Mill Brook Preserve (Westbrook, ME)

Information kiosk at Northern Trailhead, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Information kiosk at Northern Trailhead, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

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.

Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

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.

Flora and fauna, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Flora and fauna, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

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.

Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

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.

Afternoon light, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Afternoon light, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

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 (Mariaville, ME)

Mariaville Falls, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

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).

Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

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.

Fall colors, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Fall colors, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

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.

Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Observation bench, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Observation bench, Fisherman’s Trail, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

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.

Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park, by Greg Westrich

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.

 

Orin Falls Trail (Katahdin Woods and Waters)

Orin Falls in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine.
Orin Falls in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine.

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.

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Orin Falls Trailhead, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

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.

Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine
Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

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.

Wildlife on Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters
Wildlife on Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters

 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.

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Orin Falls, Katahdin Woods and Waters

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.

Orin Falls, Katahdin Woods and Waters
Orin Falls, Katahdin Woods and Waters

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.

Grassy Pond, Daicey Pond Loop and Niagara Falls (Baxter State Park)

Little Niagara Falls, Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park
Little Niagara Falls, Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park

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.

Mount Katahdin, wreathed in clouds, from Katahdin Stream Campground
Mount Katahdin, wreathed in clouds, from Katahdin Stream Campground

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.

Moose and Doubletop Mountains across Grassy Pond
Moose and Doubletop Mountains across Grassy Pond, Baxter State Park

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.

Looking across Elbow Pond to Mt O-J-I and Barren Mountain, Baxter State Park
Looking across Elbow Pond to Mt O-J-I and Barren Mountain, Baxter State Park

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.

Little Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park
Little Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park

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.

Big Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park
Big Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park

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.

View across the south side of Daicey Pond to O-J-I and Barren Mountain
Cloudy view across the south side of Daicey Pond to O-J-I and Barren Mountain

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.

Grassy Pond Trail, Baxter State Park
Grassy Pond Trail, Baxter State Park

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.

Pond Loop (Little Lyford Ponds, KI/Jo-Mary)

Little Lyford Upper Pond from the Pond Loop Trail
Little Lyford Upper Pond from the Pond Loop Trail

The Pond Loop Trail, a 1.9 mile hike around Little Lyford Ponds near the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins, is a pleasant, easy walk with abundant wildlife.  The ponds straddle the townships of Bowdoin College Grant West and Bowdoin College Grant East, close to Moosehead Lake.  For detailed description, check out the AMC Maine Mountain Guide or the online maps available from AMC.  We hiked this short loop the morning after a longer Gulf Hagas hike.  We had camped overnight at a KI/Jo-Mary campsite on the Pleasant River, but a closer stay would be at the AMC Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins, with access to many nearby trails.  As with the rest of the KI/Jo-Mary Multiple Use Management Forest, there is a use fee ($10 per adult Maine Resident per day, $15 non-resident, under 18/over 70 free), payable at one of three checkpoints, the closest of which is the Hedgehog Gate on Greenville Road.  If approaching from the south on Upper Valley Road, the parking area for the Pond Loop Trail is past the sign for the AMC lodge and cabins, on the left-hand side, just before the spur trail marked, “Little Lyford Pond #2 Boat Launch.”

Pond Loop Trail, marked with blue signs
Pond Loop Trail, marked with blue signs

On this sunny Sunday morning in August, we saw no other hikers for the entirety of the loop.  The Pond Loop is known as a good place to see moose, but we were likely up too late in the morning to have a great chance.  Nevertheless, the woods and ponds were alive with smaller animals birds, and butterflies, and the tracks and droppings of moose were evident throughout the hike.  The trail is aptly named, skirting the edges of upper and lower Little Lyford Ponds.

Gerry's Gazebo, Pond Loop Trail
Gerry’s Gazebo, Pond Loop Trail

As suggested by the Maine Mountain Guide, we walked the loop counter-clockwise.  Our circuit took a fortuitous detour (we missed the hard left to go back on the east side of the upper pond), bringing us onto the Pleasant River Trail all the way to the AMC Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins.  Fun fact for dog-lovers: this is the only AMC Lodge that is dog-friendly.

View to the southeast of the Barren-Chairback Range from Little Lyford Lower Pond, along Pleasant River Trail
View to the southeast of the Barren-Chairback Range from Little Lyford Lower Pond, along Pleasant River Trail

This added about 0.4 miles each way, but allowed us to view the cabins, the swimming hole, a beaver dam, and a viewpoint on the lower pond towards the Barren-Chairback Range.  For those staying at the lodge and cabins, this would be a part of the Pond Loop.

Upper Pond outlet, Little Lyford Ponds, from Kendall's Crossing
Upper Pond outlet, Little Lyford Ponds, from Kendall’s Crossing

From the viewpoint at Kendall’s Crossing, we saw loons, ducks, and a heron plying the waters of the upper pond for food.  After a brief walk through a blueberry-lined path through the pines, across log bridges, and a short climb back to Upper Valley Road, we were back at the parking area.

The Pond Loop is a great morning nature hike, a mostly shaded hour on relatively flat terrain, suitable for most ages and abilities.  Be quiet on the trail, listen, and slow down near the viewpoints on the Little Lyford Ponds to take a long look.  You never know what you might see.

Mount Kineo (near Rockwood, ME)

View of Mt. Kineo from the dock in Rockwood, Maine
View across Moosehead Lake of Mount Kineo from the dock in Rockwood, Maine

The woods and waters of Maine’s Moosehead Lake region feature a dizzying array of outdoor activities. For those with limited time (say, a weekend) in this area, sorting through the hiking, biking, boating, fishing, and ATV options can be overwhelming. A journey to the summit of Mount Kineo (1,800 ft), with its 700-plus foot rhyolite cliffs, presents a multi-faceted day trip, combining many of the factors that make Moosehead so special.

This trek starts with a 10 minute boat ride to Kineo from the dock in Rockwood (about a half hour drive from downtown Greenville). In peak summer season, the ferry, run by the Mount Kineo Golf Course, leaves from Rockwood every hour on the hour from 8 am to 6 pm ($13 cash for adults, don’t miss the last shuttle back from Kineo, leaving at 6:45 pm).

View of the Carriage Trail, Mt. Kineo, from above
View of the Carriage Trail, Mount Kineo, from above

The friendly, knowledgeable shuttle captain can give you enough information to complete your hike, but to preview the trail map, check out the Moosehead Lake Chamber of Commerce Moosehead Pinnacle Pursuit. Once ashore at Kineo, the Carriage Road Trail will start to your left. For restrooms, food, water, and free trail maps, go right (watching for golfers teeing off) to the golf clubhouse.

Overlook from the Indian Trail, Mt. Kineo, Moosehead Lake
Overlook from the Indian Trail, Mount Kineo, Moosehead Lake

On this day, I was with two friends, and at the shuttle captain’s suggestion, we hiked up the Indian Trail, then took the Bridle Trail on the descent. This created an approximately 3.2 mile loop hike, which took us a little over two hours, with many breaks to savor the scenery. The Indian Trail is steep, direct, and strenuous, but rewards the hiker with rapidly expanding views of Moosehead Lake and its surroundings.

The Indian Trail then intersects with the more gradual Bridle Trail, which continues to the summit and the fire tower.

View from summit fire tower, Mount Kineo
View from summit fire tower, Mount Kineo
View from summit fire tower, Mt. Kineo
View from summit fire tower, Mount Kineo

The climb up (and down) the fire tower can be challenging for those with vertigo or any fear of heights, but the commanding views on a clear day are incredible. On this day, a sunny Friday in July, there were several other groups of hikers, including a vacationing pair who, after a brief conversation, surprisingly turned out to be readers of this blog. Dogs are allowed (on leash) on the ferry and the trails.

After slowly descending the fire tower steps, a winding downhill walk on the Bridle Trail leads back to the Carriage Trail and the ferry dock. For those looking for a longer day, the easy, flat Carriage Trail extends to the North Trail, which climbs up to the fire tower from the east, encircling the island. According to the shuttle captain, hikers should allow about four and a half hours to complete this longer loop.

Where to go afterwards? Obviously a swim in Moosehead to cool off. Food? Depending on timing, you can grab a beer and/or sandwich at the Mount Kineo golf clubhouse before going back to Rockwood. In Rockwood, the Rockwood Bar and Grill, from which Mount Kineo is visible, has great food and beer, and is a local favorite (the “RBG” stickers you see on cars and ATV’s refer to Rockwood Bar and Grill, not the Supreme Court Justice).

In Greenville, the aptly named Stress Free Moose Pub and Cafe has a friendly waitstaff, a rotating menu of craft beer and pub food, outdoor seating, and frequent live music.

The trek by boat and foot from Rockwood to the fire tower atop Mount Kineo is a special journey, paying off with 360 views of Moosehead Lake and the surrounding Maine woods.