Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Wells, ME)

Salt marsh view on the Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.
Salt marsh view on the Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.

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 wide, flat, well-marked Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.
The wide, flat, well-marked Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.

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.

Trail kiosk with guide/map, Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.
Trail kiosk with guide/map, Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.

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.

Salt marsh view, Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.
Salt marsh view, Carson Trail, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, in Wells, ME.

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.

Gulf Hagas Loop (KI/Jo-Mary)

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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.

A small poplar grows at the top of the remaining Katahdin Iron Works furnace by the KI Gate.
A small poplar grows at the top of the remaining Katahdin Iron Works furnace by the KI Gate.

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.

Pleasant River Campsite managed by Katahdin Iron Works / Jo-Mary, Inc., near Gulf Hagas
Pleasant River Campsites managed by KI Jo-Mary, Inc., near Gulf Hagas

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.

Crossing West Branch of Pleasant River on Appalachian Trail on way to Rim Trail, Gulf Hagas
Crossing W. Branch of Pleasant River on AT on way to Rim Trail, Gulf Hagas

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.

Katahdin benchmark in the bar at Bissell Brothers Three Rivers in Milo, ME
Katahdin benchmark in the bar at Bissell Brothers Three Rivers in Milo, ME

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.

Cliff Walk at Prouts Neck (Scarborough, Maine)

Cliff Walk at Prouts Neck, Scarborough, Maine
Cliff Walk at Prouts Neck, Scarborough, Maine

If you like dramatic cliffs, ocean views, rocky beaches and stunning homes, this may be your walk! The residents at Prouts Neck in Scarborough, Maine harbor a secret gem in their gated community – but fret not – while the entrances are hidden and parking is complicated, it is still possible (and legal) to walk that same 1-mile route that Winslow Homer did, even if you are not an “insider.”

This is definitely categorized as a Sunday stroll-type of walk, a walk with a good friend that you haven’t seen in a while or a lone walk with a camera or sketch book. The uneven terrain and sometimes narrow path demand a leisurely pace. The smell of rugosa roses, the salty ocean breeze and the lobster boats are center stage and require frequent pauses. The views are unbeatable. The only problem is logistics.

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Based on previous reviews online, I noticed that there are a lot of complaints about accessibility. This is real. At the end of Black Point Road, where it becomes Winslow Homer Road, you will be stopped by a gate and a keypad, signaling a private road (And likely a member of the Scarborough Police Department just idling in his or her car). Winslow Homer’s old studio (owned by Portland Museum of Art and open to the public with a ticket purchased in advance) is in this development, as well as a myriad of super wealthy people who don’t want the riff-raff.

Just before that gate on your right, you will see a driveway and about twenty feet down the driveway on your left is a crooked sign that says “Cliff Walk” with an overgrown-looking trail. While this is one entrance, this does you almost no good because you can’t park here. In fact, there is no parking at all around here. This is some of the most prestigious real estate in Maine – they certainly don’t want more cars. I had a cop follow me nearly the entire way down the road until I got to the gate. 

 

My best advice is to have lunch at the Black Point Inn, which is on Black Point Road and they will let you park in their lot if you are a guest of the hotel. Once you are done with lunch, ask them where the entrance to the cliff walk is (you have to walk towards the back of the Black Point Inn property), change into some walking shoes and get going. The Black Point Inn restaurant closes after the summer, so keep that in mind.

Second best advice is to get an uber. Lastly, perhaps you make nice with that co-worker of yours who says her in-laws have a place on Prouts Neck.

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If you are not deterred by the parking issue, press on to marvel at the splendor that is the Maine coast. The trail is not marked by signs along the way but there is only one trail and you will know soon enough if you have strayed from it – you will either be on someone’s back porch or in the ocean (If you do end up in someone’s back yard by accident, get back on the trail. It must be really annoying having tourists wander on your property and on a gorgeous Saturday, you do see this, unfortunately).

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There are opportunities to walk out along the jutting cliffs and take in the crashing Atlantic waves and there are a couple of small, rocky beaches where you can sit and admire the squawking sea birds and perhaps even see a seal while listening to the hypnotic sounds of water receding over stones.

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This may not be the best walk for a small child who likes to run, as this is a cliff walk with no barriers. This is also not appropriate for your relative who walks with a cane, as there are exposed roots and  rocks on the path.  But if you can make it on the trail, you are in for a mile of coastal Maine beauty.

For families, different options are available for different interests – young children who want to splash in shallow water and collect hermit crabs, beachwalkers, beach loungers as well as those antsy people who can’t sit on a beach for more than ten minutes. First step is to check the tide chart. Find out when low tide is for Ferry Beach. Go at low tide!  Then, pack your car with as many people as you can and head to Ferry Beach, which is a gorgeous beach in Scarborough. It costs $15/day to park there (yeah, yeah, I know. That is why I told you to bring a car full of people. Trust me though – this beach will not disappoint). Park at Ferry Beach (bathrooms, showers) and then figure out who is going to walk and who is going to hang out at the beach (tough choices).

If you are a walker, make your way to the Cliff Walk. Proceed from the parking lot to the beach, hang a left on the beach. Follow the beach all the way to the end (beach curves to the left drastically). When you have reached the end of the beach, look left on the grassy hill and there are steps that will take you up to Black Point Road. At this point, let’s say you have a fellow adult walker who is already complaining and you are thinking about how this is going to take way too long and be unpleasant with said person. Straight ahead of you at this point is the Black Point Inn. Suggest that they have a seat on the porch of the Black Point Inn and order a cocktail and you will pick them up later. Wave goodbye.

For the rest of you, take a right on Black Point Road, paying attention as you walk on the road which has a narrow shoulder. Follow it until you get to the Winslow Homer House/No Trespassing sign. Just before this barricaded road, you will see a path on the right, as described above. Go 50 feet down this path and you will see the overgrown Cliff Walk entrance on your left. Begin your walk. Please stop asking locals for directions. They are simply not thrilled to have you walking in their manicured backyards. Just follow the directions.

 

In June, you will see Rugosa roses, honeysuckle, and beautiful magenta beach peas.  The difference between this route and the one I wrote about before is that after about an hour or so of walking, instead of going to the Black Point Inn, you will see a lovely beach with a private club and blue umbrellas and this is Scarborough Beach.

Scarborough Beach, Maine
Scarborough Beach, Maine

If you are here at high tide, you might feel like you are trespassing, because there is no beach and you have to walk on the seawall next to the private club. It’s doable, yes, but not as pleasant. Walk down the slope on your right to the beach and follow the beach for ten minutes until you get to the official entrance to Scarborough Beach – lots of people, lifeguard, path to the parking lot. Follow the path off the beach and take a left onto the main road. This is Black Point Road. Follow until you get to Ferry Road on the right. This is the road you took to get to that expensive beach parking lot. This route will take about two hours.

In short: Left on Ferry Beach to a right on Black Point to a right before private road to a quick left to entrance of Cliff Walk. Walk for an hour. Right onto Scarborough Beach, left back to Black Point and right on Ferry. A gorgeous circle.