Nine Steps to Making the Best Baxter State Park Reservations

Baxter State Park is a premier outdoor destination in Maine for good reason. The park is comprised of 209,644 acres with over 40 mountain peaks and ridges, more than 220 miles of hiking trails, eight roadside campgrounds, two backcountry campgrounds, and it offers countless opportunities for fishing, hiking, paddling, observing wildlife, and exploring nature.

But how can you get the camping reservation that will ensure the best wilderness experience? Approximately 60,000 people visit Baxter State Park during the summer months, and all camping is restricted to a limited number of sites. The competition is stiff!

I’ve outlined nine steps you can follow to dramatically increase the odds you will get the reservation you want.

knife's edge and chimney pond
Author’s photo of Knife’s Edge and Chimney Pond.

Step One: Know What You Are Getting Into

People familiar with Baxter State Park can skip this step, but if you’re new to Baxter, know what you’re getting into. Camping in Baxter is not like pulling an RV into your nearby KOA campground. There are no dog parks (pets aren’t even permitted), no restaurants, no showers, and you won’t find cellphone service unless you’re above tree line! Camping in Baxter is a true wilderness experience, so familiarize yourself with the rules before planning your trip. For example:

  • Camping is only permitted by reservation.
  • If you are not at the gatehouse by 8:30pm, you will not get in, regardless of any reservation.
  • Tents are not permitted outside of lean-tos and lean-to sites.
  • You cannot bring firewood into the Park.
  • All of your garbage must be carried out.

Those are just some of the rules. Visit the Baxter State Park rules to know what you should expect.

Step Two: Select the Best Time of Year

The “best” time of year is relative. For some, the best time might be when spring trout fishing hits. For others, it’s when summer vacation is in full swing. For me, the “best” time is September and October, when the crowds die down and the black flies have disappeared. Regardless, know your best time and plan accordingly, four months in advance (more on that in a minute).

mount katahdin winter
The author on Mount Katahdin in the winter. The “best” time of year?

Step Three: Select the Best Spot

This is like the “best” time of year—it’s relative. For many, the best spot is Chimney Pond, the ideal launch for the peak of Katahdin. Some people prefer the quiet of beautiful Upper Branch Pond. Backpacker Magazine named Baxter Park’s Wassataquoik Lake as one of the 20 best backcountry lakes. There are many choices! Go here to find a listing of campgrounds and their maps.

Note: Your best spot may come with its own rules. For example, reservations at Davis Pond are limited to one night, and require a reservation the previous night at Russell Pond or Chimney Pond. Reservations at Wassataquoik Lake Island are limited to two consecutive nights and require the same previous reservation at Russell or Chimney Pond.

Step Four: Be Flexible

I called Park Headquarters in advance of writing this post, and I asked for advice they would give people making reservations. “Be flexible,” was the immediate response. “Give us more than one option. Have a second or third option.”

There is no guarantee, even if you’re early, that you’ll get the spot you want, so have a backup plan. If you’re mailing your reservation, identify alternatives if the spot you want is unavailable. If you’re calling the Park, have your 2nd and 3rd choices at the ready.

You can make a reservation for up to seven days for a single site, and up to 14 days total during a single visit. Reservations are limited to two reservations per person per day.

Step Five: Consider Something Other than Mount Katahdin

I get it, Mount Katahdin is the destination most people want. It’s the highest peak in Maine. It’s the end of the Appalachian Trail. It’s beautiful. It’s my favorite. However, it’s a favorite of many, and the crowd at the peak on any summer day is a testament to its popularity. The most popular camping spots in the park are at Chimney Pond. More than once I’ve called the park the day they open, four months before my intended date (more on that next), hoping to get a spot there, only to get busy signal after busy signal. By the time I get through, the sites are gone. Campgrounds at the base of Mount Katahdin are also popular.

Complicating Katahdin-based plans further, access to Katahdin is limited. Trustees of the Park are tasked with preserving the Park and its ecosystem. This means trails have their limits. When the parking lots at the bottom of Mount Katahdin are full, access is cut off.

