Westbrook, with its proximity to Portland and its gritty mill background, does not instantly come to mind when thinking about hiking in Maine. But Mill Brook Preserve is a 130 acre section of delightfully unlikely green space in Westbrook along Mill Brook, bounded by Route 302 and Methodist Road. The five miles of trails in the preserve, suitable for hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing, can be accessed from four different trailheads. The best information and trail map can be found at the website of the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, which holds this land, and coordinates the 28-mile Sebago to the Sea Trail.
In late May and early June, alewives migrate from Casco Bay upstream in the Presumpscot River, then to Highland Lake through this narrow brook, drawing visitors to the flashing, silvery spectacle. Due to the variation in the flow, breadth, and depth of the Brook, two viewing areas (one north, one south) are identified on the trail map for maximum observation of the alewives’ run.
The Northern Fish Viewing Pool is closest to the MAGAN/Willow Dr trailhead, and the Southern Fish Viewing Pool is by the Methodist trailhead. A note of caution for those attempting a loop – the trail to the east side of Mill Brook from the Southern Trailhead on Perry Court is missing a bridge, and crossing can be anywhere from muddy to difficult in rainy periods.
Alewives are not the only wildlife to be found in the forest valley of Mill Brook Preserve. The Preserve abounds with life, from beautiful and unique insects to small mammals and birds, to wildflowers and vines hanging with Concord grapes. One one recent trip in the early fall, I saw a handful of garter snakes sunning themselves on the sandy trail near the Perry Court trailhead.
The mosquitoes and biting flies can be intense in the early summer, or in the evenings. The trails are quiet and mostly bug-free in the fall, and the spacing of the trees in the young forest creates a patchwork of light and foliage.
The Presumpscot Regional Land Trust also recently opened (in October 2019) a new 1.5 mile loop trail through 32 acres of forest in Mill Brook Preserve South, accessible from a parking area at Millbrook Estates off East Bridge Street in Westbrook. This southernmost trail of the Preserve does not currently connect with the northern side.
The trails are not difficult, overall, but the narrow, winding path up and down ridges in the middle section between the MAGAN and Methodist trailheads might challenge some hikers. Thankfully, the trails provide enough variety that this should not preclude hikers of any ability from enjoying this suburban forest oasis. Navigation along the trails is also forgiving and self-correcting, with maps posted at critical intersections throughout the Preserve.
Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook, ME, is an unexpected swath of forest, water, and wildlife in the Portland metro area, with five miles of trails and activities for everyone.
Mariaville Falls Preserve in Mariaville, Maine, is a conservation area along the banks of the West Branch of the Union River in Hancock County, owned and managed by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, which has a trail map on its website. This woods and waters gem, the former site of a small village, lies off 181 between Amherst and Ellsworth (look for the wooden sign on the west side of 181).
We were fortunate enough to visit on a sunny day during the peak of autumn foliage. The trails are short, and the Fisherman’s Trail (.85 mi) follows the river, with the New Trail (.48 mi) looping further east from the first parking area (look for the kiosk), and joining the Fisherman’s Trail near the falls.
We walked slowly, and made the trip out and back from the second (gravel pit) parking area along the Fisherman’s Trail in about 35 to 40 minutes. The trail is steep in places, but this walk is short enough to be suitable for kids, and the views of the falls are excellent, particularly in foliage season.
A bench sits high above the rapids, a contemplative spot to pause and enjoy the view. Those feeling more adventurous can scramble down closer to observe the falls more closely. Those in transit in the Downeast region, or anyone looking for a short hike in the area, will enjoy this small but beautiful place.
The digital age in hiking has brought us “apps,” which can be concealed in a phone, show us where we are, how far we have gone, and can describe and map hikes. But these technological wonders have their limitations, particularly in a wild place like Baxter State Park, where cell service is available only intermittently (if at all), and only from the highest elevations. There is also something incongruous about getting away and outdoors, only to stare at a tiny screen. Enter Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich (FalconGuides, 2017), an outstanding roadmap to Maine’s favorite wilderness playground, combining the analog permanence and durability of a book, and the accessible map and photo layout of an online guide.
Westrich’s book begins with an introduction and instructions on using the guide. Following a “Before You Hit The Trail” summary of Baxter State Park’s history, geology, wildlife, seasons, and rules, Westrich describes thirty-seven unique day hikes, numbered roughly from north (Horse Mountain) to south (Roaring Brook Nature Trail) within the park, and three suggested backpacking trip itineraries, ranging from three to four days in duration. Each hike begins with a short section called “The Run Down,” describing the essential characteristics of the hike at a glance, as well as its difficulty on a scale of Easy to Very Strenuous. Physical directions and precise GPS location of the trailhead are included, as are individual trail maps and excellent photos. Westrich describes points of interest, locations for views, and trail-specific features, like water sources, or places to rent canoes.
