A few years ago I decided to visit 200-acre Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park on my cross-country skis instead of in hiking boots. This narrow point of land is known for its fine hiking trails along the shore and into the woodlands along Casco Bay on the southeast and the Harraseeket River to the west. This is prime snowshoeing and cross-country ski country, just outside Freeport, Maine, home to L.L. Bean.
Gone were the leaves on the delicate birch trees; ditto the ospreys that nest on Googins Island for the summer. No kayakers in the bay either. So why did I come? For the spruce, white pine and hemlock woven overhead against a winter sky, sun dancing madness on the bay, its bright sparkles hinting of the warmth so far away on a February day in Maine.
The 200 acres in Freeport were donated to the state in 1969 by Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence M.C. Smith of that town. This park contains an amazing variety of ecosystems, including white pine and hemlock forests, a salt marsh estuary and the rocky shorelines on Casco Bay and the Harraseeket River. There are approximately 5 miles of hiking trails and a picnic area, as well as 10 interpretive placards mounted at various locations along the trails. Most of these placards stand along the Casco Bay Trail where I came to ski.
I left the car on Wolfe’s Neck Road outside the gate since the park is closed in winter and skied the 3/10 mile into the park. At the south end of the parking area to the right is a large map showing the location of the various trails. I chose Casco Bay Trail because of its proximity to the bay. There were a couple places where I had to remove my skis because of rock steps or steep inclines, but you won’t have that problem on snowshoes. The scenery along this trail is worth it. There are so many places to enjoy the bright blue sky and sunshine and the snap of the cold air adjacent to the bay. I packed a lunch, but you can also eat in either Freeport or Brunswick a few miles up the road. (See suggestions at end).
I headed down through the woods, the winter-bare branches of the hardwoods in distinct contrast to the leafy canopy that plays overhead in a summer breeze. After skiing over the first of a series of footbridges I came to the first of the interpretive signs, describing life between the tides. There is a bench here for the snowshoer who needs to decompress before getting on with the adventure, also access to rocky ledges along the water’s edge.
I skied on over another footbridge, really getting into the evergreens. My idea of winter paradise in Maine is a carpet of snow beneath my feet and the whisper of white pines overhead. Add to this a deep blue sky and sun sparkling off the sea and you understand my choice of the Casco Bay Trail. It is not long, but the experience, just a few miles from downtown Freeport is unique, especially if your time here is limited.
There is a bench at the placard describing life in the estuary, and another when you reach the osprey nesting area sign describing Googins Island just offshore. After almost vanishing twice in the last 100 years, ospreys are rebounding, especially on the Maine coast. First hunting and egg collecting decimated the population, and then the pesticide DDT and development along the shore nearly led to their demise. Since these birds leave Maine in early September and don’t return until mid-April, I did not see them, but with half the foliage on Googins Island gone in winter I could clearly see two nests. Ospreys return to the same nests yearly to fish, work on their nests and mate, so empty nests are a good indication of the number of pairs that will return in spring.
There are narrow stretches, some rock steps, a couple of steep declines and inclines where I took my skis off, but no problem in snowshoes. The Casco Bay Trail is a nice choice for snowshoeing once a base of snow is established, but don’t plan an outing here without good snow cover because roots will play havoc with your progress.
Where the trail comes closest to Googins Island I took off my skis and climbed down to the rocks with my lunch. There are not many days in the course of a Maine winter to feel the sun on one’s face, but this was one of those days. There was not another human in sight and I stayed a while. Harbor seal fishing for his lunch bobbed up not far offshore. These seals feed on small fish, shrimp and shellfish near the ledges and are permanent residents, lest you fear all wildlife leaves Maine in winter.
After lunch I pushed on, removing my skis to ascend a set of wide wooden steps on a steep incline then proceeded over another footbridge, this one with no rail. At the placard describing the animals in the bay is another bench and a great view south towards Freeport and out along Casco Bay. Herring gulls and black-backed gulls soar overhead here. And Maine has the only major breeding population of the common eider duck in the United States south of Alaska. Further along I removed the skis again to descend steps, cross a bridge and go up, soon passing another interpretive sign describing the islands and beyond, and this location may offer the best view in the park.
At this point I chose to ski back along the way I had come because I wanted to stay close to the water, but you can proceed inland across the center of the neck, heading southwest, then northwest across a fire road and beneath the power line. After taking off the skis to cross a stone wall you will soon see the Hemlock Ridge Trail on your right, where you can turn right and proceed to its junction with the Harraseeket Trail, then right and return to the trailhead where you started.
Or you can continue on past the junction with Hemlock Ridge Trail as the Casco Bay Trail becomes the Harraseeket Trail. Heading northwest, you will enter a depression after climbing down some ledges, and in minutes, cross Wolfe’s Neck Road. You are now approaching the Harraseeket River. As you descend toward the cliffs there is a side trail on your left with wide open views of the river and South Freeport. This is worth the short detour if you have time, as you are now high above the river. Continuing north on the Harraseeket Trail, you will make a circuit above several steep inlets, then turn inland to the southeast and back into the woods.
The dense woods in this area were the site of Colonial outposts in the 1700s, and the site of the Means Massacre in May of 1756. The Means family was attacked by Indians early in the morning. Mr. Means and one of the children were shot and scalped, while a daughter was captured. Mrs. Means and two other children escaped to a nearby blockhouse.
Winding toward the east you will soon be at the junction with Casco Bay Trail. Turn left to return to the trailhead where you began your adventure. The complete Casco Bay Trail tour is less than 2 miles. If you turn back while still along the bay area as I did, your distance is only about ¾ miles, short for a snowshoe outing but long on view, and rich in the unique combination of wildness and spiritual connectedness that is Maine.
Lunch spots in Freeport
- Gritty Mc Duffs – lower Main, pub and lunch
- Broad Arrow Tavern – at Harraseeket Inn, upper Main Street
- L.L. Bean café – main store, upper Main Street
Lunch spots in Brunswick:
- Scarlet Begonias – upper Maine Street, near train station
- Broadway Deli – lower Maine Street
- Sea Dog Brew Pub – across Androscoggin River into Topsham