The Trails of Down East Maine’s Blue Hill Peninsula: Hiker Paradise

When the glaciers of the last ice age retreated, they left a ragged coastline of what is now the state of Maine in America’s farthest northeastern reach. So rough is this resulting geological feature, that the Maine coast measures second in length only to Alaska’s. It is ten times as long as the Oregon coastline, and longer than the rest of the eastern seaboard coastline combined.

Granite and basalt comprise the majority of the coast’s rock formations, interspersed with many areas of wavy metamorphic slabs and boulders. Approximately four thousands islands dot the scene just offshore; together with the numerous bays, coves, inlets and coastal mountains they form a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Farther west, Maine offers downhill skiing, lake and stream recreation, and hiking (including the popular iconic Appalachian Trail).

Maine's coastline provides dramatic surf

Maine’s coastline provides dramatic surf

With good reason the majority of visitors to Maine’s coast make their way to the spectacular vistas and beautifully maintained trails of Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island and two other nearby sections. While Acadia deserves its status as the jewel in Maine’s coastline crown, it is not the only place to enjoy the scenic splendor of this beautiful corner of America.

Just beyond Mt. Desert Island in either direction up and down the coast lie numerous preserves, sanctuaries and parks where a quiet hike among towering pines, marshes, meadows and shoreline await. One such place is the Blue Hill Peninsula, which is about 30 miles southwest of Acadia. In reality, Mount Desert Island is quite close across the water, but due to the irregular coastline, is twice as far by car. The Blue Hill Peninsula is situated between Penobscot and Frenchman Bays. Its iconic coastal villages draw artists, musicians and writers from around the world. The artists have put down roots alongside local fishermen, lobster and scallop harvesters, boat builders, shopkeepers and farmers, among others. The main town of Blue Hill has quaint shops and restaurants, many open year-round.

The local and summer residents of the Blue Hill Peninsula, and two nearby islands, Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle, value the natural surroundings and have strived to protect them and offer access to maintained trails through varying landscapes, including riverbanks, mountains, mixed deciduous and coniferous forests, wild blueberry barrens, marshes and Atlantic coastline. Three conservation organizations, the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and the Conservation Trust of Brooksville, Castine and Penobscot (three communities on the peninsula) have together conserved over 10,000 acres to protect wilderness and wildlife, and to offer recreational opportunities on its trails and waters. In total, there are 18 trails and recreational areas, 4 island preserves, and 5 public water access points maintained by the three groups. Nearly all of them prohibit motorized vehicles, but are open to hunting, mainly in November—use caution and wear flame orange if venturing out during this month.

Typical of the recreational areas is Patten’s Stream, a Heritage Trust maintained conservation trail in the coastal village of Surry, about halfway between Blue Hill and Ellsworth on state highway 172 (From Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island, follow Rt 1A to Ellsworth, then Rt 1 toward Belfast, bearing left on 172 as you leave Main Street). I recently snow-shoed the trail after a lovely two-inch layer of fresh snow covered the already three feet of accumulation, very unusual for mid-March. The day was cold (19 degrees F, -7 C) but sunny. Driving to Surry, I took Warren Road about a quarter mile (400 meters) to what is normally the parking area, but due to the deep snow, it was closed. I returned to the main road and parked at the Town Hall, then walked back to the trailhead.

The trail consists of two loops connected by a spur trail. Both follow the tumbling water of Patten Stream before looping back away from the water, passing through mixed forest dominated by pine, spruce, hemlock and balsam fir, with a scattering of large birches, oaks and maples.

I was the only person to use the trail that day, so the trail was unmarred by footprints, except for those of deer, fox, squirrel, and to my surprise, otter. The trail is rather uneven, with several short steep sections and tight turns, which makes it difficult if not impossible for cross-country skis, and the snow was too deep that day for hiking (I removed my snow shoes to check and sank up to my thighs). The snow hung heavy on the boughs of the evergreens, bending those of young trees to the ground. The only sound was that of the nearby stream and my shoes plunking into the soft snow cover. It is a perfect snowshoe trail for beginners, but experienced enthusiasts will find its scenery worth the trek.

A recent snowfall blankets the woods and trail

A recent snowfall blankets the woods and trail

After a few hundred yards, the trail met the stream, which I had seen from the top of the ravine as I walked. The scene was breath taking. The huge glacial boulders in and alongside the stream were covered with pristine snow, and the stream was frozen in many places, on which the soft covering made a continuous rolling blanket of white. Interspersed were open spaces where the icy stream rushed through from the ice covering. The stream completely different now compared to the autumn when I was last there, rushing and tumbling freely over rocks and around boulders. Now, it was all but hidden, with what seemed like a series of unconnected small pools.

Patten Stream on its way to a nearby bay of the Atlantic.

Patten Stream on its way to a nearby bay of the Atlantic.

As I paused to admire the beauty of the woods and stream, it was not difficult to imagine that I was the only person who had walked along the trail for days, perhaps weeks. Certainly, I knew I was the only one so far that day. The stillness and knowledge that I was alone in that beautiful spot was exhilarating. As I scanned the area, I caught sight of a strange trail that began on one side of a pool, ascended steeply from the water, to across the snowy boulder to the far side, then down to the water not as tracks, but as a long smooth “slide”. I was temporarily confused until I realized that the only creature that could make such a track is a river otter. The slide was the tip off. I waited for some time to see if the aquatic mammal would show itself, as the track was fresh, but it did not reappear.

River otter slide

River otter slide

Despite my disappointment of not seeing the otter, I was content to have at least seen the track, and know that they are there. As I sat overlooking the stream, I was surprised by the flutter of wings and the emergence of a male mallard that had been in the next pool, out of sight behind the rim. I must have also been a surprise to him, because after realizing I was there, he took wing, rushing past me in the direction of the bay.

A startled mallard takes wing

A startled mallard takes wing

Reluctant to leave the beautiful spot, I headed toward the north loop, which continues along Patten Stream to a flat rock at the end of the trail where the divided stream meanders quickly past boulders, rejoining past the rock on its journey to the bay not far away. One can continue on the “outer” side of the two loops, walking through forest, or retrace the path along the river. I chose to backtrack because of the stream’s beauty.

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The entire hike took about three hours. Of course, it depends on how often one stops to survey the scenery (I spend a lot of time), observe the up close beauty of the natural environment, sit on a boulder, enjoy the view along the stream, or whether there is snow and how deep it is. A caution: even if hiking in winter, if the weather is mild (above freezing), it is advisable to use insect repellant to discourage the remaining hardy wood ticks that have survived the cold.

Many forms of wildlife live in and near the conservation area. Ospreys nest close by and fish for alewives, otters (I now know) hunt for fish and make dens in the river bank, numerous deer and fox crisscross the area, and songbirds and woodpeckers can be seen and heard.

This and the 17 other trails on the Blue Hill Peninsula offer quieter, less crowded hikes than the popular ones in the national park, and have a subtle beauty all their own. If you are in the area, take a day or two to explore the trails on the Blue Hill Peninsula. They are well maintained by the trusts and are a well-kept secret among the locals who love to enjoy them in all seasons.

Once finished, there are many other nearby trails to hike. One may wish to return to Blue Hill for a refreshing drink in one of its pubs or restaurants, browse the art galleries, bookstores, gift shops open year-round, or go to Ellsworth. The area’s main town in the opposite direction on the way to Acadia, which has many shops and restaurants as well.

For maps of the various protected trails, islands and water access points, visit http://bluehillheritagetrust.org/trails/.

John Stiles is a photographer and writer. He splits his time between Maine and Thailand.

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