Hiking in Maine can be an activity that is Social, but Distancing

With the temporary closure of schools and businesses, the uncertainty in the air, and the moratorium on group activities in many places, the universal mood seems to be a somber one, at best. But, with care, resolve, and education (try this article on social distancing), a more sanguine view can prevail. What is a healthy thing to do that requires relative isolation – six feet of separation with non-family members, and no direct contact with surfaces that might contain lingering viruses?

Six feet of separation is easy to maintain on a trail.

Hiking, in its many forms, needs no more cheerleading for its holistic wellness benefits. But getting outside for mental health has never been more important. Here in Portland, Maine, schools will be closed until at least the end of April, a stay-at-home order has been issued, and non-essential businesses are temporarily closing. These actions, and others, can all have degenerative ripple effects on time, and on physical and mental health, if we let them.

Observation bench, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Observation bench, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

First, breathe. We were fortunate to be born in a country with the infrastructure and prosperity to get through this. Here in Maine, we are less-densely populated than most other places, surrounded by an embarrassment of natural riches in the form of the coast, lakes, and mountains.

Second, prioritize. Number one is the safety of you and your family, and others in the community at large. Follow directives of the Maine CDC. The National Recreation and Park Association has issued a helpful statement, with guidelines on social distancing while using parks and open space. And be ready to turn around. Ironically, outdoor spaces have become more crowded. As of March 26, York had closed down its beaches after a crush of people showed up, and Maine closed selected coastal state parks until April 8 due to overcrowding. Acadia National Park has closed facilities indefinitely to discourage out-of-state visitors. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has requested that all hikers stay off the trail for at least two weeks, due to unprecedented crowding that is “the opposite of social distancing.”

Got all the spacing, sanitizing, and trail closures down? Great. Now pick your hike. Stay local. Try this article by Carey Kish on a Dozen Great Hikes to Celebrate Maine’s Bicentennial. Use Portland Trails’ great online maps to grab something closer to Portland. Try AllTrails, MaineByFoot or MaineTrailFinder. Find a land trust in Maine. Or look at our interactive map and trail guide.

Top Five Easy Nature Fixes within about an hour of Portland?

Cliff Walk at Prout’s Neck (Scarborough) (As of March 26, 2020, this appears to be closed due to COVID-19)

Morse Mountain/Seawall Beach (Phippsburg) (As of March 29, 2020, this is closed to the public due to COVID-19)

Burnt Meadow Mountain (Brownfield)

Fore River Sanctuary (Portland)

Mill Brook Preserve (Westbrook)

Remember- these are close, and popular, and may be crowded. The Portland Press Herald also just published a list of wild lands for exploration during this strange time.

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

Again, check state and local guidelines on the trails or parks you are using. Some may be closed due to COVID-19, some may just be closed to protect trails during mud season. The best source of information is the maintainer of the trails, whether that be a government agency, a municipality, a land trust, or a non-profit.

The point is not some Instagram-worthy photo opportunity, it’s fresh air and time in nature, so don’t sweat the surroundings. Baxter Woods or Evergreen Cemetery are great places to walk. If you can’t make it way out onto remote trails, there are other outdoor options. Last weekend, dad and daughter took advantage of the sunny weather, using Portland Trails and the East Coast Greenway to safely walk ten-plus miles to Wainwright Fields in South Portland.

Check out this Press Herald article on what to do when your plans are cancelled due to virus restrictions. Look at this Bangor Daily News feature on educational outdoor family activities. And if you are looking for educational opportunities outdoors for children during closures, try Learning on the Trails, a “pop-up virtual, trail-based education initiative” by filling out this form for Portland Trails.

This is not meant to be a flippant article, but suggestions specific to getting outdoors in the Portland area. People are deeply affected by this pandemic. Post-hike, consider getting takeout or delivery from a local restaurant – Portland’s Old Port has an updated list of businesses where this is available, as does Portland Food Map. The best place to look for where to help is at your friends and neighbors, but donations of money or time to places like Preble Street or national charities like the Salvation Army or Meals on Wheels can help those less fortunate.

The Portland Press Herald also recently featured a list of ways to help in your community during the pandemic.

So see you on the trail. We won’t get closer than six feet, but we will wave and say hi, and we’ll get through this together.

(Note: we will be updating this post as new opportunities develop)

Mill Brook Preserve South (Westbrook, ME)

Mill Brook Preserve South, a 32-acre annex/extension of the Mill Brook Preserve, opened its trails in October 2019, and has a 1.5 mile easy lollipop loop for hiking, running, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, ending in a short spur trail with the opportunity to view the annual migration of the alewives in late May and June. As with the Mill Brook Preserve, 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.

