Difficulty: Easy to moderate, depending on how many trails you choose to explore. The trails total over 3 miles and are well maintained and marked with blazes painted on trees. The surface of the trails is forest floor, which can be uneven and muddy in spots. Expect a few hills and short stretches of narrow bog bridges.
How to get there: The trail network is located on the Good Will-Hinckley campus, which is off Route 201 in Fairfield. Starting at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 201 near the Hinckley Boat Launch (on the west end of a bridge over the Kennebec River) in Fairfield, drive south on Route 201 for about 1 mile and you’ll see a sign for Kennebec Valley Community College, then signs for Good Will-Hinckley on your right. Continue on Route 201 for about 0.6 mile and turn right onto Easler Road, right after the big sign for the L.C.Bates Museum. Drive less than 0.1 mile to a small parking lot for the museum, which will be on your right. Park there and enter the museum for a trail map before exploring the trail network, which starts on the other side of Easler Road and is marked by a large trailhead kiosk displaying a trail map. If facing the kiosk, the Dartmouth Trail starts to the left and leads into the trail network.
The construction of the Good Will-Hinckley Trails were started in the early 1900s by George Walter Hinckley, founder of Good Will-Hinckley Homes for Boys and Girls. Weaving through the forest and fields of Fairfield, the trails were for the children living at the Good Will-Hinckley Homes, as well as visitors to the property. He built them to encourage outdoor recreation and foster curiosity about the natural world.
Today, the trails in the network total more than 3 miles and visit several historical stone monuments, which are marked on a trail map and described in a brochure. The four main trails of the network are marked with blazes of different colors: Dartmouth Trail has green and white blazes; Bowdoin Trail, black and white; Continental Trail, yellow and white; and Hennigar Trail, red and white. All side trails and connecting trails simply have white blazes.
For new visitors, navigating this trail network would be extremely difficult without a trail map.
The stone monuments located throughout the trail network include a stone throne originally constructed in 1912 by Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America; a stone monument built in 1921 in honor of Theodore Roosevelt that includes a stone from the Roosevelt estate on Long Island; the Granite House, a stone and log cabin constructed by Charles D. Hubbard for the exhibition of Maine granites; and the Sunrise Fireplace, a stone fireplace built in 1933 in the middle of the forest.
The trails also lead to outdoor classrooms, beautiful stone trail entrances and other stone monuments and memorials to people involved in conservation, outdoor education and the studying of nature such as Adirondack Murray, “Father of the Outdoor Movement.”
The importance of this unique trail network, with its many stone memorials, was explained by Hinckley in 1939. He wrote, “Memorials are valuable because: first, they take us into the past and show us why we should be grateful; second, they inspire us to emulate the examples memorialized; and third, they beckon us into the future.”
The campus and mission of Good Will-Hinckley has changed of the years, but it has always been a place of learning and outdoor activity.
Today, the 1,000-acre campus includes a charter school called Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the L.C. Bates Museum, the Glenn Stratton Learning Center, the Moody School and the 21st Century Community Learning Center, which is home to an afterschool program.
The L.C. Bates Museum was constructed in the early 1900s by Hinckley, who was an avid collector of natural objects. One of the highlights of the museum are unique dioramas painted by Charles D. Hubbard, an avid outdoorsman and plein air painter. These dioramas display a variety of taxidermied animals that are native to Maine. Hubbard aimed to depict specific areas of the state in the dioramas, and he went on-site to paint the backgrounds for each.
The museum also includes a variety of other natural history exhibits, as well as collections of Native American artifacts; a room devoted to the display of rocks, minerals and fossils; classrooms and interactive nature displays for children; an old printing press and other antiques; a room filled with taxidermied birds, eggs and bones; and a marine room that includes a fascinating seashell collection, mounted fish and whale bones.
The museum also includes a gift shop, where there is always a craft project set up for children, and outside is an arboretum and a group of picnic tables near the trail network kiosk.
Admission to the museum is $3 for adults and $1 for children 17 years old and younger.
The L.C. Bates Museum and the trails are open to the public year round. During the winter, museum is open by appointment or by chance. Staff is usually at the museum Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, and most Sundays from 1 to 4:30 p.m., but it’s best to call ahead to ensure someone will be there. Also, visitors should dress warmly during the winter because the museum will be chilly. Staff will not be at the museum if the roads are snowy.
The trails are open to walkers and leashed dogs. Bikes, motorized vehicles, fires, smoking, alcoholic beverages and camping are not permitted.
For information about the L.C. Bates Museum and the Good Will-Hinckley Trails, visit gwh.org/lcbates or call 238-4350.
Personal note: My dog Oreo waited in the car as I walked up the snow-packed steps of the L.C. Bates Museum on March 8, to the front doors of the great brick building. A sign posted on the large wooden doors flapped in the wind, and I grabbed it to make out the writing. Use the side door, it instructed, so I descended the granite stairs with care and skirted walked back across the soggy lawn, skirting around patches of mud by the parking area to find the small door. I wasn’t sure the museum would be open. In the winter, the museum is open by chance or appointment. But I was there, so why not give it a try?
The small wooden door gave way, to my surprise, swinging into a dim, cold room. I stepped inside. Staring down at me was an antelope. It stood on a glass case, which was filled with wood blocks and pressed leaves. My focus widened, taking in rows of such displays, bleached animal skulls and turtle shells and animals frozen in time through the art of taxidermy. There were black bear cubs wrestling, a bobat baring its teeth, and a snake poised, ready to strike.
As I processed the odd surroundings, I almost tripped over a wooden chair placed just before the door. On it sat a brass bell and a sign instructing visitors to ring upon arrival. I picked it up, swung it back and forth lightly, breaking the silence with a timid “ding … ding.” A cheerful young woman came around the corner almost instantly, and I explained to her my goal — to see the nature trails.
I soon was placed into the hands of museum curator Deborah Staber, who gave me a quick tour of the museum and told me about the museum’s many public nature programs. A nighttime program moths and meteorites sounded like it would be especially interesting. I signed up for the museum’s email list as Staber grabbed me a trail map and several other brochures. She then led me through the daily craft: a pipe cleaner bracelet adorned with clear beads that turn colors in the sun. It shows kids when UV rays are present and opens up a conversation about wearing sunscreen, she explained.
I could have spent hours in the museum, enjoying Hubbard’s beautiful dioramas, inspecting taxidermied Maine birds that I’ve only seen from afar and ogling the sparkly minerals in the rock room. But I was there for the trails, the sun was shining, and Oreo was waiting.
Our exploration of the trails took about three hours, and in that time, we managed to visit almost every stone monument listed on the trail map brochure. Oreo climbed up onto the stone Seton Throne and sniffed around the Granite House. We walked down the Avenue of Pines and sat on a bench of an outdoor classroom for a snack. And the whole time, we saw not another soul, save for many chickadees and nuthatches and one pileated woodpecker that flew so close overhead it seemed a “hello.”