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)

Burnt Meadow Mountain (Brownfield, ME)

Descending from the North Peak via the Twin Brook Trail, headed toward the White Mountains
Descending from the North Peak via the Twin Brook Trail, headed toward the White Mountains.


(Update as of 5/17/2020: Burnt Meadow Hiking Trail was closed to the public from 4/4/2020 to 4/30/2020 in an effort to protect public safety and first responders.  According to the Town of Brownfield website, the trail will remain closed until logging has been completed, at the request of the property owners.)

Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield, Maine, is a favorite hike of ours in all seasons, including when daughter was much younger.  Brownfield is less than an hour from Portland, and during mid-late summer, the wild blueberries all the way to the summit make for a pleasant distraction and motivator for younger children.  In winter, the moderate climb through vanished foliage yields great views of the White Mountains.

Burnt Meadow Mountain map and trail description from trailhead kiosk along Rte 160 in Brownfield.
Burnt Meadow Mountain map and trail description from trailhead kiosk along Rte 160 in Brownfield.

Our preferred route is via the Burnt Meadow Mountain Trail (blue blazes) and Twin Brook Trail (yellow blazes), an approximately 3.6 mile loop, which took us about 2.5 hours at a relaxed pace in summer, and 2 hrs, 10 mins in winter.  The spur trail up to Stone Mountain (blue blazes) from the Twin Brook Trail adds about another 1.4 miles round-trip, which was about an hour added to the loop hike in the winter time.  These trails are well-marked and maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and the Friends of Burnt Meadow Mountain.

As usual, the best description of this hike is in the AMC Maine Mountain Guide.  And in the new 11th edition of this guide, Burnt Meadow gets its own map.  In winter, the parking lot is small and icy, and hikers may have to find a parking spot on the narrow shoulder of Route 160.  For updated winter trail conditions, check the Burnt Meadow Mountain Trail page on All Trails.  On the January 2019 day I went, the snow on the trail was packed, and micro-spikes helped with some of the resulting ice on rocks.  The only deeper snow was on the Stone Mountain trail.

Not quite ready yet
Not quite ready yet in June.

The Burnt Meadow Trail passes through shaded woods and over exposed rock faces up a short, steep climb to the North Peak (1,575 ft).  On the way, we saw hawks wheeling below us, and visibility was outstanding on a sunny, cool June day.  In winter, the climb had the effect of being a pleasantly continuous ridge hike without the leaves to obscure views.

Watching three hawks (a pair and a loner) hunt in the valley below the Burnt Mountain Trail
Watching three hawks (a pair and a loner) hunt in the valley below the Burnt Mountain Trail in summer.

While the blueberries weren’t ready in June, we saw vultures, crows, many lady slippers in peak color, and also ran across a few toads.  We used plenty of bug spray, but didn’t hit large clouds of black flies or mosquitoes, except in low-lying areas along the Twin Brook Trail (obviously, no bugs in the wintertime).

Winter ascent up to the North Peak, Burnt Meadow Mountain
Winter ascent up to the North Peak, Burnt Meadow Mountain

The broad, open summit of Burnt Meadow is a great place for a picnic.  We didn’t linger too long in summer, though, just enjoyed some jerky and proceeded across to the Twin Brook Trail.  A large cairn marked the point to start our descent.  The Twin Brook Trail was a rolling course back to its junction with the Burnt Meadow Mountain Trail, and from there back to the parking lot.

A cairn marks the descent from the North Peak to the Twin Brook Trail
A cairn marks the descent from the North Peak to the Twin Brook Trail.

In winter, I took the Stone Mountain Trail, as the surrounding area from the summit is easier to see without the leaves.  This trail is substantially less traveled than the North Peak or Twin Brook Trails, and required some travel through deeper snow, but nothing requiring snowshoes as of January 2019.

Follow blue blazes through a birch forest to the Stone Mountain summit
Follow blue blazes through a birch forest to the Stone Mountain summit.

One of the reasons we love this hike in the summertime is its proximity to the Brownfield Town Beach, which is a great place to cool off (Note: While dogs are plentiful on Burnt Meadow Mountain trails, they are not allowed at the beach after June 1st).

Brownfield Town Beach
Brownfield Town Beach

Sweetie’s Ice Cream in Standish is a great way to cool off on the way back to the Portland area in the summer.  Another option is the Whistle Stop General Store in Baldwin to grab food – open all winter for snowmobilers and other travelers.

(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, and as an Amazon Associate Hiking in Maine blog earns from qualifying purchases.)

5 steps to getting back on the path: Ideas, resources, tactics, and links for hiking Maine in 2018

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Maine’s seasons are different than those of our neighbors to the south- sometimes the resolutions of the New Year are still buried under several feet of snow, even at the beginning of Daylight Savings.  I believe it’s important to get outside in the winter either way, but this article will focus on planning for the traditional hiking season.

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Step 1: Create a difficult, even unrealistic goal.

  • How we did it in 2017: In the winter of 2016-2017, we decided to attempt the 100 Mile Wilderness.  The difficulty of this task forced us to create a training schedule, and to prepare our gear and bodies one piece at a time for a “capstone” hike, so that we were not fully ready for it until we stepped onto the trail.  The training then became part of the journey, instead of being a series of unrelated excursions.  And we also had a blast doing it.
  • How you can do it in 2018: Pick a goal, and plan for it.  Check out this great article by Carey Kish on Ten Great Hikes You Should Do in 2018.  Or this one, again from Maine Today, on 10 Brag-Worthy Hikes in New England.  Pick one outside your comfort zone, something you haven’t done before.  If you are a more experienced hiker or backpacker, do the same with longer, multi-day hikes.  Try the Section Hiker blog for ideas.  Great ideas in the area include Maine’s Bigelow Range, the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire, and even the Long Trail in Vermont.  Or maybe you are tired of explaining why you have lived in Maine for X number of years, and never been to Katahdin’s summit.  Make it challenging.

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Step 2: Make yourself accountable, find a partner if you can, and lock in your plans.

  • How we did it in 2017: Daughter and dad agreed on our training plan and final goal.  Hiking together is fun.  We told people (family, friends, co-workers, gear salespeople) we were going to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness together.  That made it hard to back out.  We also set aside vacation days for the attempt, and later, booked a Baxter State Park parking pass ahead of time for Katahdin.  Planning is fun, too, and having these outdoor excursions to look forward to can be soothing, depending on your life situation and “day job.”
  • How you can do it in 2018: Start with the end goal in mind, and back up to the current day, making incremental additions to your training plan.  For accountability, book your arrangements early (vacation days, lodging, re-supply) so you are motivated to follow up on your investment.  Put everything on a calendar.  In general, buying a state park season pass is a good deal, and will prompt you to get out there.  Maine’s is $55 for individuals, or $105 for a vehicle pass, and free for seniors. The White Mountain National Forest offers an annual pass for $30, and an annual household pass for $40.  These passes also allow you to forgo the hassle of trying to find a pen and exact change at the many self-service kiosks at trailheads, and to support our great parks.

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Step 3: Let experts do the work for you.

  • How we did it in 2017: We devoured the books and blog posts we could find on the 100 Mile Wilderness (check this out), and purchased the Appalachian Mountain Club Guide to Maine, as well as the maps for the 100 Mile.  For our training hikes, we consulted the Maine Mountain Guide and the White Mountain Guide (skip to Recommended Hikes, get in the car, and go).
  • How you can do it in 2018: Buy the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and White Mountain Guide.  Just do it.  They come with maps, they are well-researched, portable, and can serve as a journal for hikes completed.  Also, follow Philip Werner’s Section Hiker blog (mentioned above) and Carey Kish’s columns on Maine Today.com.  Ask at Information Centers for actual information, and engage with park rangers and volunteers.  In addition, join the Appalachian Mountain Club.  It’s cheap, most of the membership fee is tax deductible, it supports trails, and they sponsor a ton of group activities/hikes for all skill levels.  Follow the people above on Twitter to get updates and ideas, as well as publications like Backpacker Magazine and Outside, which also has an excellent podcast series.

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Step 4: If your plans are disrupted, do “something” anyway.

  • How we did it in 2017: We couldn’t always get out on the trail.  School, work, travel, injuries, commitments came up that kept us out of the woods.  But we figured out ways to work through.  Daughter played basketball, and dad focused on weight room exercises (lunges, box jumps, squats) that strengthened legs for the terrain of the 100 Mile.  We skied.  On a couple weekends we couldn’t hike, or were out of town somewhere, we signed up for several 5K road races – try Running In The USA.  The way to get better at doing hard things is to do hard things.  Just do something.
  • How you can do it in 2018: Shorter hikes can be very rewarding when time is not on your side.  Try a big-payoff one like Burnt Meadow Mountain or Pleasant Mountain, steep hikes with great views.  Try trail running, which is just hiking’s skinnier cousin.  There are trail running groups throughout Maine.  Baxter Outdoors does a great race series, which might take you to some places you haven’t been, help you meet some like-minded people, benefit charity, and get some free beer.  Here are some tips to get ready for hiking with a pack from Backpacker MagazineUnderstand your limits, particularly with an injury, but focus on the things that you can do.  For example, dad broke his right wrist descending Katahdin in September 2017, and this precluded a lot of activities, but still allowed him to hike, and as a result he developed more dexterity in his left hand.  A caveat: all these things help, but hiking with a pack seems to be a singular exercise, and the best way to get better at hiking is to hike (see above regarding hard things).

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Step 5: Let the momentum propel you to staying on the path.

How we did it in 2017: Despite our difficulties at the end of the 100 Mile attempt, we were both invigorated by the hiking we’d done, and talked about more goals.  Daughter had never climbed Mt. Washington or Katahdin, and felt strong after our training.  It was only mid-July, so the good times we’d had kept us hiking, and we completed both of these mountains, as well as some great hikes in between.  We started taking more pictures, and talked about capturing our adventures in this blog, which we began last fall, right after our Katahdin hike.

How you can do it in 2018: Use the aforementioned accountability to keep you going, locked in to activities, and check in with people who are doing the same.  You will feel stronger each time you get out there, and maybe your goals will change by the time you hit your big hike.  You will see intriguing side trails and places along the way.  If you are into social media, use it to catalog your progress.  You won’t find any “look at me shirtless doing yoga on top of a mountain” selfies on this blog, but if that’s your thing, and helps you…  Either way you will have fun and get outside.

(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, and as an Amazon Associate Hiking in Maine blog earns from qualifying purchases.)