The genius of this guide is the layout. Readers can flip through the guide, or use the numbered overview map in the beginning to find a hike based on its location in the park. Hikes close in proximity in the park are correspondingly adjacent in the book, allowing the reader to string together their own hikes, like we did for Grassy Pond, Daicey Pond Loop, and Niagara Falls. Another entry point is the “Trail Finder” towards the back of the book, breaking down the best hikes for swimming, views, waterfalls, blueberries, geology, families, wildlife, history, and canoeing. These categories make for quick suggestions and ideas, and further broaden the appeal of this guidebook.
The subtitle of the book is “A Guide to the Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures Including Mount Katahdin,” which cleverly (and rightfully) positions the park’s centerpiece as only one of the many places to explore. Fear not, the legendary routes to Katahdin’s Baxter Peak via the Hunt Trail, Abol Trail, and The Knife Edge each receive their own detailed entries in this guide, which make the book worth owning all by themselves. But it is impossible to peruse this book without feeling the urge to spend more time in Baxter State Park, seeking out the lesser-known hikes that Westrich so aptly describes.
Our trip around the Loop Road at the end of last summer to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument left us wanting more, and after a rainy but pleasant day at Baxter State Park on Saturday, we set out the next morning for the Monument to hike to Orin Falls. This 6-mile hike, out and back on old logging roads along Wassataquoik Stream, is a perfect fall walk. The AMC Maine Mountain Guide has a description of the hike, and Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path by Aislinn Sarnacki has a longer treatment, as well as a helpful map. We used the Map Adventures Katahdin Woods & Waters Waterproof Trail Map to navigate this hike and the rest of the Monument, and the trip to the falls took a little over an hour each way. With the sun shining, biting insects largely gone or simply sluggish, late summer flowers and berries still blooming, and the calls of birds echoing throughout the woods, we took our time getting to the end of the trail, pausing frequently to examine animal tracks and sign, and to simply listen.
The trailhead and parking area are located at the end (for motorized vehicles) of Orin Falls Road, a spur off the Katahdin Loop Road in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Like last year, we got to the Monument from Millinocket using the Stacyville Road. In large stretches, particularly closer to the Monument, this is a road in name only, as its surface ranges from the consistency of an ATV trail to that of a World War I battlefield. We cannot discourage highly enough the use of this road unless you have four-wheel drive, high clearance, and a general disdain for your car’s exterior. The traditional route into the Monument on Swift Brook Road from Route 11 is far safer, and was the route we took departing at the end of the day. However you get there, to reach the trailhead from Swift Brook Road, turn right (north) on the Katahdin Loop Road (sign for Barnard Mountain), then follow the sign for Orin Falls.
At the bottom of the hill below the trailhead is a brand new handicap-accessible toilet. We quickly saw recent moose tracks and droppings along the trail, but had no luck seeing moose throughout our hike. The Esker Trail comes in from the right, and then the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) veers off to the right towards a ford across Wassataquoik Stream (and a trail up Deasey Mountain). We continued straight, and reached a relatively new foot/ATV bridge across Katahdin Brook, startling a large heron that took off upstream in the direction of Katahdin Lake. This crossing directly precedes the Wassataquoik Shelter, a newer lean-to. Like everything else on this hike, we had the place to ourselves.
Although looking at the map may make it seem like the trail is right on the banks, you don’t see Wassataquoik Stream much along the hike until the end, but the portion between the ford and the shelter rides an elevated overlook, and you can look down to the slow, wide Stream through the trees. There is, however, plenty to observe. In most places, the trail was wide enough for us to walk side by side, in the wheel ruts of the former road, making for a companionable stroll.
In addition to the heron and the moose tracks, we saw deer tracks, grouse, hawks, kingfishers, jays, mice, caterpillars, many frogs and toads, garter snakes sunning themselves on the trail, massive, skittering fishing spiders, and the large track of a bear. Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries were out in force, but were hit-or-miss, seeming to mostly have the bitter taste associated with the end of the season, and a lack of recent rain.
