Difficulty: Easy-moderate. The hike of Lake Loop Trail (including Pine Trail) is about 3 miles, round trip. The route travels over gentle hills. Exposed roots crossing the trail and a few bog bridges require careful footing. The route is great for hiking, dog walking, snowshoeing and given the right conditions, cross country skiing.
How to get there: The access road to the Branch Lake Public Forest is located off Route 1A (also known as Bangor Road) in Ellsworth. From the corner of Main Street and Route 1A in downtown Ellsworth, drive approximately 6.5 miles north and turn left onto the access road to the forest, which is marked with a large brown sign that reads Branch Lake Public Forest. On the access road, drive about 1 mile to a small parking area to the left of a gate barring off the tote road, which leads to all of the trails in the public forest.
For a map of the access road, visit www.cityofellsworthme.org/planning/maps/City_Forest_trails.pdf. For a trail map, up to date as of January 2014, visit http://ellsworthmaine.gov/pdfs/planning/maps/City_Forest_trails.pdf.
Information: The city of Ellsworth acquired the Branch Lake Public Forest from the Mary C. Fenn Trust in 2010 as part of a $2.4 million conservation initiative that protects nearly 1,200 acres of Branch Lake Watershed, according to a 2012 BDN story by Mario Moretto.
The deal was financed in part by Land For Maine’s Future grant money. The city purchased 451 acres, and the rest of the conserved land (745 acres) became a working forest easement, held by The Forest Society of Maine. The conservation effort is meant to protect the health and safety of the lake, Ellsworth’s drinking water supply.
In a relatively short period of time, the city in collaboration with the Frenchman Bay Conservancy planned an extensive network of hiking trails to be built on the property. In 2011 and 2012, a crew of six trailblazers from the Maine Conservation Corps constructed approximately 2.6 miles of trails.
The Pine Trail and the Lake Loop Trail were the first trails, constructed in 2011. Since then, the corps has added the Brookside Trail and the shorter Marsh Trail, bringing the total length of constructed trails in the network to 2.6 miles.
At the parking area, an updated trail map is on display by the gate barring off the tote road.
To hike the Lake Loop Trail to the shore of Branch Lake. Walk past the gate and walk about 0.5 mile on the tote road, then take a left onto Pine Trail. (You will pass the trailhead to Marsh Trail about 0.35 mile from the trailhead.) All trailheads are marked with a trail map displaying a red star that indicates where you are in the trail network.
The Pine Trail — which weaves through a stunning pine forest of both sapling and mature trees — is a little less than 0.5 mile and ends at the tote road. Directly across the road is the trailhead for the Lake Loop Trail, which is a little less than a mile in length. This starts as a single footpath, then splits into a loop not far from the road. The loop can be traveled in either direction, and the far end leads to several outlooks on the shore of Branch Lake. The forest remains mostly evergreen.
After hiking the Lake Loop Trail, you can turn left and return to the parking area via tote road. Or you can cross the road and walk the Pine Trail once more; at the end of the Pine Trail, turn right and return to the parking area via tote road.
At the tote road gate by the parking area is a sign of forest rules for visitors. It reads: do not harm trees, plants or other property; consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited; hunting, fishing and trapping are permitted (no tree stands or bear baiting); motorized vehicles are prohibited; bicycles are prohibited; and fires and overnight camping are prohibited.
Dogs are permitted on the trails, but in accordance to the City of Ellsworth Animal Control Ordinance, dogs must be controlled by a leash of not more than eight feet in length on public property.
To report a problem, call 667-2563. For a trail map, up to date as of January 2014, visit http://ellsworthmaine.gov/pdfs/planning/maps/City_Forest_trails.pdf.
Personal note: I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t plan on visiting Branch Lake Public Forest when I left the house on Saturday, Jan. 25, to go hiking with my beau Derek and our dog, Oreo. In fact, in my hand, I held the directions to two hikes in Acadia National Park. But sometimes, plans change, and I like to think of myself as flexible, if not spontaneous.
As we drove along Route 1A toward Ellsworth, the snowfall became heavier and heavier. Large snowflakes — or rather, clumps of snowflakes — splattered on the windshield, and slush started to build up on the roads, making things a bit slippery.
Branch Lake Public Forest had long been on my radar. I’d passed it several times on my way to Acadia and thought something like, “Huh. I wonder if there are trails down there.” But I always forgot about it by the time I got home. This time, when Derek and I passed the brown sign marking the public forest, I asked him to “Google it.”
At a nearby gas station, Derek handed me his phone. On the screen, was a 2011 trail map to the forest that showed at least a couple miles of trails. So we turned around and decided to explore the public forest rather than driving the slippery roads all the way to Mount Desert Island.
The 1-mile access road was in need of plowing, but the Subaru had no problem with the layer of snow. At the end, I was surprised to see we weren’t alone. A man was there cutting wood. As we prepared for the hike, the man told us he’d wait until we were a distance down the tote road to start his chainsaw — he didn’t want to scare Oreo. Nice guy.
Aside from the woodcutter, we were the only walkers on the trails that day, but I noticed a lot of old footprints that were quickly being buried by the falling snow. As we walked along the Pine Trail and then the Lake Loop Trail, the one thing we consistently commented on was the beauty of the evergreen forest, which often seemed to be growing in two layers — a short layer of young trees, overshadowed by their taller ancestors.
“This is a good find,” Derek commented as we hiked back to the parking area. We decided we’d return during another season to check out the other trails.