Maine can be intimidating. We know and we're sorry. Deep woods. Unpredictable weather. We're a state that prides itself on our craggy coast, seasoned islands, rugged trails and an even more ruggedized people. We're like that estranged uncle you meet at a family reunion — you know, the interesting one with all the scars? Somehow you ended up at his picnic table and you can't believe you've missed out on so many family stories and secrets for all these years.
Maine Huts & Trails makes it a little easier to get to know us. The nonprofit brainchild of Larry Warren, founder and previous president of Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine Huts & Trails is a low-impact four season trail and hut network that covers over 80 miles of trails in Western Maine, with four established “huts” and plans for more. But this unassuming outdoor honey-hole redefines ecotourism. Huts are not huts. They have radiant floor heating, toilets, and beer on tap. Trail food is more than subsistence. Hut staff (yes, the huts have hearty staff and full kitchens) use ingredients like maple sugar and almonds. With a main lodge and separate bunkhouses, they can accommodate larger groups or a couple looking for a comfortable outdoor getaway. And the trail network itself is a backwoods superhighway for outdoor junkies of all degrees and varieties. This is real Maine, made accessible.
I had visited the huts last year with some friends, snowshoeing in from the Gauge Road/Poplar Trailhead. Carrabassett Valley is a familiar winter destination — Sugarloaf was one of our go-to ski spots growing up. I had even looked down on the valley from the Bigelows while co-leading a hiking/sea kayaking trip for a Maine-based outdoor adventure camp for girls while I was in college. But the trail network and concept of "luxury" eco-huts was new to me. I wasn't sure what to expect.
It was snowing during our first short trek to the Poplar Hut and had been for a couple days — fat flakes that accumulated on tree limbs and carpeted the backcountry corridor. But two clean ski tracks remained etched in the right side of the trail as evidence of recent trail grooming and use. While on the main trail, cross-country skiers of all speeds and ages skated by us. We deviated off the main trail to check out a hiking trail that promised waterfall views, and by the time we re-joined the main passageway and got within viewing distance of the hut, the snow had picked-up quite a bit. My view of Poplar was shrouded in snow, but I knew I was in the right place when I opened the door and warmth radiated from within. The main lodge was two-tiered, complete with a kitchen, composting toilets, and an attached bunkhouse.
More recently, we visited the Narrow Gauge Trailhead to the Rt. 27/Stratton Brook Trail. This is a dog-friendly section with a parking lot populated with a healthy mix of Maine and out-of-state plates. Locals use the trail as their backyard dog run, with excited dogs (including our own!) bounding alongside skiers, stopping for the occasional friendly butt-sniff of another passing pooch before kicking up snow to catch up with their owners. Non-dog owners are able to visit the beautiful Stratton Brook Hut, which is about three miles from the trailhead. Since we brought our pup Pemi with us, we took advantage of the dog-friendly groomed section before skiing the ungroomed mountain bike trail that runs parallel to the Carrabassett River. I was once again reminded that this region is a rare year-round mecca for fresh air lovers everywhere.
Like any good Maine girl, I fell in love over the islands. My partner was born and raised...