if you haven’t gotten your fill of Maine, continue on to the gorgeous rocky coast with a Downeast Acadia road trip along more of Maine’s scenic byways. Start off on the Schoodic National Scenic Byway and enjoy some of the wonderful activities outside of Acadia National Park and away from the crowds. Then continue east along the Bold Coast National Scenic Byway to the New Brunswick border. 

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