Difficulty: Easy-moderate. The main trails in the 4.2-mile network are wide, smooth and travel over fairly even terrain. Some of the side trails are a bit more challenging.
How to get there: From the junction of Route 166 and Route 166A in Castine, follow Route 166 south 0.9 mile to the top of a hill. Continue right at a sharp bend in the road (which becomes Battle Avenue). Drive 0.8 mile on Battle Avenue to the preserve parking area, which will be on your right. The dirt parking area is small. Park close to the fence (on the right) so you don’t block the gate. At the far end of the parking area, enter the trail network on a dirt road, which gradually climbs a hill to an information kiosk, which includes a preserve map, guidelines, a registration log and preserve brochures (which include maps). Explore from there!
Information: The 183-acre Witherle Woods Preserve on Castine peninsula is owned and managed by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) and is free for public use year round. The preserve includes a 4.2-mile trail network that is ideal for walking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, mountain biking and wildlife watching. Pets are allowed but must be kept under control at all times.
From the small parking area off Battle Avenue, a wide multi-use trail brings visitors into the trail network, which travels through forests and meadows to the steep ledges on the coast and the highest point of the land, Witherle Hill.
The preserve has a fascinating history, which MCHT summarizes on their website, www.mcht.org. A few highlights:
-Before colonists began settling in Castine in the 1760s, Native Americans camped during summers at Witherle Hill while fishing off the coast of Castine.
-Military fortifications were constructed on the site during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Though nothing of the fortifications is left for visitors to view today, early maps show that a blockhouse was constructed near the summit of Witherle Hill, and another blockhouse, along with two semi-circular earthwork batteries, were located along the steep bluff of Blockhouse Point. All was confirmed by an archaeological survey done between 2001 and 2003.
-The stone walls in parts of the preserve date back to the land’s early agricultural days and appeared on a property survey in 1785.
Today, the preserve bears the name of an important man in Castine’s history, George H. Witherle (1831-1906). Witherle, who owned much of today’s preserve in the late 1800s, maintained carriage trails on the land, providing a place for rusticators and year-round residents to walk, drive their carriages and picnic. At the time, the land was known as Witherle Park and was mostly open meadow.
An avid outdoorsman and member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Witherle an explorer of Katahdin, which he climbed at least nine times. Atop Witherle Hill — the peninsula’s highest point at 218 feet above sea level — he constructed an 80-foot observation tower, which was consumed in a 1903 fire that burned about half his land (along with several nearby summer homes and the Dome-of-the-Rock Hotel at Dyce Head).
George Witherle’s daughter Amy inherited the park and willed it to her cousin Anna Witherle, who sold it to Francis W. Hatch, Jr., who passed it on to his son, Frank Hatch (a long-time board and council member of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust).
Witherle Woods Preserve was obtained in four parcels over 21 years:
-In 1985, the land became Witherle Woods Preserve when Frank Hatch deeded 96.5 acres of the property to MCHT.
-In 1995, the preserve expanded when Elizabeth, Virginia and David Foote, and Katharine Foote Howland donated 36 adjoining acres to MCHT in memory of their late grandparents and in tribute to their parents.
-In 2002, MCHT purchased 19 acres of adjoining land in the northeast.
-In 2006, a private landowner (not named in the MCHT history) donated a 31 adjoining acres, expanding the preserve to 183 acres.
An ecological study updated in 2010 found 195 plant species on the preserve; and a 2009 bird survey found 48 bird species, including white-throated sparrow, northern parula, black-throated green warbler and winter wren, according to MCHT.
Visitors are asked to follow a few simple rules while using preserve trails. Camping and fires are not permitted. Remain on established trails. Carry out all trash, including pet waste. Respect the privacy of preserve neighbors. And do not remove archaeological artifacts. Motorists are not permitted, and bicyclists are asked to be considerate of pedestrians and limit use to dry conditions and appropriate trails, according to a MCHT sign at the preserve information kiosk.
For information, visit www.mcht.org/preserves/witherle-woods.shtml or call 729-7366.
Personal note: Looking back at my first trip to Witherle Woods Preserve on Aug. 22, the first thing I remember is the abundance of blackberries, many of them were ripe for picking. Earlier this summer, I learned from Maine biologist Glen Mittelhauser that the state is home to several species of blackberries. As I photographed and sampled many of the plump berries in Witherle Woods, it struck me as odd that I’d never before noticed the wide variation among blackberry size, shape and taste.
Another aspect of the preserve that I remember is the abundance of birds. Being with a rambunctious dog, I didn’t have much opportunity to sit and photograph animals, but based on the many different sounds I heard while hiking, the preserve seemed to me a great place for birders. I did spy a group of cedar waxwings, which are pretty hard to miss, with their flashy yellow tail feathers and high-pitched call.
I found the forest of the preserve, which has recently sustained quite a bit of damage, to be eerily beautiful. Much of the old-growth forest has fallen, but a few surviving trees tower above the new growth. Since the trails are wide, they’re often open to the sun, especially at midday. So even though the day wasn’t particularly hot when Oreo and I visited, we had to rest in the shade and drink water several times as we explored. We also felt it necessary to go for ice cream after the hike.
I imagine the trails are excellent for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.