Kiosk at Mill Brook Preserve South trailhead, Millbrook Estates, Westbrook, Maine

The Mill Brook Preserve South trailhead is located next to well-marked parking spaces in the Millbrook Estates (300 E. Bridge St, Westbrook). We hiked the loop and the spur a couple times in February 2020, an easy hike of about forty minutes. The trail was packed snow, with softer snow on the margins, and I would suggest traction devices (Yaktrax or microspikes) to avoid slipping and sliding.

Edge of forest at southwest end of Mill Brook Preserve South adjoining cattle farm, Westbrook, Maine

We saw woodpeckers and red squirrels, as well as the tracks of deer. Dogs are allowed on the trail, but must be leashed, especially in the portion next to the working cattle farm (you will see signs). The beginning of the trail is next to a horse farm, so children may enjoy seeing these domesticated animals, if you strike out with woodland creatures.

Mill Brook in winter, Mill Brook Preserve South, Westbrook, Maine

The spur trail midway through the loop leads downhill to Mill Brook, and on this winter visit, the flow was mostly under a sheet of ice, with an open area close to the near bank. In early summer, this area can be a great spot to watch the alewives run (and a midway picnic stop with smaller kids).

Mill Brook in winter, Mill Brook Preserve South, Westbrook, Maine

As in its northern sister preserve, navigation along the trails is forgiving and self-correcting, with maps posted at critical intersections throughout the Preserve.

Fore River Sanctuary (Portland, ME)

On a cold but sunny February day, we hiked Portland, Maine’s Fore River Sanctuary and Jewell Falls via the Forest City Trail and Railroad Loop from the Hillcrest Trailhead, an easy lollipop loop of about 1.2 miles (35 minutes). This preserve, maintained by Portland Trails, is 85 acres of nature inside Maine’s largest city, and contains a waterfall, as well as a lowland marsh area popular with bird watchers. Portland Trails has a digital map page with links to every type of map you would want for completing this hike, and any other in their network.

Portland Trails kiosk at Hillcrest Trailhead

This winter weekend day, we did not see many birds, but many people enjoying the trail with their dogs. The trail was hard-packed snow, with icy sections, and Yaktrax, microspikes, or other traction devices would be advisable. We took a short loop, but the preserve has 5.6 miles of trails, so many other routes are possible.

Jewell Falls, Fore River Sanctuary, Portland, ME

It is a short walk from the Hillcrest trailhead to Jewell Falls, the star attraction of the preserve. Tactically, for those with small children, it may make more sense to use the Rowe Avenue or Starbird Road trailheads, and loop counterclockwise, so that Jewell Falls is the big payoff in the second half of the hike. Jewell Falls in winter is a white cascade of ice, snow, rock, water, and sound, and we picked our way down the stone steps next to the falls to watch and listen.  The falls are named for Tom Jewell, a Portland Trails founder, whose family donated the land around the falls to Portland Trails.

Fore River Sanctuary, Portland, Maine

The winter woods on the Forest City Trail were open and quiet, punctuated by the scampering of red squirrels. This icy path led down across the railroad tracks to the lowland marsh, where water carved its passage through the salty hummocks, a pleasant place to watch for wildlife.

Fore River Sanctuary, Portland, Maine

Crossing back over the railroad tracks, we completed the clockwise loop, stopping briefly again by Jewell Falls to observe the wintry paths of water, before returning to the Hillcrest Street trailhead.

Cliff Walk at Prouts Neck (Scarborough, Maine)

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

(As of March 26, 2020, this appears to be closed due to COVID-19)

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 variations of the 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. Below we will describe how to safely and lawfully enjoy a hike in summer, or even winter, from the Black Point Inn (45 minutes to an hour) or a longer “lollipop” loop from Ferry Beach (3.7 miles, about an hour and a half).

Western Cove from Black Point Road, Prouts Neck, Scarborough, Maine

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 in the summer, 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 some variation of a lovably crooked sign that says “Cliff Walk” with an overgrown-looking trail (newer signs have now been posted as of February 2020). 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. 

There are two primary parking options. First, have lunch at the Black Point Inn, which is on Black Point Road. 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.

Ferry Beach, Scarborough, Maine

Option two is to park at Scarborough’s gorgeous Ferry Beach ($15/day in summer season with bathrooms and showers, free in winter). Young children can splash in shallow water and collect hermit crabs, beachwalkers can walk, beach loungers can lounge. First step is to check the tide chart, and go at low tide. Park at Ferry Beach 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.

Winter view of Ferry Beach from Black Point Road, Prouts Neck, Scarborough

Once you have resolved these pressing issues of access, parking and companionship, press on to marvel at the splendor that is the Maine coast. 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 depicted and described above. Go fifty feet down this path and you will see the overgrown Cliff Walk entrance on your left.