The mosquitoes and biting flies were minimal, but one could see how they could be pervasive during the summer months in the low-lying areas around water, so late summer or fall is a great time for this hike. Shortly after passing the lean-to, we left the IAT, which veers off to the left (west) towards Barnard Mountain, and Katahdin Loop Road. We continued straight, past the marker for the Monument line, and finally reached the trail downhill towards Orin Falls.
We could hear the rush of Wassataquoik Stream from the top of the trail, and emerged from the woodline to a beautiful scene of trees, boulders, flowers, and water, overlooked by the surrounding ridges and peaks of the Monument. This was a good place to spend an hour building up memories of summer. We sunned ourselves on boulders, filtered some clean, cold water, explored, rock-hopped, and ate a prepared meal warmed on a camp stove. Then we packed up everything (leave no trace), and headed back the same way we had arrived, talking about our summer, and future hikes. The first people we saw were at the trailhead, preparing to hike as we got back to our vehicle.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a place we will continue to explore, a reclaimed wilderness with endless potential to surprise and excite. The Orin Falls Trail is an easy walk, but its intersection of mountains, forest, and water provides a satisfying taste of the wild beauty of Maine’s north woods.
Established in 1966, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge is located along fifty miles of southern Maine coastline and divided into eleven sections between Kittery and Cape Elizabeth. In the Wells section, the Carson Trail is a short, easy, beautiful stroll that is flat, wide enough for two people side-by-side, and well-suited for those who don’t want elevation or rocky paths. This one-mile loop showcases coastal wetlands, consisting of salt marsh and deciduous and pine forests. Since I was already in the area, it seemed like a perfectly laid-back 45-minute activity.
The refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has its entrance at 321 Port Road in Wells, Maine, with parking, restrooms, picnic tables, signage and maps, and is open from sunrise to sunset. I would recommend getting the trail guide (found in a box at the trailhead) not because there is any danger of getting lost (near impossible) but because it details 11 stopping points along the trail. It explains various elements like “critical edge,” the difference between salt hay and smooth cordgrass, and a brief history of Rachel Carson. (If you can keep your map in good condition, please return it to the box at the end). The trail was relatively quiet, which was surprising for this beautiful Saturday afternoon.
The trail follows Merriland River (on your right) and then halfway through (viewpoint #6), you will see the intersection of Merriland River and Branch Brook as it forms Little River. At several of the lookout points, you can see the ocean crashing in the distance or sit on a bench and watch a white heron in the tall grass. Everything is well-maintained and safe. I would highly recommend this walk for small children, who can look for birds, watch as the tide comes in or goes out or run ahead of the adults to get to the next trail marker. Leashed pets are allowed (on the Carson Trail only). I would emphasize staying on the trail for obvious reasons but especially because I noticed poison ivy on the trail edge.
As a bonus – it is only a five-minute drive from the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, which has 7 miles of trails, and so you could make your way over there with a picnic lunch and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.
In season 1, episode 3 of the travel show “An Idiot Abroad,” comedian Karl Pilkington, sleeping in a cave across from the impressive facade of the lost city of Petra in Jordan, focuses on his vantage point, rationalizing, “I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.” When our annual father/daughter trip to climb Katahdin was detoured by injury, we used similar logic in planning a non-Katahdin hike at Baxter State Park – a flatter, less strenuous hike highlighted by the views of Katahdin and the many surrounding mountains of Baxter S.P. While Katahdin’s peaks are the undisputed centerpiece of this amazing place, this approach showed us a glimpse of the wonders available in the shadow of the mountain.
We kept our lean-to reservation at Katahdin Stream Campground, and when morning dawned, we filtered the chilly waters of Katahdin Stream into our water bottles. Instead of heading up the Hunt Trail to Baxter Peak, we turned south on the Appalachian Trail, all the way around Grassy Pond, Elbow Pond, Daicey Pond, down Nesowadnehunk Stream to Little and Big Niagara Falls, then back to the start. We pieced together this hike, totaling about 7.5 miles round-trip (3 hrs 45 mins), from Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich, and used Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map to navigate. Baxter’s great website also has downloadable/printable trail maps, and the Kidney-Daicey map covers this area.
Our turn away from Katahdin’s elevation seemed serendipitous, as a steady rain picked up that would have made a steep climb tricky, and we quickly donned our rain gear. An easy rolling trail and plank bridges took us over cold, clear streams tinged sepia tones by cedars, and a hard right turn took us onto the Grassy Pond (blue blazes) and Elbow Pond Trails. We skirted these ponds, trying unsuccessfully to glimpse a morning moose. We settled for birds, frogs and a variety of mushrooms in every color and shape, from small, bright cones to giant discs that looked dangerously like pancakes.
