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.

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.