Stretching 47 miles across Waldo County is the Hills to Sea Trail, the longest continuously marked footpath in Maine outside of the Appalachian Trail.
Beginning in Unity, the trail threads a sinuous if unlikely route east through the hills and mountains, fields and farmlands of Montville, Knox and Waldo to end in Belfast, a few miles shy of the harbor.
Completed in 2016 and officially opened to the public in June 2017, the foot travel-only trail was designed and constructed over five years by volunteers from Waldo County Trails Coalition, an amalgamation of nine nonprofit groups. In addition to the approximately 64 private landowners who generously allowed access to their lands, the trail traverses more than 7,000 acres of state-owned land and land trust properties.
Ten parking areas and eight kiosks with trail maps at road crossings offer multiple points of entry to the Hills to Sea Trail, which is marked with small yellow-and-black signs and rated easy to moderate in terms of difficulty.
Portions of the new trail route follow existing trails, including those at the Midcoast Conservancy’s Whitten Hill and Bog Brook preserves as well as the Georges River Land Trust’s Georges Highland Path on Hogback and Frye mountains. The Hills to Sea Trail is for day-use only; no camping is allowed anywhere along it.
The trail exists entirely upon handshake agreements, and is a remarkable model of cooperation and communication, dedication and determination. The late Dave Getchell of the Georges River Land Trust (GRLT) helped pave the way for this latest success story in the Midcoast region through his tireless efforts two decades ago in cobbling together the Georges Highland Path with simple handshakes. This was followed later by Buck O’Herin of the Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance (SWLA), who achieved similar results at Whitten Hill.
O’Herin, a longtime Montville resident, is now the part-time coordinator of the Waldo County Trails Coalition and helped spearhead the Hills to Sea Trail effort, beginning in 2007.
“A couple of us were looking at the SWLA trails in Montville, and the GRLT trails on Frye and Hogback on a large map, and we realized that it wasn’t really too far east to Belfast or too far west to Unity,” O’Herin said. “That’s when we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a trail from one end to the other?’ ”
By 2010 the coalition had come together, a proposed trail route was mapped out, and a grant for technical assistance was awarded by the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program.
The first formal work on the Hills to Sea Trail was on the Unity end in 2012, with a section from Unity College to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association property, the site of the annual Common Ground Fair. In 2014, work began at the Belfast end and moved west. The last section between Frye Mountain and the Waldo County Technical Center was finished in September 2016.
“We often joked about driving a golden spike at the end,” said O’Herin, “but we didn’t.”
O’Herin and others talked to more than 150 landowners about the proposed trail. It took a long time to reach people, and they often ended up going to houses and knocking on doors.
“We just want to build a walking trail,” O’Herin said, and that was all it took most times.
But because of the slow evolution of the route, the group often had to shift the trail and wasn’t sure of success until the last moment.
As for keeping the Hills to Sea Trail pieced together going forward, “that keeps me up nights,” O’Herin said. “We’re committed to maintaining good relations with the landowners and quickly addressing issues or problems, and they appreciate that.”
Everyone who takes to the Hills to Sea Trail has a stake in its future, so please be responsible and mindful of the private land you’re on, practice Leave No Trace principles, know the dog-restricted areas and pay attention to occasional section closures for hunting.
To plan your own snowshoeing or hiking adventure on the Hills to Sea Trail this year, visit waldotrails.org.