Into the Woods: Hiking Maine’s Hidden City Gems
Two years ago, we moved to Maine for the same reason a lot of people do: we had treasured our annual vacations here, and we longed for an outdoor life that was out of reach in the big city. But unplugging for a week on the remote reaches of the Blue Hill Peninsula each August is vastly different than working and raising a family year round near Maine’s urban core.
So it’s understandable that we get a lot of questions from skeptical family and friends. “How do you like it, now?” they asked during our first winter, when Portland had nearly 90 inches of snow.
No, life does not feel like a permanent vacation. But the truth is, we love living in Maine even more than we enjoyed visiting it. Even when it’s 14 degrees.
Living amongst a critical mass of people who value open space, unspoiled woods and water as much as we do, has given us a quality-of-life upgrade that we never would have dreamed of while living in the aggressive, crowded, noisy, streets of Philadelphia.
Of course, after years of big-city living, all this quality of life took a bit of adjustment.
We scoured the radio dials repeatedly searching for traffic reports to plan our morning commutes — only to realize that there wasn’t one. With so little traffic, who needs a traffic report?
The first night we slept in our new home, we were awakened by the sound of gushing water. We ransacked the rooms in search of a burst pipe or a running faucet before we realized that the were just hearing the creek in our yard.
And that whistling noise that we kept hearing at sunrise? That perfectly-pitched two-toned call that repeated over and over and over? It wasn’t a drunk vagrant stumbling around on the sidewalk, or someone searching for a lost dog, but rather the Black-capped chickadees who sheltered in the Silver Maples in our yard.
But the highlight of our Maine lives has been discovering the abundance of lush, unspoiled woods and million-dollar water views just beyond the beaten paths of our workaday suburban lives.
Mounting scientific research has proven the cascade of psychological, emotional, and physical benefits that go along with close regular encounters with nature—especially for kids. Regular doses of outside time can help prevent obesity, asthma, reduce risk of high blood pressure, Type 2 Diabetes, Vitamin D deficiency, depression, and anxiety, and have even been shown to help improve attention, reduce stress, and alleviate depression.
We are acutely aware of that in my family. And outside exhilaration—in every weather condition—is a non-negotiable. Simply put, the more time outside time we get, the happier we are.
We were introduced to many of Maine’s natural treasures with the help of the local land trusts and non-profit groups that work to conserve land for recreation.
My preschool-aged son and I attended weekly hikes with the Royal River Conservation Trust. Each week, the aptly dubbed “Rain or Shine Club” explores jewels of open space that are nestled just beyond the paved confines of neighborhoods, schools, and shopping centers.
At the weekly outings, which are free and open to the public, we attended the hikes—which were short and extremely manageable for my 40-ish body and my energetic, 4-year-old son. The thrill of discovering so many beautiful expanses hidden in our own back yard was matched by the joy in meeting so many like minded parents of young kids, and outdoor enthusiasts of all ages who moved here for the same reasons we did.
And the discoveries only stoked our appetite for more.
Happily for us, there was no shortage of resources we could turn to for help, thanks to the many agencies, non-profit groups and local outdoor writers who treasure time in nature as much as we do.
Thanks to a map created by Portland Trails, the urban land trust that has built and maintains more than 70 miles of trails in and around the city’s urban core, we discovered the Presumpscot River Preserve, a 48-acre green expanse just beyond the city’s busiest thoroughfares, and the Fore River Sanctuary, an 85-acre preserve that is home to Jewell Falls, Portland’s only natural waterfall.
The excellent “Act Out with Aislinn” column in the Bangor Daily News, a weekly feature and one-minute video by the intrepid outdoors writer Aislinn Sarnacki, led us to a magical Saturday of woods and water in Scarborough, just a 20-minute traffic-free drive from our house. After a morning of surfing and sandcastle-building at Pine Point, and excellent gourmet tacos at El Rayo, we spent the afternoon at Fuller Farm, a 220-acre expanse of preserved fields and forests along the banks of the Nonesuch River, which feeds into Scarborough Marsh, the state’s largest saltwater marsh.
Perhaps the discoveries I have treasured the most have been the unspoiled patches of woods and water, where you can find silence and stillness just a stone’s throw from Maine’s most popular tourist destinations.
