In New England, we are blessed with a backyard that has it all: ponds, lakes, rivers, and the mighty Atlantic Ocean; there are gentle hills and challenging mountain peaks, dense forests, valleys and fields, salt marshes and beaches. Virtually anything you can do in the outdoors you can do here.
We asked top outdoor enthusiasts about their finest bucket list adventures. What’s the most memorable thing you’ve experienced in the great New England outdoors? Their answers were as diverse as the region itself, but there were four experiences that came up repeatedly.
The 100-Mile Wilderness
“Growing up in the 100-Mile Wilderness of Maine has put amazing bucket list opportunities at my doorstep and I was doing them before I even knew it was special,” says Jenny Ward, registered Maine guide and business and community relations manager of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine chapter. “With that being said, I still pause and pinch myself.”
The 100-Mile Wilderness is the last section of the Appalachian Trail before reaching Baxter State Park and the peak of Katahdin, the northern terminus of the legendary 2,190-mile-long hike. It’s considered the wildest wilderness on the AT, an immense, remote, nearly deserted section in northern Maine, of dense forests dotted with pristine lakes, and flanked by jagged mountain peaks. The narrow trail corridor runs from Monson to Abol Bridge near the southern entrance to Baxter State Park. There are a couple of bailout spots, but generally you’ll need to carry enough supplies for the nine- to 12-day hike.
While the interrupted views of mountains, lakes, and forests are gorgeous, Ward would argue that the night skies are most compelling. In fact, the AMC’s land in the area has recently been designated the first International Dark Sky Park in New England for its exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment.
“I have climbed to the top of mountains in the darkness of winter to watch the meteor showers. I have paddled onto the water and laid in the belly of a canoe, listening to the loons while watching the moon rise. I have skied out onto a frozen bog so that the starry sky encircled me from all sides. I have wrapped myself in a blanket and sat with friends before a beach campfire under a clear night sky,” Ward says. “For me, it’s pausing for a moment to look up.”
The Pemi Loop
“My most amazing New England-based outdoor experience was one unforgettable backpacking trip in the Pemigewasset Wilderness area of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire,” says Lorien Wood, L.L. Bean executive administrative assistant and avid outdoors person. “This three-day, 30-mile loop hike, affectionately called the ‘Pemi Loop,’ is physically demanding but absolutely stunning, running three high ridgelines and summiting eight 4,000-footers along the way. The constant 360-degree views of the surrounding White Mountains are out of this world!”
This popular loop hike, named one of the world’s best hikes by National Geographic, circles one of the largest wilderness areas in New Hampshire. It’s challenging but rewards are plenty, offering some of the finest above-treeline views in New England.
It starts out easy enough at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center off the scenic Kancamagus Highway. From there, it’s up, up, up, climbing to the summits of Mount Flume (4,327 feet) and Mount Liberty (4,459 feet). You’ll cross the stunning Franconia Ridgeline across Little Haystack (4,760 feet), Mount Lincoln (5,089 feet) and Mount Lafayette (5,260 feet). You’ll continue across the Garfield Ridgeline, crossing Mount Garfield (4,500 feet), South Twin Mountain (4,902 feet), and Mount Bond (4,698 feet), before looping back down to your car. Still have energy? Next time, you could add side trails, bagging an additional five mountain summits and adding 14 miles or so to the trek. Or take it easy and in pieces.
“If you don’t want to hike the whole thing, doing a ‘semi-Pemi’ gives you the best of both worlds,” says Rachel Cheatham, AMC backcountry campsite outreach coordinator. “I spent the first two days climbing mountains and walking ridgelines, and then I hiked down through the forest to 13 Falls Tentsite and spent the rest of the evening swimming and enjoying the company of other campers.”
The Connecticut River
It’s the longest river in New England, snaking more than 400 miles through New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound. And we heard from several people in the know that spending days paddling it and nights at primitive campsites is a bucket list experience.
“An entire day and night on the Connecticut River highlight how moving water brings life into the valley, touching every piece of the habitat and every city and town,” says Faith Salter, AMC director of volunteer relations. “Paddlers awaken to bird song, spend the day tracking eagles, heron, kingfishers, and swallows on the banks, and finish things off watching the mesmerizing nighttime display of thousands of fireflies in riverside campsites.”
The Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail covers the river’s length, running through nearly 400 communities.
“Unfortunately, the only way most people experience the river is by driving by it in a car,” says Jonah Keane, sanctuary director, Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton. “By paddling on the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail, you can view this vast river from the perspective of being on the water and see eagles, osprey, and sturgeon.”
While there are no guarantees, Keane says the odds of seeing a bald eagle on the Connecticut River are great. “It’s awe-inspiring to see this huge and regal bird up close and personal as you quietly paddle by.”
Allagash Wilderness Waterway
Bury your watch and leave anything that runs on a battery (except your headlamp) at home. Paddling the storied waterway (Henry David Thoreau journeyed here in the 1800s) is all about unplugging. Now part of the National Wild and Scenic River System, the waterway runs 92 miles in northern Maine, down rivers and streams and across lakes.
“If you spend 10 days creating, cultivating, nurturing a wilderness experience along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, I bet you will emerge a renewed being,” says Barry King, who spends most of his days captaining the Schooner Mary Day in coastal Maine.
King offers some good advice. Reserve 10 days for the trip and go in spring before Memorial Day, when the air and water temperatures are frigid, and the black flies and mosquitoes are present, all part of the wilderness experience, he contends. Don’t take the challenge lightly: Learn how to pole, line, and portage so you can make the trip upstream to Allagash Lake, and then travel according to the wind and weather.
“Allow the wind to adjust whatever ‘plans’ you think you might have,” says King. “Bring a good book that helps keep you immersed in the wilderness experience and a small journal to record a few reflections. Learn to move to the rhythms created by daylight.”
And bring a fly rod. “Fresh trout from the frying pan is nothing short of miraculous,” he says.
If that sounds a bit overwhelming for a DIY trip, there are several outfitters who offer guided excursions.
10 more bucket list adventures
Kayaking portions (or all) of the Maine Island Trail
Hiking Mount Katahdin (and the Knife Edge) in Baxter State Park
Taking a glider flight over Acadia National Park
Hiking the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
Kayaking the Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail
Hiking end-to-end on the Long Trail
Exploring swimming holes and remote lakes in Vermont
Fly fishing the world-class Farmington River in Connecticut
Sailing on a windjammer cruise along the coast of Maine
Hiking the Cohos Trail into Quebec
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org