The Little Lodges that Could: Exploring Maine’s North Woods with AMC

I stepped outside the Library to watch the sunrise glow on snow-covered Long Pond. Not a soul or a sound deep in the North Woods of Maine.

Instead of the buzz of the snowmobiles that flock to these parts come winter, I hear my boots crunching on snow as I walk up the short hill to Gorman Chairback Lodge, to pour myself a cup of coffee. The cook is working on breakfast, but the comfortable couches around the wood stove are empty, everyone still snuggled in their beds in the cabins sprinkled on the property. The leather couches are inviting, but I take my coffee to go, for the cozy experience of reading in bed in the Library.

Inside The Library, an octogon-shaped cabin originally built by Civil War veteran X with his young son in 1867. The cabin, which sleeps four, has been renovated and rebuilt many times, but includes some original features. Propane lights provide a gentle source of light.

Inside The Library, an octogon-shaped cabin originally built by Civil War veteran W.P. Dean with his young son in the 1880s. The cabin, which sleeps four, has been renovated and rebuilt many times, but includes some original bones. No bath, or electricity, but propane gas mantle lamps provide a gentle source of light, and the fully equipped bath facility in the Lodge includes hot showers and a sauna.

This is my Florida, my Caribbean, even when the skies are gray and temperatures hover in the single digits. I’d long wanted to visit Gorman Chairback Lodge, a backcountry ski destination owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).  Scoring a stay in the Library was an added bonus.

The Library, which sits just steps away from Long Pond. Several of the rebuilt cabins at Gorman now have bathrooms, although the Library retains its 19th century rustic ambience (a walk up the hill to use the facilities).

The Library sits just steps away from Long Pond. Several of the cabins at Gorman now have bathrooms, although the Library retains its 19th century rustic ambience (a short walk to the lodge to use the facilities).

In the summer or fall, I could drive right up to Gorman, park my car, and settle in a for a week or several days of relaxing, kayaking and hiking, to Gulf Hagas, or along the Appalachian Trail, which follows Chairback Ridge not far from the lodge. And I’ll do that some day. But first, I wanted to ski in.

Setting off on a February morning to ski in to AMC's Little Lyford Lodge, the first stop on a three-day adventure.

On a February morning, we set off from the Winter Parking Lot on the Katahdin Iron Works Road (northeast of Greenville, Maine) to ski  on groomed backcountry trails into AMC’s Little Lyford Lodge, the first stop on a three-day adventure. During the winter, AMC provides snowmobile shuttle service for baggage. For an extra fee, AMC will also shuttle in passengers, making its lodges accessible to all ages and abilities.

After an 8-mile ski through the woods and then along the Pleasant River, we discovered Little Lyford Lodge in a snow-filled hollow that felt like a snug Swiss village. There, we recovered in the lodge, and baked in the sauna. That night, after a meal of hearty lasagna and conversation with other visitors, we slept soundly in our cabin.

Little Lyford Lodge is tucked into the land on First Little Lyford Pond, in the shadow of Indian Mountain. The bunkhouse, which housed three mothers and a pack of kids while we were visiting, is pictured in the foreground.

Little Lyford Lodge is tucked just above First Little Lyford Pond, in the shadow of Indian Mountain. In the foreground, the bunkhouse, which housed three mothers and a pack of kids while we were visiting.

Twenty years ago, when I hiked from Monson to Mount Katahdin on the 100-Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail, virtually all of the surrounding land (and much of the trail as well) was privately owned, mostly by paper companies.

AMC’s purchase of Little Lyford Lodge in 2003 was the first step in the organization’s “Maine Woods Initiative,” an ambitious project aimed at conserving land in the 100-mile Wilderness region, east of Moosehead Lake. Since the early 2000s, the organization, working in collaboration with others, has conserved almost 80,000 acres through a combination of direct ownership and conservation easements. Now, a corridor of preserved land extends all the way to Baxter State Park, and further east, thanks to recent designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

AMC also has developed an extensive network of trails that connect its three lodges along with a private lodge, West Branch Pond Camps, so that guests can ski or hike from lodge-to-lodge. The third lodge, Medawisla, currently is closed for renovation, but will reopen in summer 2017.

Little Lyford Lodge, where guests relax, and enjoy a full dinner and breakfast. The Lodge also provides a trail lunch to all guests. During our visit, temperatures were seasonable, but mild by mid-winter North Woods standards. Visitors wearing hats and mittens took full advantage of porch rocking chairs.

Little Lyford Lodge, where guests enjoy dinner and breakfast. The Lodge also provides a trail lunch to all guests. During our visit, temperatures were seasonable but mild by mid-winter  standards in these parts. Visitors wearing hats and mittens took full advantage of porch rocking chairs.