Begin your walk. 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). Please stop asking locals for directions. They are simply not thrilled to have you walking in their manicured backyards. This is understandable. When it doubt, err on the side of walking away from the houses.

Cliff Walk, Prouts Neck, Scarborough, Maine

There are several printed rules on the signs at either end of the Cliff Walk (open dawn to dusk year-round, except in stormy weather), and they are as follows:

  • When the Cliff Walk gates are closed, please do not attempt to access the Cliff Walk here or elsewhere.
  • Use of the Cliff Walk is at your own risk.
  • Rough terrain, loose rocks, erosion and dangerous conditions may be present and may cause injury.
  • Please leave no trace; be respectful of private property.
  • Thank you for adhering to these rules so others may continue to enjoy this walk.

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.

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.

Wintry Scarborough Beach, viewed from the Cliff Walk, Prouts Neck, Scarborough, Maine

Here, you continue to the left to return to the Black Point Inn or Ferry Beach via Seal Rock Drive. In short: Left on Ferry Beach to a right on Black Point Road to a right before private road to a quick left to entrance of Cliff Walk. Walk for an hour. A gorgeous circle.

Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve (Lovell, ME)

The Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve consists of over 800 acres in Lovell, Maine, preserved and maintained for public use by the Greater Lovell Land Trust (GLLT) –  see GLLT map here.  A detailed description of trails is also available in the AMC Maine Mountain Guide.  While snowmobiles are allowed in winter on marked trails, I didn’t see any on the sunny February Sunday I visited.  I followed an easy to moderate (double, triple?) lollipop loop for about 4.6 miles (appx 2 hours, 886 feet of elevation gain), summiting Amos Mountain (955 ft) and Whiting Hill (801 ft) via the Blue, Orange, Yellow and Red trails.

Icy mill dam outlet of Heald Pond, Lovell, ME
Icy mill dam outlet of Heald Pond, Lovell, ME

From the (well-plowed) parking lot on Slab City Road, it is a short downhill walk to the Blue Trail, past the southern outlet of Heald Pond.  Informational kiosks are at the parking area and at the beginning of the Blue Trail, additionally, small placards at trail intersections, each with a laminated trail map, make navigation self-correcting (“You Are Here” is difficult to screw up).

I wore snowshoes the entire route, and once off the snowmobile trail, was breaking trail through the deep, crusty snow.  While the snowshoes made for enhanced mobility, the rasp and stomp of my steps eliminated my chances of seeing much wildlife.  I was lucky enough to see a large pileated woodpecker, and the signs in the snow of others – the soft tread of foxes, the larger, circling tread of coyotes, the bouncing tread of deer, and the deeper, larger crescents left by moose.

Mt Washington wreathed in clouds from Amos Mountain viewpoint, Lovell, ME
Mt Washington wreathed in clouds from Amos Mountain viewpoint, Lovell, ME

I bypassed Whiting Hill on the way out, sticking to the west shore of Heald Pond on the Red Dot Trail, and clambering down the Otter Rocks Spur briefly to look at the frozen lake, and the sole visible ice fishing shack.  As I was solo, wearing snowshoes, and shoreline ice is often the most treacherous, I didn’t venture out on the frozen pond.  Continuing gradually uphill, I reached the intersection with the Chestnut Trail (blue blazes), and turned left, towards the Heritage Loop Trail (orange blazes), and a broad circle of the summit of Amos Mountain.

Summit cairns and bench, Amos Mountain, Lovell, ME
Summit cairns and bench, Amos Mountain, Lovell, ME

To the west of the summit is a viewpoint, just short of the Rogers Family Trail (blue blazes), with views of the Whites, with Mt. Washington as a centerpiece.  The wooded summit of Amos Mountain contains rock cairns and a bench, with views to the southwest.

Kezar Lake and the Whites from Whiting Hill summit, Lovell, ME
Kezar Lake and the Whites from Whiting Hill summit, Lovell, ME

I descended Amos Mountain to the Hemlock Loop Trail, and a small picnic area, then headed towards Whiting Hill and its loop back to the start of the trail and the parking area.  Whiting Hall has a more open summit, with views to the West of Kezar Lake and the White Mountains beyond, and an easy downhill walk ended at Slab City Road.

This would also be a beautiful fall hike, but I enjoyed having the place mostly to myself in the snow.  Parking areas on Route 5 and Heald Pond Road can also be used to shorten the hike for children or the less mobile – see the GLLT map for locations.  This Reserve is not far from Sabattus Mountain, and the post-hike stops available in Lovell are the same – the Center Lovell Market, for picnic supplies and a restaurant, and (after checking seasonal hours) Ebenezer’s Pub for food and Belgian beer.

