Days are getting shorter, so it’s not quite as practical this time of year to drive two or three hours up the coast from Portland to explore rocky coastline or search for lighthouses. By the time you get there, the sun might be going down. Instead, consider trekking a mile over the Casco Bay Bridge to discover the scenic wonders of coastal South Portland.
The city’s east end, while pretty densely populated, has plenty of nature to explore. On a bike you can see it all in less than an hour, including: the Greenbelt Walkway, a walking and biking path that can lead you from Mill Creek Park to Bug Light Park and offers great Portland skyline views; the Spring Point Shoreway Trail, which leads to Spring Point Ledge Light and its walkable, 900-foot-long breakwater; and Willard Beach, which has rocks to climb at one end and the wonderful lookout plateau of Fisherman’s Point at the other end.
The city’s Greenbelt Walkway runs through many South Portland neighborhoods, but the route with the most coastal scenery runs from Mill Creek Park to Bug Light. You can park on the street near Mill Creek Park, then just follow the path on your bike or foot across Cottage Road. You immediately will pass Mill Cove and get some great views of the Portland skyline, before the path ducks between homes and neighborhoods while roughly following Portland Harbor. The path physically ends at Madison Street, but there’s a sidewalk leading to Bug Light Park, right on the water. There you can amble over to the lighthouse, watch the kites that are always flying overhead, or check out the giant ship skeleton that’s a reminder of the area’s World War II ship-building days.
And you can visit the South Portland Historical Society, which is free, and currently has an exhibit on the Willard Beach neighborhood.
Greenbelt Walkway trailhead at Mill Creek Park, 52 Hinckley Drive, South Portland. southportlandlandtrust.org
From Bug Light Park, you can wander through the neighborhood on Benjamin Pickett Street then turn toward the water at the campus of Southern Maine Community College to access the Spring Point Shoreway Trail. The trail runs past the Spring Point Ledge Light, built in 1897, which sits at the end of a 900-foot-long stone breakwater. The stones are nice and flat, but walking out to the lighthouse is still a workout because of some big gaps between rocks. Kids especially love scrambling over the breakwater and then touching the lighthouse, just to prove they made it. There’s also a beach area on one side of the breakwater, and remnants of Fort Preble to explore on the other. It’s fun to peer through the cannon doors in the fort wall and hear the waves lapping on the other side. The Shoreway Trail continues through the SMCC campus, past the Old Settlers Cemetery, which dates to 1658. The trail ends at Willard Beach.
Spring Point Shoreway, Fort Road, South Portland. southportlandlandtrust.org.
Willard Beach is a 4-acre slice of sand and surf that takes about ten or 15 minutes to walk, end to end. If you come off the Shoreway Trail, you enter the beach at the less-used portion, where there are some interesting rocks to climb and tide pools to explore. Row boats and dingies belonging to neighbors are usually resting near here. This time of year the beach is full of dogs, which means there’s plenty of activity to watch. The beach also has a little playground, with slides and climbing structures.
At the far southern end of the beach there are stairs leading to Fisherman’s Point, high above the beach. Up on the point there are some benches, a grassy area, and a couple old fisherman’s shacks from when the Willard neighborhood was home to fishing families. There’s a wonderful view from the point of the historic Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, a mile or so away. Fisherman’s Point is also a great place for viewing a “super moon” and other night sky events. If you want to go right to the beach, there is a parking lot for about 75 cars on Willow Street, near the playground.
Willard Beach, Willow Street, South Portland. southportland.org.
Two of the area’s best cake/bakeries are located right along this coastal SoPo route. Between Bug Light and Spring Point Ledge Light, you’ll find 158 Pickett Street Cafe in a quaint little shack of a building. It’s known for great bagels and bagel sandwiches, plus omelets and other breakfast treats. There are some chairs out front, lots of seating inside, and a lovely garden with tables in the back.
From Willard Beach, a walk up Willow Street to Willard Square brings you to Scratch Baking Co. It’s also known for great bagels, plus cookies, pastries, bread and lunch foods. You’ll find treats like raspberry shortbread squares, apple spice cookies, and Deep South coconut cream cake.
158 Pickett Street Cafe, 158 Benjamin Pickett St., South Portland. 799-8998; Facebook: 158 Pickett Street Cafe.
Scratch Baking Co., 416 Preble St., South Portland. 799-0668; scratchbakingco.com.