Hiking Katahdin is also intense! Depending on the trail and your fitness level, you can expect a round trip hike to take eight to twelve hours. Most people are beat by the end of the day, so if you’re looking for a more relaxing trip, you’ll find Baxter’s many other camping sites offer excellent alternatives. As I mentioned, Baxter State Park has 209,644 acres open for exploration. There are over 40 other mountain peaks in the Park, and I guarantee you will see far fewer people on those hikes!

Step Six: Make Reservations Early, but Not Too Early

Making reservations early may seem obvious but know that you can’t make them too early. Baxter State Park has a four-month rolling reservation system, meaning that you can’t reserve a spot sooner than four months before the date(s) you want. For example, if you want a reservation on July 20th, the earliest you could reserve the spot is March 20th.

chimney pond camping
A lean-to at Chimney Pond. Public domain.

The exception here is winter reservations (December 1—March 31). Winter camping reservations can be made anytime after November 1st each year. Those reservations must be received no later than seven working days prior to your trip.

Step Seven: Mail Your Reservations

Baxter State Park allows you to make reservations four different ways.

  1. You can use their online reservation system.
  2. You can call them at 207-723-5140.
  3. You can make them in person at Park Headquarters, located at 64 Balsam Drive in Millinocket. They are open Mon—Fri from 8am—4pm and closed on holidays.
  4. You can download their reservation form and mail your reservation to: Baxter State Park, 64 Balsam Drive, Millinocket, Maine 04662.

Mailed reservations are processed first. So, if you are hoping to make a reservation for the last week in August, and you call in the morning to make that reservation four months before you want to arrive, you start off behind the reservations that were mailed in and processed first.

There is an exception! If you are only camping for one night (pay attention to minimum nights at some locations), you can reserve that one night online at midnight four months before your date. You beat everyone that way. The catch is you can only reserve that one night. In other words, if you want a reservation from July 1st to July 5th, you can reserve July 1st online at midnight, but only July 1st.

Note: Some of the backcountry spots cannot be reserved online.

mount katahdin abol
Author photo of his wife climbing up Abol Trail.

Step Eight: Be a Mainer (or Camp with One)

Not well-known to many, Park Headquarters gives preference to Maine residents when opening the mail. Mailed reservations from Maine residents are processed first. So, if you’re from Maine, you have an advantage. If you’re not from Maine, but you’re going with someone from Maine, have them mail the reservation.

What’s more, out-of-state vehicles are assessed a $15 fee upon entering the Park. Maine vehicles are not. On that note, if you want to climb Mount Katahdin, and you’re not staying inside the park, you can reserve a parking spot at Katahdin trailheads (Roaring Brook, Abol, and Katahdin Stream). This will guarantee you a parking spot until 7:00am. If you aren’t parked there by then, your spot will be given away on a first-come, first-serve basis. You can make your Day Use Parking Reservation (DUPR) online. DUPRs are not needed for May, and cost $5 each.

Here again, Maine residents have an advantage. Mainers can reserve a day use parking spot any time in the summer season starting April 1st. Non-residents can only make them two weeks before the date of their trip.

Step Nine: Consider Reservations Outside the Park

If you don’t get the site you want inside the park, or you like having outside amenities available, consider staying outside the park and making use of it by day. Northern Outdoors’ Katahdin Adventure Basecamp, located on Ambajejus and Millinocket Lake, is the perfect alternative. The entire Katahdin region offers outdoor adventures. You can go whitewater rafting on the Penobscot, paddle Millinocket Lake, take a scenic plan ride, or go fishing, all without ever having to step a foot into the Park. The Katahdin Adventure Basecamp is located at at Big Moose Inn, where you can pitch a tent in the wooded campground, get a lean-to or RV site, or stay in a cabin near Millinocket Lake.

Big Moose Lean to
The Big Moose Inn has rooms & suites in addition to private cabins, which are great options for groups, families, and couples. The Katahdin Cabin is a group favorite with its huge deck, multiple sleeping spots, full kitchen, volleyball net, and sleeping for up to 20 guests!

Big Moose Katahdin Inn
Big Moose Katahdin Inn

Visit our Katahdin Adventure Base Camp page for all the details. Plan ahead, hike smart, and have a great time!


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