Hiking the Upper Gorge Trail at Ripogenus Dam forced me to slow down and enjoy the views
By Sarah Sindo
Working at a campground, I often get asked, “Where can we hike around here?”
Baxter State Park may be the obvious answer as it’s only about a 35-minute drive to the gatehouse from Big Eddy, but there are other closer gems that I’m happy to offer up as suggestions.
But, guess what? Out of the usual handful of hikes that I suggest, I’ve only done one of them in its entirety. In order to be the most helpful hike suggester I can be, I figured I’d set out and do some backyard adventuring.
A few days ago, I checked out the Upper Gorge Trail. The starting point for the hike is located on the north side of Ripogenus Dam. If you’re familiar with the West Branch of the Penobscot River watershed, then you know exactly where I’m referencing. If you’re not, Ripogenus Dam is located about an hour’s drive from Millinocket, on the Golden Road.
The dam is something to see, in and of itself. The 92-foot high dam was constructed in 1916, damming Chesuncook Lake, which is Maine’s third largest lake. At the time, the dam was owned by Great Northern Paper Company and provided hydroelectric power to its paper mill in Millinocket.
I decided to drive across the dam and park, but you can also park on the south end of the dam and walk across. After walking around a small green gate, the trail immediately starts to descend. The roughly 2-mile round trip Upper Gorge Trail is unique because it brings you right down into the gorge.
The Upper Gorge is well known in the fly fishing and whitewater worlds. Depending on how much water is being released from Rip Dam, the upper section of the gorge offers phenomenal fly fishing opportunities.
I’ve heard reports of fishermen hooking large, robust landlocked salmon. Whitewater kayakers flock to the area when levels are pumping to paddle the renowned stretch of whitewater.
Back to the hike.
Just a short distance down the trail, I took my last glance at the dam in its entirety before I slid farther down the gorge. On the right side of the trail, there were some side trails that took you down to the water. I decided to take one.
After carefully navigating a short, steep slope, I walked out onto the ancient bedrock and quickly realized how far I had descended already. As I looked upriver, I saw only a very small section of the dam. I lingered here for a bit, and enjoyed the feeling of being dwarfed by the growing gorge walls.
I got back on the main trail and walked the path a ways more. I started to hear the roar of whitewater, and I knew I was getting close to McKay Station.
I peeked through some pine trees and got a decent view of the hydroelectric station. I’ve walked down to the station before but this was the first time I’ve seen it from the opposite side of the river. It was a neat view and I could really get a feel for the power of the water.
On the walk back, I found myself slowing down and enjoying details that I blew right by on my hike in. There was a nice breeze that day and even though I didn’t quite feel it in the thicker sections of trail, I enjoyed the light wind in a few open patches. The leaves rustled on their limbs and branches softly swayed.
I noticed all the lovely little spring wildflowers, too. Buttercup, bunchberry, white baneberry and purple violet were scattered across the forest floor. They were so small and dainty, I might’ve flattened them if I didn’t pay close attention.
And the birdsong. I never knew when it would start and stop or how it might change around each corner. It was beautiful to listen to, another much welcomed sign of spring.
Do your hikes sometimes go like this? On your way there, it’s almost like you’re in a hurry to get to the destination, and you wonder how much farther. On the way back, you tend to slow down and maybe notice the smaller things. Maybe your thoughts become wider and not so narrow. I liked this mindset better.
My takeaway from the hike: slow down. Plain and simple. Don’t be so concentrated on where you’re going because you might miss what’s right in front of you.