Difficulty: Easy to moderate, depending on how much of the trail network you choose to tackle. All of the trails add up to about 5 miles in length. Some of the trails are smooth enough for strollers and wheelchairs, while some of the forest trails travel over rougher terrain with exposed tree roots.
How to get there: The arboretum is located at 153 Hospital Street in Augusta. If driving south on I-95, take Exit 109A; and if driving north on I-95, take Exit 109. Both exits lead to Western Avenue, where you will drive east on for about 1.5 miles to a roundabout. At the roundabout, take the second exit to continue on Western Avenue across the Kennebec River. After the bridge, at the next roundabout, take the first exit onto Stone Street (Route 17) and drive 0.5 miles. Continue straight onto Hospital Street and drive about 0.7 miles and Viles Arboretum will be on your left, marked with a large sign.
Information: In the midst of Maine’s capital city, the Viles Arboretum is 224 acres of fields, orchards, gardens and forests that the public can explore on a 5-mile network of intersecting trails. Most trails are smooth and easy, though there are a few hills and rougher forest trails along the edges of the property.
The arboretum dates back to 1981, when the Maine Forest Service began its development by planting 120 trees and constructing many fences, bridges, trails and a boardwalk. The next year, a private non-profit corporation was formed called the Pine Tree State Arboretum to manage the preserve, and the following year, a visitors center was built near the parking area, according to the Viles Arboretum website, vilesarboretum.org, which outlines the arboretum’s history in detail.
An arboretum is a place where a variety of trees, shrubs and other plants are grown to be studied and viewed by the public, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Over the years, the Viles Arboretum has expanded to house a number of fascinating plant collections, including a rock garden of alpine plants, the state’s largest public hosta garden, an heirloom apple tree grove, flowering trees, an American chestnut collection, a lilac garden, a nut tree collection and stands of various conifers and deciduous trees.
A few highlights of the property include “The General Sugar Maple,” a giant old sugar maple near the parking area; Viles Pond, home to turtles, waterfowl and wading birds; and a stand of white pines that as seeds orbited the Earth 93 times, traveling 2.4 million miles, in 1991 on the space shuttle Atlantis.
There are also several historical landmarks on the property.
In the early 1800s, the area was owned by several neighboring farms, according to the Viles Arboretum website. From 1835 to 1905, the State Hospital (now Augusta Mental Health Institute) purchased and consolidated the farms into a “hospital farm,” which provided crops and livestock, as well as occupational therapy and exercise for hospital patients. Evidence of this history remains on the land. For example, remains of a piggery is visited by one of the trails.
A detailed trail map posted on the kiosk to the left of the visitor center helps visitors find these landmarks, as well as specific gardens and groves of interest.
When the arboretum was established in the early 1980s, it was initially called Pine Tree State Arboretum. In 2010, the arboretum was renamed the Viles Arboretum to honor William Payson Viles (1906-1986) and Elsie Pike Viles (1914-2013), who were instrumental in establishing the arboretum, and who providing guidance and financial support as the property developed over the years.
In recent years, under the arboretum’s “Shifting Gears Initiative,” the arboretum has added a wealth of artwork to the gardens, including many large stone sculptures. There has also been installation of interpretive panels for 20 of the botanical collections, as well as a new plant labeling process, making it easier for visitors to learn about the variety of plants on display.
Recreational uses of the land vary from hiking to horseback riding, and in the winter, the trail network is a popular place for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Dogs are permitted if on leash at all times. Hunting and smoking is prohibited. The arboretum board also asks that visitors refrain from climbing on sculptures or picking apples.
The grounds are open to the public for free daily, dawn to dusk, year round. A donation container is located near the kiosk. For information, visit vilesarboretum.org or call 626-7989.
Personal note: On Columbus Day, I drove south to Augusta to meet a biologist who specializes in carnivores to ask her questions for a story I’m working on for the next edition of the BDN Maine Outdoors magazine. Whenever I have to travel more than an hour for an interview, I try to take the opportunity to visit a trail or some sort of outdoor locale. So I asked the biologist to meet me at Viles Arboretum, a place I’d had my eye on for a while.
I figured, because of all the different trees growing there, the arboretum would be a great place to visit during the autumn, when leaves on many trees are changing vibrant colors. (Did you know that the needles of evergreens are actually leaves, just hardy ones capable of surviving the cold because of their waxy coating?) I was right. The maples and oaks were starting to show off fall foliage, despite the fact that it felt like summer on that particular day. It was 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you believe it?
The biologist and I sat on a stone bench surrounded by a variety trees — English oak, honeylocust, northern catalpa among them — and chatted in the sun. (And don’t think I can identify those trees by eye. I looked at the identification tags dangling from their branches.)
After the interview, I hit the trails and managed to find many of the major landmarks. One of my favorite places was the conifer collection, which included a droopy tree called a weeping white pine. The space shuttle trees were pretty cool, too.
While exploring, I stopped to chat with a man sitting on a bench at the edge of Viles Pond. He enjoys visiting the arboretum to go birding, he said. With all the different habitats on the property, including fields dotted with nesting boxes, it seems like a great place to spot birds. While I wasn’t actively looking for birds, I noticed the shrill call of a pileated woodpecker, as well as a group of friendly chickadees and nuthatches in the shaded hosta garden. I also spotted two Eastern painted turtles sunning on a log in the pond. As soon as they saw me, they hit the water.