AS THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL'S last stop before Mt. Katahdin, Monson marks the beginning of the bittersweet end for northbound thru-hikers. But weekend trekkers have no such baggage, so they can dig the adjoining Hundred Mile Wilderness for the stellar stretch of North Woods that it is. For a sampling, talk to Keith Shaw, proprietor of Shaw's Lodging, who has hosted more than 40,000 hikers since 1977. For a modest fee, Shaw shuttles hikers 30 trail miles north for a few blissful days' hike back to town on the AT. You'll start off by walking through the Hermitage, an old-growth stand of white pines that measure 10 feet in diameter and tower up to 150 feet overhead. Five shelters along the way (Mainers call them "lean-tos"; no reservations required) expand your camping options; the aptly named Cloud Pond Lean-to features one of the sweet swimming spots you'll encounter, plus a resident moose. Have a week to burn? Barrel through the Hundred Mile Wilderness all the way to Katahdin, 120 miles or so in all. Then unwind in Monson, a mellow hamlet where tourists browse antique and craft shops while seasonal residents relax with paperbacks in their "camps"--Spartan second homes with vast swaths of porch.
» Barbecue in Maine? A-yuh. Spring Creek Bar-B-Q is open Thursday through Sunday and any other time the porch light is on. Even hikers from the South endorse the wood-fired pork ribs. (207) 997-7025
» Dig into Shaw's 4x4 breakfast: four each of bacon, eggs, pancakes, and sausage.
» Stop in at nearby Breakneck Ridge Farm and grab a boneless venison leg steak for the first night on the trail. The maple syrup is worth its pack weight, too. www.breakneckridgefarm.com
» Shaw's hosts hikers: $20 a bunk, $30 private digs. www.shawslodging.com
» Lake Shore House has bunks ($25) and private rooms (starting at $35). www.lakeshore-house.com
Top dayhike with the worst nickname Four-hundred-foot-deep Gulf Hagas is known hereabouts--we cringe to report--as the Grand Canyon of Maine. The 9-mile loop includes old-growth white pines, waterfalls, and tempting swimming holes.
Sweetest post-hike investment Maine native Linda McLaughlin operates Trail Magic Massage Therapy in the big green building across from the General Store. The part-time nurse soothes aching muscles by appointment. (207) 997-3320
Best way to rest your feet Lake Shore House rents canoes and kayaks for $25 a day. Cruise 525-acre Lake Hebron past white birches and sugar maples and, of course, listen for loons.
Best place to get your Mayberry on The Monson General Store, a one-stop shopping relic, is the place to encounter the Yankee version of Andy and Barney while stocking up for the trail.
At Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville, 14 miles by car. www.maineoutfitter.com