Mount Tom (Fryeburg, ME)

In January 2020, I hiked Mount Tom (1,073 ft) via the West Ridge Trail, an approximately 3.5 mile out-and-back from the parking lot for Mount Tom Preserve at Menotomy Road in Fryeburg, which took about an hour and fifteen minutes.  Like Hawk Mountain and Mount Tire’m, which I did earlier the same day, this is a short but rewarding Oxford Hills hike.  This can also be done as an approximately 4-mile loop hike by continuing after the summit to the Mount Tom Trail, then returning south on Menotomy Road, which is usually relatively quiet, to the start point.

Kiosk and start of West Ridge Trail from Nature Conservancy parking lot, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.
Kiosk and start of West Ridge Trail from Nature Conservancy parking lot, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.

This parking lot, and the Preserve, which includes the summit, are maintained by The Nature Conservancy (TNC).  TNC’s excellent description of the Preserve follows:

Mt. Tom Preserve protects a silver and red maple floodplain along the Saco River, and includes the rocky summit of Mount Tom at 1,040 feet in elevation. The 995-acre preserve spans the Saco River and boasts over 3,500 feet of river frontage. Several day-use hiking trails provide recreational opportunities, as does as a 1.14 mile seasonal snowmobile trail that is part of a larger network maintained by the Interstate Sno-goers. Visitors can summit Mt. Tom, canoe along the Saco River, or just walk through the beautiful forests!

River terrace forests support clean water for resident native fish, invertebrates, and other animals that use river beaches. The floodplains provide excellent habitat for spotted salamanders and several species of turtles, with a lush understory of sensitive fern and royal fern. Two regionally rare birds–the golden eagle and peregrine falcon–have been regularly sighted near the rocky cliffs of Mt. Tom, during the breeding season. Two rare plants–the fern-leaved false foxglove and smooth sandwort–have also been found within the dry oak-hickory forest on the south facing slope of the mountain, and old eastern red cedars dot the hillside.

View south from West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom, Fryeburg, Maine.
View south from West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom, Fryeburg, Maine.

The West Ridge Trail, marked by white blazes and small TNC emblems, rolls across that floodplain, crossing small brooks, passing ghostly birches and large rock formations, until becoming steep about a mile in.

West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.
West Ridge Trail, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.

The trail ascends the ridge, with frequent views through clearings in the trees, to meet the Mount Tom Trail, at which point, it turns right, and shortly thereafter, reaches the summit and its rocky ledges and views.

Mount Tom summit, Fryeburg, Maine.
Mount Tom summit, Fryeburg, Maine.

The descent in winter was easy, with microspikes, and I saw several other groups, all with dogs, ascending the trail on my way back.  An added benefit in winter was the lack of bugs, which would be omnipresent in the late spring and early summer in the first portion of the trail.  This hike may be challenging for very young or out-of-condition hikers, but presents an easy to moderate walk in the woods, with views to the south of the Saco River Valley.

West Ridge Trail in winter, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.
West Ridge Trail in winter, Mount Tom Preserve, Fryeburg, Maine.

Mount Tire’m (Waterford, ME)

Mount Tire’m (1,104 ft) is a short (1.3 miles, appx. 35 minutes) out-and-back hike via the Daniel Brown Trail, right in the village of Waterford.  I hiked it recently in the winter, but this is an all-season hike, presenting a brief, but moderately steep climb.  A story, too convenient to be anything but apocryphal, has the name coming from the Pequawket tribe near Fryeburg saying the climb would “tire um out.”

Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine
Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine

The trailhead is located just uphill from the Waterford Congregational Church on Plummer Hill Road, with parking on the shoulder.  While there wasn’t much snow, the grade of the climb and the ice had me pulling on micro-spikes fairly early.

Views from Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine, including Pleasant Mountain and Shawnee Peak.
Views from Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine, including Pleasant Mountain and Shawnee Peak.

The summit area includes some rock formations and a “cave,” a glacial erratic, which is popular with children, as well as summer blueberries.  The sparse winter vegetation and abundant sun allowed for more light through the trees, and views throughout of nearby Keoka Lake, to the east.

View of Keoka Lake through the trees, Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine
View of Keoka Lake through the trees, Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine

This well-packed and frequently used trail was relatively empty on this winter weekend morning, with only two other hikers, a fit older couple with a dog.  In this quiet, I could hear the wind rattling and rustling through the winter forest’s dried leaves, the distinctive squawking of crows and intermittent chickadee songs.

Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire'm, Waterford, Maine
Snowy Daniel Brown Trail, Mount Tire’m, Waterford, Maine