The organization’s initiative also has served to reinvigorate the tradition of the Maine sporting camp that once drew thousands of “sports” each year to the North Woods. Although you can still find 40 or traditional camps through the Maine Sporting Camp Association, many more have closed since their heyday in the first part of the 20th century, as the automobile and the airplane, along with busy work and family schedules, have changed the way people vacation.

With its huge membership base, the AMC has a ready pool of potential guests eager to get off the grid and away from the glow of the screen.  In the long run, I suspect that Maine’s many family-owned sporting camps will benefit from AMC’s marketing efforts, as a new generation discovers the North Woods.

We were snug in the Gray Ghost cabin, equipped with a wood stove and propane lights. Each cabin has its own outhouse, or visitors can use the fully-equipped central bathhouse, which includes a wood-fired sauna! Hence its nickname, the Spa.

At Little Lyford, we slept soundly in the Gray Ghost cabin, equipped with a wood stove and propane lights. Each cabin has its own outhouse, or visitors can use the central bathhouse, which includes a wood-fired sauna.  Hence its nickname, the Spa.

After our night at Little Lyford, we set out for Gorman Chairback Lodge, skiing on a “green” (easy) trail along the Pleasant River. We considered a side trip by snowshoe to Gulf Hagas, the largest gorge in Maine, but decided we best conserve our energy for the ski to Gorman. The skiing was irregularly groomed, but not difficult, and easily accomplished by anyone with some cross-country experience (or an enthusiastic novice).

After eight miles, we burst out of the woods at Gorman Chairback, just in time for a cup of fresh Carrabassett Coffee. The cook was busy preparing the evening’s dinner, an authentic chicken Cordon Bleu. Gorman is noted as the best of AMC for its cuisine and also offers beer and wine for sale.

Gorman Chairback Lodge, on the shores of Long Pond. In the summer and fall, you can drive to the Lodge, but winter access is by ski or snowshoe, or, for those who wish to, snowmobile taxi.

Gorman Chairback Lodge, on the shores of Long Pond, was extensively renovated several years ago and reopened in 2011. The lodge includes rustic and modern cabins as well as  bunkhouse accommodations.

After our night in the Library, and a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and blueberry muffins, we packed up our trail lunches and set off on a bluebird sky day. My only complaint was that our stay was too short.

We skied out on the trail across Long Pond, then into the woods for several miles until arriving back at the Winter Parking Lot.

We skied out on the trail across Long Pond, with Chairback Ridge in the background, then into the woods for several miles until arriving back at the Winter Parking Lot.

On the long drive home from Greenville, I did my usual plotting: this summer, a return to Little Lyford for the hike to Gulf Hagas? Next winter, a ski into Medawisla and a couple of nights at West Branch Pond? Not exactly “California Dreamin,'” but if I need to escape the cold, I know where to find the sauna.

Sources and resources

More information about AMC Lodges here.

You could spend a well-lived life visiting Maine’s many sporting camps listed at the Maine Sporting Camps Association.  I have especially fond memories of visits to Bulldog Camps, and look forward to checking out many others.

For information on the history and economic impact of AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative, see this Baseline Report written by economist David Vail (a former professor of mine!). Also, I’ll point out here that in the North Woods, thousands and thousands of acres remain in private ownership for logging, snowmobiling and other pursuits.  Economic activity and conservation are not incompatible and often work well in tandem.

For more information on another hut-to-hut ski adventure, see my post on Maine Huts and Trails:

Celebrating the new year in hut heaven: Champagne toasts at Maine Huts & Trails

The AMC also operates a system of hut-to-hut hiking in the White Mountains, although most are closed in the winter (with the exception of Lonesome Lake and Carter Notch Huts). Here, my post about a visit to Madison Hut:

Presidential aspirations: You can’t always get what you want

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
This entry was posted in Family and Kids, Hiking, Maine places, Mountains, Travels and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Little Lodges that Could: Exploring Maine’s North Woods with AMC

  1. Joyce Turco says:

    I find it very interesting to read about northern ME. In the future I hope to see the most northern part of out state, I live in the most southern part which is very different in my opinion. Your travels sound like a lot of fun & a good way to embrace the winter. Thanks for all that information.

  2. sally wright says:

    Dianne, I am brimming with your imagery, winter in Maine and all the delicious sounding meals you were provided. “This is my Florida…” Brilliant!

  3. Jonathan HUBBARD says:

    You closed your Maine post with a reference to Madison Spring Hut, but there is no post. Did you forget to post it?

    • Hi Jon-I was having trouble with one of the image displays so I pulled it out and must have left some language in there. What the heck, I’ll put it back. The header wasn’t displaying properly and I couldn’t figure out why.

Leave a Reply to Dianne Fallon Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *