Difficulty: The trails range in from easy-advanced, but the actual Harpswell Hiking Challenge is just that, a challenge — eight trails, 10 miles, two days (or one day, if you’re a crazy reporter with her equally insane older sister).
How to get there: The 2013 Harpswell Hiking Challenge began at the Harpswell Town Office at 263 Mountain Road, and from there, participants traveled throughout the town of Harpswell to find different trails. To minimize confusion, the location of each of the trails is listed in the information section below.
Information: The town of Harpswell has 218 miles of oceanfront and more than 15 public access properties with walking trails, all with a portion along the waterfront.
The challenge started at the town office, where each participant was given a piece of paper that had empty spaces for eight different stickers, to be collected from boxes located on each of the eight trails.
The free event was not a race, but after hiking all eight trails and collecting the stickers, participants were asked to drop their sheets off at the town office so they could be entered into a drawing for prizes. And those who traveled between all the properties on a bicycle received a special bike-hike challenge award.
The event was sponsored by the Harpswell Recreation Committee, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, Healthy Maine Walks and Access Health, and many volunteers were available during the challenge to assist participants at the various trailheads.
All eight of the walks are registered Healthy Maine Walks and range from easy to moderately difficult.
-Cliff Trail on Great Island: This 2.3-mile loop trail, marked with while blazes, crosses near the highest point in Harpswell and features a shore walk along the tidal Strawberry Creek, stunning views from 150-foot cliffs overlooking Long Reach, and two woodland areas designated for building fairy houses. The property is owned by the town of Harpswell. The trailhead is located behind the Harpswell Town Office (to the left) on 263 Mountain Road (between Route 24 and Route 123).
-Mitchell Field on Harpswell Neck: The paved and gravel roads of this former U.S. Navy facility provides 1.6 miles of paths suitable for walkers, bicyclists, wheelchairs and rollerbladers. In addition to wide paths, the 116-acre property features woods, open fields, old buildings and fences, a water tower, a new bandstand, a dock, portable toilets and a beach. From certain points on the property, Mount Washington can be seen on a clear day. The entrance is 6.9 miles south of the Brunswick town line on Route 123, and the parking area is along the fence just before the fire station. A gravel walking trail begins on the left side of the road leading into the base, just after the entrance gates.
-Skolfield Shores Preserve: This 19-acre property is managed by the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust and features the Hemlock Loop Trail and Merrucoonegan Loop Trail, as well as a side trail to an old stone ferry-wharf, a hemlock forest, lookouts and views over Middle Bay, farm views, two hand-built cedar and hemlock bridges and a view of of a salt marsh. For the Harpswell Hiking Challenge, participants must hike the Merrucoonegan Loop Trail (a 0.8-mile round trip) to find the sticker. The parking area is located 0.25 mile south of the Brunswick-Harpswell town line on the west side of Route 123. Turn onto Skolfield Place and immediately left into the small parking area. Follow the white trail blazes.
-Long Reach Preserve on Great Island: This 90-acre property is managed by the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust and includes a 1.2-mile loop trail that crosses a high ridge that offers views of Quahog Bay and shore access to Long Reach. Another trial leads to an inland bog. Trail maps are available at the trailhead and at the land trust office. The trailhead is located at the Trufant-Summerton ballfield, approximately 3 miles south of the Brunswick town line on Route 24.
-Giant’s Stairs on Bailey Island: This short shore walk is open to the sun and features open views of the crashing surf on the rocky cliffs and the ‘Giant’s Stairs,’ formed by erosion of an intrusive volcanic dike. The shoreline trail, which is less than 0.5 mile, crosses the Macintosh lot to Washington Avenue, enabling a 0.6-mile loop by walking the road back. To reach the trailhead, drive about 1.5 miles south of the Cribstone Bridge on Route 24 in Harpswell and turn left on Washington Avenue. Park at the Episcopal chapel or on the side of the street (so as not to block traffic), and walk to the end of Ocean Street or south along Washington Avenue. Signs are posted at both ends of the trail.
-Wilson Cove Trail on Harpswell Neck: Located on private land, this trail is a 0.5-mile walk from Harpswell Neck Road to a cliff on the shore of Wilson’s Cove. There is no shore access, but the cliff provides limited views of the cove, which is waterfowl and wading bird habitat. The trailhead is located at the back of a two-car parking lot on the west side of Harpswell Neck Road, a little less than a mile south of Mountain Road.
-Houghton Graves Park on Orr’s Island: The grassy paths of this 3-acre park lead to views of Beal’s Cove and Harpswell Sound, as well as access to the cove’s tidal waters for swimming and clamming. The entrance to the park is located on the west side of the Harpswell Islands Road, opposite Lowell’s Cove Road on Orr’s Island. Follow the path between the rail fence and the cattail marsh to reach a picnic area and the water.
-Devil’s Back Trail on Orr’s Island: This 1.4-mile loop trail, which opened June 2013, travels through an old forest of towering pine trees to water views from a ridge. The small parking area, bordered by rocks, is located just after the bridge that connects Great Island and Orr’s Island, but the trailhead is on the west side of the road.
Personal note: My older sister Jillian and I embarked on the 2013 Harpswell Hiking Challenge on June 1, and we aimed to complete all eight trails in one day rather than stay overnight in Harpswell and hike at a more leisurely pace over the course of two days. And we brought along Oreo, my 7.5-month-old bull terrier mix who has some learning to do on a leash. Needless to say, I’m sometimes overly ambitious.
Nevertheless, we succeeded in finding and completing all eight trails by driving and hiking from 10 a.m. (when registration opened at the town offices) to just past 6 p.m., stopping only once to pick up some chips, drinks and a dog bone at Bailey Island General Store. A big thanks to my sister, who didn’t complain once, even during the first two hikes, before the wind picked up and carried off the humid air, thick with mosquitoes. And kudos to Oreo for putting up with the confusion of getting in and out of the Subaru about 20 times.
Since I’ve written a whole account of the grand adventure to be published in the BDN Outdoors, I won’t go into detail about the day. But one thing I don’t mind repeating is my opinion that the Harpswell area is a beautiful place for recreationists and nature lovers to explore. Whether hiker, biker or wheelchair rider, there are beautiful trails in Harpswell for you to explore — many of them — and the ocean is never far.