Difficulty: Moderate. The 2.9-mile loop travels up and along the ridge of Sanders Hill, which reaches its highest point at 854 feet above sea level. The trail is well-marked with blue blazes and signs.
How to get there: From the intersection of Route 27 and Route 225 in Rome, Maine, drive 1.1 mile north of Route 27 and take a left onto Watson Pond Road. Drive about 1.3 miles and the small parking area for the trail will be on your right, marked with a blue Kennebec Highlands sign.
Information: Sanders Hill a part of the Kennebec Highlands, which at 6,500 acres is the largest contiguous block of conserved land in central Maine. Rising 854 feet above sea level, Sanders Hill is located just west of the undeveloped Watson Pond and is surrounded by peaks of similar height.
The Sanders Hill Loop hiking trail is 2.9 miles long and can be hiked in either direction, according to the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, which manages the land in partnership with the Maine Department of Conservation.
To hike the loop counterclockwise, start at the north side of the parking area (if you face away from the road, it will be on your right-hand side). Follow the blue blazes into the forest. At about 0.2 miles, you’ll come to a boulder with a ladder leaning up against it. If you climb the ladder to the top of the boulder, you’ll be greeted with nice views from the south end of Watson Pond.
The trail crosses the inflow for Watson Pond and makes several twists and turns. Make sure to always follow the blue blazes to avoid getting lost on side trails, old logging roads and paths made by resident wildlife.
The trail gradually climbs the Sanders Hill. As you climb higher, the hill will drop off on your right. The trail descends a bit before leading to the first outlook of the hike — Watson Pond, Mount Phillip and French Mountain, partially obscured by trees. After that, the trail will climb to the sparsely wooded summit area, where you can enjoy partial views to the east and south through the trees, approximately 1.1 miles into the hike. There is no summit sign, but the top of the hill is fairly evident because after it, the trail starts to descend.
At 1.3 miles, the trail meets the Kennebec Highlands Trail. Turn left (south) and follow the broad gravel trail, lined with birch trees. At 1.9 miles, just before a bridge over Beaver Brook, turn left and follow the blue blazes into the woods on a narrower trail. This part of the loop travels through a beautiful mixed forest and past a large boulder called “Snapper Rock,” according to the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance. The trail then swings north and meets an old logging road, the final leg of the hike. Turn right and follow the old road back to the parking area.
The trail is free for the public to use year round, but visitors should note that the Kennebec Highlands Trail (which the loop follows for a short distance) is a multi-use trail allowing snowmobile use in the winter. Dogs are permitted but should be under control of their owners. Pack in, pack out (including dog waste).
The Kennebec Highlands — located in the towns of Rome, Mount Vernon, Vienna and New Sharon, the Kennebec Highlands — contains the highest peaks in Kennebec County, as well as miles of streams, several wetlands and five undeveloped ponds.
For example, to the south of Sanders Hill is Round Top Mountain (1,133 feet tall); to the southwest, Vienna Mountain (1,177 feet); to the north, Roberts Hill (1,073 feet); and to the east, French Mountain (716 feet).
While currently 6,500 acres of the Kennebec Highlands is preserved land, the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance has a long-term goal is to expand the preserve and protect more than 11,000 acres in and around the Kennebec Highlands. The goal is based on the minimum habitat requirements for the area’s numerous wildlife species, including interior nesting birds, raptors such as owls, and wide-ranging species such as bear, bobcat, moose, lynx and otter.
Personal note: Fresh, powdery snow covered the landscape when Derek (my boyfriend), Oreo (our dog) and I traveled to Rome, Maine, on Dec. 27, to hike the Sanders Hill Loop. At the trailhead, a bowing birch blocked a part of the parking area. Its top touched the ground, surrendering to the weight of the ice that had accumulated on its branches during the recent ice storm.
The hike started out in the sun, then we walked into clouds and enjoyed a quick snowstorm as we clambered up the hill to the ridge. At the summit, we were greeted by sun and blue skies once more.
Along the trail, the ice-laden trees drooped over our heads — a beautiful but dangerous canopy. We stayed alert for any falling branches. Often, we had to move branches aside to stay on trail. And near the end of the hike, we had to leave the trail altogether to navigate around a mess of birch trees.
Oreo did surprisingly well on the hike (considering his short fur), which took us about 3 hours to complete because of the snow and the fact that we stop to take photos and video so often. It was about 25 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and by the end of the hike, the snow had accumulated so much on Oreo’s whiskers that it appeared he’d grown a white beard.
It’s important to remember that trails are often made more difficult by winter conditions. Derek and I wore ice cleats to hike Sanders Hill, but after a few minutes on the trail, we both agreed that we should have worn our snowshoes instead (which we left at home). With snowshoes, we would have walked on top of the thick crust left by the ice storm. Instead, we had to break through it.
A highlight of the hike was the red-breasted nuthatch that I spotted while hiking near Watson Pond. I motioned for Derek to lead Oreo away so I could take photos without an energetic dog disturbing it. I zoomed in with my lens and saw that the bird was carrying some sort of food in its beak and it seemed to be pecking at bark. I learned later that these birds stick to tree trunks and branches, where they search bark furrows for hidden insects, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. However, in the fall and winter, they tend to eat conifer seeds. And another interesting thing: when given the choice, they tend to select the heaviest food item available. If the food is too large to eat in one piece, they will typically jam the food into bark and then hammer it open. So maybe that’s what the bird was doing when I spotted it. The piece of food in its mouth was fairly large and appeared to be some sort of nut.
I managed to snap a few good photos. I was switching my camera to video mode when the bird leapt off the tree. I looked up at the moment, then stood frozen as the bird flew straight at me, narrowly missing my head as it passed. “Did you see that?” I yelled to Derek, but he was too far down the trail to hear.