My 10 year-old-son noticed it first: a smattering of homes strung like beads along the far end of one of the large lakes and ponds punctuating the rugged, tree-covered landscape. From our perch on the granite ledges streaking the open summit of Schoodic Mountain in eastern Hancock County, the structures were barely discernable. A few distant fields were flung like flags on the mountainous terrain, also reminding us that that we were just 12 miles east of Ellsworth, not in a vast wilderness. To the south, across island-dotted Frenchman Bay, the mountains of Mt. Desert Island bumped along the horizon. On a clear day you can spot Katahdin far to the north.
Schoodic Mountain is one of six bald-topped mountains – all accessible by trail and rewarding hikers with 360-degree views – in the state’s sprawling Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land, which has more than 14,000 acres and about 14 miles of hiking trails. The spectacularly scenic public land is just one of a handful of large inland reserves along or just off U.S. 1 that offer convenient “backcountry” hiking (much of it on what was once commercial forestland) near some of Down East’s prime coastal destinations.
Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust’s 4,500-acre Wildlands opened in 2005 in Orland, which sits above the Blue Hill Peninsula between Ellsworth and Bucksport. The hilly preserve has about 20 trails on more than 15 miles of old loggings roads and footpaths. Near-panoramic views from atop the land trust’s namesake mountain extend to Mt. Desert Island, Camden Hills, Penobscot Narrows Bridge and, from the western side when conditions are right, Katahdin.
About 80 miles northeast of Ellsworth along U.S. 1 in Washington County, the 8,800-acre Edmunds Division of Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge offers some 15 miles of hiking. A lot is along service roads, but there are several miles of rugged path through a federal Wilderness Area – one of the few on the East Coast.
Though generally less well known than parks, many of Maine’s conservation lands and public reserves welcome visitors. In addition to preserving wildlife and scenic landscapes, they may be open for low-impact recreation such as hiking, boating, paddling, fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking (roads or rail-trail), cross cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing.
But come prepared. Typically, roads are gravel, and staff aren’t on hand. Amenities like picnic areas and outhouses are few or nonexistent. Signage may be basic or lacking, though the trend is to improve it. Hunting may be allowed – and is at the three Down East reserves spotlighted here. Visit a locale’s website for maps, trail descriptions and guidelines; MaineTrailFinder.com may have more trail information.
Whether you want to hit the trail for a few hours or go on an all-day trek, Edmunds, Donnell Pond and the Wildlands are great choices. The latter have primitive campsites and many interconnecting trails for those seeking an overnight excursion. With an eye toward fall hiking, read on to learn more about these special places – all remote in setting and character but more or less hiding in plain sight.
DONNELL POND PUBLIC RESERVED LAND
Ambling about the top of Schoodic Mountain, my son and I savored not only the views but the just-ripe wild blueberries sprouting about. I had anticipated the stunning vistas but was also taken with the trail itself. Orangey red mushrooms, some as big as my palm and others as small as a tack head, adorned the path. A switchback revealed a scenic view. At one spot we “squeezed” between room-size boulders. But mostly the woods themselves charmed me.
With good reason. The public land has lots of “mature forest,” said Chuck Simpson, Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands’ Eastern Region land manager. Beech, maple and red oak trees thrive here, though the latter are usually further inland. Tall stands of spruce and white pine are ideal habitat for pine martens, which are abundant in the reserve but more typically found in northern Maine.
About two-thirds of the forest is hardwood. In a coastal region where pine, spruce and fir often dominate the landscape, that makes this public land a prime foliage destination. While the hike up Schoodic Mountain is the most popular, Simpson opined, “Black Mountain is even more spectacular, and Tunk Mountain is just as beautiful.”
Created in 1988 after its namesake body of water was threatened with subdivision development, the Donnell Pond reserve is mostly in unorganized townships between Franklin and Cherryfield. With four boat launches and shoreline on some 10 lakes and “great” ponds, plus numerous small ponds and streams, many visitors come to boat, paddle, fish and swim. There are a few beaches, accessible by boat or footpath, as are the approximately 30 campsites.