Canoes are available to rent at Grassy, Elbow, and Daicey Ponds from the nearest Baxter S.P. ranger station, with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities. Daicey Pond has cabins for rent, making it a great base for a week of hiking, if you can snag a reservation. At Daicey, we re-joined the Appalachian Trail, moving across the day-use parking area to the shores of Nesowadnehunk Stream (towards directional sign marked The Falls). The sides of the trail were carpeted in vibrant green mosses and ferns, creating an emerald forest by the stream.
The remains of the Toll Dam, a vestige of Maine’s logging history, came first, then a short side trail to Little Niagara Falls. The rain and the time of day contributed to a quiet trail, with mostly thru-hikers heading in the other direction, racing the season to summit Katahdin, all friendly and moving quickly. We traveled the slight downhill, and enjoyed the spectacle of the roaring waters of both falls.
Heading back after a snack at Big Niagara Falls, we re-traced our steps north along the A.T., veering south (right) on the Daicey Pond Nature Trail to vary our return route. The trail around the southern side of Daicey Pond was narrow, with wet branches tight to our legs as we moved back towards the A.T. The clouds had moved in to obscure our view of the peaks across Daicey, but a clear day must be spectacular.
The A.T. took us back to the trailhead, and our nearby vehicle. Normally, we would have enjoyed an outdoor meal on a camp stove, but the rain and cold had us in the truck with the heat on. We headed out of the park to lunch at New England Outdoors Center’s River Drivers Restaurant, overlooking Millinocket Lake (look for signs for a turn left as you head back towards Millinocket), a warm, welcoming place with great pub food and a view of Katahdin – crunchy chicken wrap and fish and chips both got high marks.
The trip to Baxter State Park is always a long one, no matter where you are arriving from, as it is remote and wild, and requires you to shed creature comforts and technology. That, and the reservation system limiting access (smart and sustainable, for the park’s protection) can put a lot of pressure on a day or weekend trip with Katahdin as the goal. But this great reclaimed wilderness holds a lot more secrets for anyone willing to broaden their outlook beyond the mountain centerpiece, and this change-up hike left us wanting to plan a much longer stay to explore the rest of Baxter State Park.
Gulf Hagas, a gem hidden in the 100 Mile Wilderness of Maine’s Appalachian Trail, has been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Recently, this moderate (in difficulty, not grandeur) hike along the West Branch of the Pleasant River is getting more press, for better or worse, including mentions in Outside Online’s Best Hike In Every State, and in the Sep/Oct 2019 Outside Magazine print edition. Why? Waterfalls! Appalachian Trail! Beautiful rock formations! Swimming holes! Moose (well, moose droppings, anyway)! This is what you can tell any curmudgeons (I won’t name names) who come bearing excuses like, “too many bugs” or “that sounds like a lot of walking” or “I don’t have hiking boots.”
Gulf Hagas is located near the small town of Brownville, ME, about 3.3 hours from Portland and accessible through the gatehouse at Katahdin Iron Works Road (and two other checkpoints). The Katahdin Iron Works (KI) Jo-Mary Multiple Use Management Area is a region of about 175,000 acres of privately owned commercial forest, wedged conveniently between Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park. All visitors – even those who are not camping – must stop at the gatehouse to pay the day use fee (and the camping fee if you are camping). They accept cash or check – and more cash than you might expect. On our recent camping and hiking weekend to celebrate the end of summer, four adults and one child camping for two nights and hiking for two days was $176 (under 18 is free). Information on fees can be found at North Maine Woods site. Also, pay attention while you are driving on those roads- the pot holes will get ya.
The gatekeeper at KI gate was friendly and helpful and happy to answer my questions about swimming holes and the state of the privy/outhouse at the campsite (brand new). I regret not asking him about a good spot to see a moose because I got the sense he would have known. The maps available at the gate (or print in advance here) of the area and of Gulf Hagas are particularly useful.
I would recommend camping at the KI/Jo Mary campsites. Unless you are one of the few people that live nearby, you are going to want to relax somewhere after you hike for several hours. We lucked out and got one of those late summer weekends where the evenings require jackets, the campfire is crowded and the days warm up enough to be in shorts. Late August in Maine!
Our camping site (Pleasant River #1) was sandwiched between a clean, quiet, shallow river and a dusty road that had about 4-5 cars per hour go by during the day. It included a new outhouse which (no joke) smelled like fresh pine when we arrived. The site had enough privacy and except for a few barks from a dog at a nearby camp site, we did not hear the neighbors. The covered picnic table was perfect for providing shade.