The millions of shoppers who flock to Freeport outlets and L.L. Bean’s company store probably have no idea that they are less than a quarter of a mile from Pettingill Farm, a 140-acre expanse of grassy meadows, gnarly technical wooded trails, and postcard-perfect views of the Haraseeket River that is owned by the Freeport Historical Society.
I just love it that you don’t need to wait for summer, trek up Katahdin, or sit in a logjam of traffic with the 4.2 million people who vacation in Maine each year, to savor our state’s wealth of natural treasures.
After two years of living in Maine, and setting out each weekend to find new pockets of natural beauty, you would think that we would have uncovered every secret spot, and reclined into a been-there-done-that state of mind.
But every time we think we’ve seen it all, we’re bowled over all over, and fall in love with Maine all over again.
Get out, stay safe, have fun
Here are some tips to stay safe and make the most of your outside time wherever you go, courtesy of Kara Wooldrik, executive director of Portland Trails.
- Tell family members and friends where you are going and how long you expect to be gone.
- Know the weather for the time and location that you will be out adventuring.
- Bring appropriate clothing and footwear for the conditions, keeping in mind that wind and moisture make it colder and lack of shade makes it warmer. You might always carry with you a light fleece, a thin water- and wind-proof jacket, warm hat, gloves, and sun protection when heading in the mountains or on the water.
- If you are not extremely familiar with your location and it is outside of a city, bring a map. Do not rely on your phone; the battery can unexpectedly die and a GPS signal may be tough to find. If you are heading to a more remote location, bring a compass. (Before you go, make sure you know how to use it!)
- If you are going out for more than 30 mins, bring a water bottle and healthy snacks.
- If you’re venturing into the woods, or any area where hunting may be allowed, be sure to wear blaze orange or brightly-colored clothing, and be aware of open hunting season, dates, and local rules. Stick to the trails.
There are a wealth of resources to help you discover many of the open-space treasures in your own backyard and beyond. Here are just a few:
- Royal River Conservation Trust: The Yarmouth-based non-profit as conserved 3300 acres of land, farms and trails in the Royal River watershed and Casco Bay. It works in the towns of Yarmouth, North Yarmouth, New Gloucester, Pownal, Durham, and Gray. The group also sponsors a weekly “Rain or Shine” club—easy hikes for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages.
- Harpswell Heritage Land Trust: The Trust owns 355 acres of preserved land that is open to the public. The group sponsors weekly easy hikes geared toward young kids in the fall, winter and spring. hhltmaine.org
- Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village: This village is home to the only active Shaker Community in the world today. The village, which is in New Gloucester, sits on 1,800 acres of farm and forest land with seventeen historic structures from the 1780s through the 1950s. maineshakers.com
- Maine Forest Playgroup: This is a free, exclusively outdoors program serving toddlers and their families in and around Portland. Each Friday adventure offers an interactive storytime and hands-on activity to set a framework plus free play.
- Freeport Conservation Trust: The group conserves and connects more than 1,500 acres of open space and nearly 20 miles of public trails.
- Scarborough Land Trust: Scarborough may be one of the fastest growing and largest towns in Maine, but it also has state’s largest salt marsh (Scarborough Marsh), to eight miles of coastline, four public beaches, and five rivers. Scarborough Land Trust has worked to preserve it.
- Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust: This land trust has under its protection eighteen properties — nine on the mainland and nine on Casco Bay.
- Maine Coast Heritage Trust: MCHT manages more than 100 preserves along Maine’s coast. MCHT preserves are managed to protect ecological diversity, scenic beauty, low impact recreation, and community benefits. To see a map, go to: mcht.org/preserves/index.php.
- Portland Kids Calendar: This is a free local listing of activities for kids and parents.
- Act Out With Aislinn: Each week, Bangor Daily News outdoors columnist Aislinn Sarnacki introduces outdoor hot spots from around the state, and provides “one-minute hike” videos to help you check it out before you leave the house. She provides excellent directions and trail descriptions so you can know if it’s for you. The blog is my go-to resource for hikes, especially for those in central Maine, Augusta, Bangor, and Mt. Desert Island. You can find a map and list of all of her one-minute hikes here: actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com/one-minute-hikes.
- Portland Press Herald: Each Sunday, Portland Press Herald devotes a signficant amount of its sports section to stories about birding, fishing, hunting, and hiking. Don’t miss regular features by outdoors writer Deirdre Fleming. The paper also keeps a full calendar of outdoors activities. pressherald.com/sports/outdoors
Text and photos: Jennifer Van Allen