After hiking the 1.3-mile trail up Schoodic Mountain, we descended to Schoodic Beach, a popular swimming spot along the south end of Donnell Pond. Returning to the parking area at the end of Schoodic Beach Road on a wide half-mile path completed our 2.8-mile loop hike.
There are no signs on U.S. 1 for the public land, but access and signage along Route 182 – the state’s Blackwoods Scenic Byway – has improved in recent years. Parking for Tunk Mountain Trail (3.2 miles roundtrip) is conveniently located on the north side of the road, several miles from its intersection with U.S. 1 in Franklin. On the opposite side of the state highway, gravel Dynamite Brook Road leads to the Caribou Mountain Trail parking area.
Schoodic Mountain trailhead is one of two accessible from the end of Route 183, 4.5 miles from U.S. 1 in Sullivan. A large sign marks the reserve entrance here, just past a crossing for the 85-mile multiuse Down East Sunrise Trail, which cuts through a bog below Schoodic Mountain.
WILDLANDS. GREAT POND MOUNTAIN CONSERVATION TRUST
Visiting the Wildlands for the first time on a warm day this summer, a friend and I opted for the popular Great Pond Mountain Trail (2.2 miles round trip). Driving up U.S. 1 from my home in Belfast, granite ledges on the mountain’s crest popped in and out of view beyond Bucksport.
An East Bucksport church spire did likewise during the hike, anchoring a quintessential New England hillside scene. Below the mountain, Alamoosook Lake and Craig Pond spilled across a sea of green.
The trail is in the Wildlands’ smaller 1,075-acre Dead River Section, which has about 4.5 miles of trails and a picnic area on the Dead River as it flows toward Alamoosook Lake. Two trailhead parking lots are only a few minutes inland from U.S. 1 (north of Route 15 turn on Hatchery Road, which becomes Don Fish Road).
Gravel roads at the larger 3,420-acre Hothole Valley section (the parcels meet at a point) are popular with bicyclists and have been likened to the carriage roads at Acadia National Park. Visitors can hike to pristine Hothole Pond and up hills and mountains overlooking the valley. Bump Hill Path, off Hothole Brook Trail, is a favorite of conservation trust Executive Director Cheri Domina. Kids also love the quarter-mile path, which goes around a glacial moraine – boulders left by a glacier. After a scramble, more boulders await on the hilltop. Great Pond Mountain is above, and a beaver dam, below.
Parking areas are open year-round at Hothole Valley’s two gates, where you can walk or bike in on Valley Road. The south gate on U.S. 1 (south of the Route 176 intersection and marked by a large sign) is open weekends from mid-June through October, providing vehicle access to the parking area in the midst of the preserve (or park off-road at trailheads).
From the south gate parking area it’s a short walk to the 1.2-mile Esker Path and Popple Grove, a kids’ play area. Group hikes depart from this gate at 10 a.m. Saturdays through September. The north gate is on Bald Mountain Road, several miles from U.S. 1A north of Ellsworth via Winkumpaugh Road.
A foldable $3 brochure has detailed trail descriptions plus a large map. Buy it by mail or on the honor system at the unlocked foyer kiosk at the land trust’s office at 155 Lower Main St. (U.S. 1) in Bucksport.
EDMUNDS DIVISION – MOOSEHORN NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Moosehorn’s Edmunds Division has lots of shoreline along Dennys Bay, but its hiking trails are on the west side of U.S. 1. The access roads are just a few miles north of the highway’s intersection with Route 189, which runs from Whiting to Lubec. The kiosks often lack trail maps, since the refuge office is outside Calais in Baring, but you can download one at the website.
Edmunds’ relatively low-lying landscape boasts ponds, streams, bogs and marshes. Birch and red maple trees accent the many softwoods, assuring a good foliage show. Some of Maine’s oldest trees are in the wilderness area: look for soaring white pines 3 feet in diameter.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a “hands-off” management policy for this area so that old-growth forest can establish. Elsewhere in the refuge, practices like wetland restoration and controlled burning preserve and create habitat for fish, wildlife and birds.