The distinctive flat-topped profile of Big Spencer Mountain as viewed from Lazy Tom Bog on the Spencer Bay Road. Carey Kish photo

Big Spencer Mountain rises sharply from the dense forestland northeast of Moosehead Lake, its distinctive flat-topped profile unmistakable from countless vantage points throughout the region. The 3,206-foot peak and 4,244 acres around it comprise the Big Spencer Mountain Ecological Reserve, one of 18 specially designated land units owned by the state of Maine.

The steel base of the 1927 fire tower adorns the apex of the long summit ridgeline of Big Spencer, which offers a grand panorama. The view includes Katahdin and many of its prominent neighbors, White Cap Mountain and numerous other mountaintops along the Appalachian Trail, Little Spencer Mountain, Lobster Lake and Lobster Mountain and much more.

Big Spencer Mountain is reached by a 1.8-mile hike from the north over a trail that gains a healthy 1,850 feet, well over half of that in the final 0.7 miles beyond the old fire warden cabin site. Rock staircases and a number of wooden ladders aid in the ascent of the eroded trail, much of which is a steep scramble over rocks and roots. But the payoff is big once you break treeline.

Twenty years ago, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands established a system of ecological reserves to protect and monitor a cross-section of natural habitats around the state, which today totals 96,400 acres. Lands in ecological reserve owned by The Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife add another 112,000 acres.

“We needed some areas set aside that reflected the biodiversity of the Maine woods so we could study the effects of forest management and natural processes on the forest,” said Andy Cutko, MBPL’s director. “Through regular monitoring, we’ve learned a lot about how forests work and how best to manage them.”

A hiker near the top of the steep climb up Big Spencer Mountain. Katahdin can be seen in the haze to the north. Carey Kish photo

Cutko noted that Maine’s ecological reserves “are some of my favorite places.” And why not, when the list includes such gems as the Bigelows, Deboullie in northern Aroostook, the Cutler Coast, the rugged Mahoosucs, Nahmakanta in the 100-Mile Wilderness, Mt. Abraham and the Tunk Lake-Donnell Pond area. If you’ve hiked any one of these special places, you know full well their incredible beauty and natural significance.

On Big Spencer, a swath of nearly 200 acres of stunted forest extends around the summit ridge. According to MPBL’s ecological reserve fact sheet for the mountain, this area “is a mosaic of Fir-Heart-leaved Birch Subalpine Forest,” dominated by “extremely dense balsam fir and black spruce.” You’ll climb through these thick, fragrant woods on the last part of the hike up to the Big Spencer tower, so take a good look around and breathe deep.

Beyond the Big Spencer fire tower are several acres of private land belonging to the Maine Forest Service and the U.S. Border Patrol, where there are large solar arrays and communication towers and equipment, so hikers are asked to conclude their climb at the tower. You’ll note that this area has been severely burned over, the result of an accidental fire in 2012. The cab of the fire tower was removed in 2009.

A series of wooden ladders assist hikers high on the trail up Big Spencer. Carey Kish photo

Having gazed longingly at Big Spencer from every which way it seems over the years, it was wonderful to finally sit up on top and look out at the vast country all around. I was in no hurry, that’s for sure, and I’m betting you won’t be either. Pack a big sandwich, a can of pop and a bag of chips and settle in by the tower, enjoy and watch the world go by, so to speak.

You wouldn’t know it, but there are numerous monitoring plots all over the Big Spencer property, some of the 1,000 or so such plots used by scientists, along with satellite imagery and other high-tech tools, to keep an eye on what’s happening on the ground at each of the ecological reserve locations.

“Set aside in perpetuity, we can really see the subtleties of how the natural environment changes over the long term,” Cutko said.

The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands publishes a fact sheet for each of the ecological reserves (maine.gov/dacf/mnap/reservesys/factsheets.htm), half of which are home to hiking trails. Pack along a copy when you visit to enhance your knowledge and enjoyment of these critically important natural places.

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish


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