I was practicing the art of low-maintenance and so decided this would be the trip that I would go without a pillow. I spent the first night with my head on a hard-sided duffel bag, cursing this decision. Alas, nobody will ever say about me that “all she needed was a small patch of land to lay her weary head.” Turns out I need a blow-up mattress and a pillow. And chocolate. And delicious “camping-easy” coffee that even has some health benefits. It is a splurge, but when you are camping without a pillow, you will want that coffee.
We set up three tents in the three nooks of the large site, which had a great mix of sun and shade and was approximately 3.5 miles from the trailhead. My sole complaint was the road. Given the ruggedness of the road, the dust and the clouds of marijuana smoke billowing from passing cars, my advice would be to drive to the trailhead as opposed to walk. Save your energy for the gorgeous scenery along the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail! This is the hike with all the oohs and ahhs.
The trailhead for the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail is well-marked and on this sunny August Saturday the parking lot was overflowing. Several wooden hiking sticks rested next to the large trail map, to borrow for fording the river which comes at approximately .2 miles into the walk. Fortunately, the river was shallow and only reached mid-calf in the deepest areas. Because of the slippery rocks, I would highly recommend a walking stick or hiking poles and water shoes – my daughter crossed in bare feet but it did not look pleasant. The depth of the water varies from season to season and in dangerous conditions, there are other ways to hike the trail without crossing the river.
After the river crossing, you are on the Appalachian Trail. I was impressed with all those hikers who had walked perhaps since Georgia. Follow those white blazes, through The Hermitage (lots of huge, old white pine trees and hemlocks) and continue to the Rim Trail, where you say goodbye to the folks who are walking the 100-Mile Wilderness of the AT and you follow the blue blazes instead.
We took the Rim Trail along the water and then returned along the Pleasant River Tote Trail. See map here. In total, with all the small side trails to viewpoints, it is about 9 miles and there is an option to make a smaller loop, if you take the Appalachian Trail cutoff. Alternately, Gulf Hagas can be reached from a parking area for the Head of the Gulf Trail (opposite end from the AT), closer to the Greenville Road.
Many families with small children appeared to turn around at Screw Auger Falls or Buttermilk Falls. Several people were jumping into the water at Screw Auger Falls and it was the busiest spot along the walk. Everyone in our party seemed to be allergic to big groups of people (Husband mumbled something about Disneyland) and so we moved along. Certainly on a hot day this would be a great spot to cool off and I can’t imagine a more picturesque spot.
The hike does not include significant elevation and it is well marked. There are some little scrambles over rocks that a well-placed hiking pole or a tree branch would help with, but otherwise it is what I would call moderate. The AMC Maine Mountain Guide suggested allowing 4 hrs and 25 minutes for the loop, which is reasonable. We took plenty of breaks to relax and snack, and completed it in about 6 hours.
The trail has plenty of quiet, scenic areas to stop and sit and rest and stick your feet in the water while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My group had a couple of stoves and made sophisticated camping meals and hot tea. Daughter is a huge fan of Mountain House Chili Mac while the breakfast favorite was the Peak Refuel Breakfast Skillet. The JetBoil camping stove continues to impress in its efficiency.
We took the Pleasant River Tote Trail back and it was scenic in its own right – meandering woodland paths – quiet, green and easy. The walk back was much faster than the hike along the Rim Trail and the river crossing that you complete again to get back to the parking lot was refreshing on tired feet.
For post-hike refreshment, we enjoyed the cool river by the campsite, grilled hamburgers and beer and wine, and watching kingfishers and small, fast-moving ducks move by. But if you are headed back towards Portland, consider stopping at Bissell Brothers Brewing Three Rivers on Elm Street in Milo (turn right at Dot Rd just before the red train car). According to the cheery bartender, their double IPA, Preserve and Protect, is a tribute to the brothers’ father, Jensen Bissell, who was the Director of Baxter State Park for thirty years. A Katahdin benchmark is imprinted in the bar, as well.
The now-famous Bissell Brothers beers are all available on tap, and delicious food is also available for purchase outside. Relax on the outdoor patio, and watch or play cornhole and ping-pong – all without the bustle at their Portland location. And continuing towards the turnpike in Dover-Foxcroft is Butterfields Ice Cream, serving up unbelievable ice cream flavors (and now, burgers, fries, and lobster rolls) since 1950.
Gulf Hagas is a memorable day-hike with friends and family, customizable to each person’s individual abilities, with memorable scenery unique to Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness.