Difficulty: Easy-moderate. The 1.2-mile Don Lima Trail is wide and smooth, surfaced with mowed grass in the fields and gravel in the forest. The trail forms a loop that begins and ends at the refuge visitor center. The East Loring Division of the refuge is also home to longer, more challenging trails that together total just over 7 miles.
How to get there: The address to the refuge office and visitor center is 97 Refuge Road in Limestone. To get there from Route 1 in the nearby town of Caribou, take Route 89 (Access Highway) east 7.3 miles and turn left onto Commerce Center Road. Drive 1.1 miles, then veer right on a bend to stay on Commerce Center Road. Drive 0.2 miles and turn right onto Refuge Road. Drive 0.2 miles and turn right onto the driveway leading to the refuge visitor center and headquarters. That is currently the only parking area for the East Loring Division trails, though there are plans for a second parking lot to open by Beaver Pond Trail in the near future. This parking area is already shown on the refuge trail map.
Information: Comprised of 7,750 acres in northern Maine, the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge includes part of the former Loring Air Force Base, a key military facility throughout the Cold War. From 1950 to 1994, the Strategic Air Command stationed at the base, flying long-range bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons. And in the northeast corner of the site, the Caribou Air Force Station served as a top-secret, self-contained nuclear weapons storage base.
Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1998, when land was transferred from the US Air Force to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which immediately took measures to welcome a variety of wildlife back to the site. Since then, military buildings have been demolished on the property, and areas with contaminated soils have been cleaned up.
Today, old weapons bunkers and other traces of the base remain on the property, which is quickly transitioning back into the hands of Mother Nature.
The refuge now features more than 13 miles of public hiking trails split between two separate parcels of land. The East Loring Division of the refuge includes 8.4 miles of hiking trails, while the Greenlaw Brook Division features 5.1 miles of trails.
For this blog post, I’ll focus on the East Loring Division, where the refuge office, visitor center, and nature store are located, as well as an easy interpretive nature trail and two photo blinds for wildlife watchers.
The most popular trail on the East Loring Division, the 1.2-mile Don Lima Trail, forms a loop that begins and ends at the refuge office and visitor center. Throughout the trail are detailed interpretive displays with text and illustrations of local wildlife and important habitats seen along the trail, such as vernal pools and other types of wetlands. Also along the Don Lima Trail are signs identifying a variety of trees, including tamarack, balsam fir, white birch and quaking aspen.
Another highlight of the Don Lima Trail is a photo blind located by a beaver lodge and wetlands. This small green building is the perfect spot for visitors to watch for wildlife (and escape some of the bugs). Animals commonly spotted at the refuge include chickadees, spruce and ruffed grouses, black-backed woodpeckers, blackburnian and bay breasted warblers, hermit thrush, American woodcock, northern goshawk, bald eagle, moose, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, beaver, lynx, river otter, mink, ermine and coyote, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, the Don Lima Trail leads to the 3.5-mile East Loring Trail, which is wide and surfaced with mowed grass. This trail strikes north through the refuge to the 1-mile Durepo Loop Trail and 0.7-mile Beaver Pond Trail. The East Loring Trails ends with a small loop east of East Loring Lake.
The refuge trails are open to the public seven days a week, from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. Office staff fluctuates throughout the year. However, the Friends of Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge Gift Store (located in the office building) is open 1-4 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Hunting and fishing are not permitted on the refuge. Bike riding is only permitted on the Auto Tour Route. And dogs are permitted on the trails if on a leash not exceeding 10 feet at all times.
Personal note: I first visited Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in May of 2013 to learn about an odd experiment they were conducting to learn more about white-nose syndrome, a disease that has been killing off certain species of bats for several years now. Biologists from throughout the northeast were working with the refuge to create artificial hibernacula (bat caves) in old weapons bunkers on the property. Their hope was that these sterilized bunkers would help the bats survive.
The experiment wasn’t wildly successful, but it did help biologists learn more about white-nose syndrome and the use of artificial hibernacula.
A couple weeks ago, I returned to refuge on an entirely different mission — to walk its Don Lima Trail and learn more about the recreational opportunities on the property.
The refuge is a few hours from where I live in the Bangor area, so I’d made a weekend trip of it with my husband, Derek; our dog, Oreo; Derek’s mom, Geneva; and Geneva’s longtime boyfriend, John. We set up camp in Presque Isle on Friday evening, not far from Aroostook State Park, then spent the weekend exploring the area.
By the time we drove up to Limestone to visit the refuge, it was Sunday, and we were tired from two late nights playing a dice game called Tenzi by lantern light, swimming in Echo Lake, eating copious amounts of food, enjoying homemade mojitos and hiking area trails.
The easy Don Lima Trail was the perfect walk for weary travelers. We moved slowly, which gave us the chance to notice the small things — such as moose tracks in the mud and tiny pink, a yellow crab spider perched on a black-eyed susan, and little pink bell-shaped flowers I’d never seen before. (Back at home, I did some searching on the internet, and I believe they were a European wildflower called bladder campion, a plant that is now widespread in North America and considered a weed. This plant flowers in mid-June, so by the time we came across it up north, the blossoms were starting to dry into what looked like tiny paper lanterns.
The most exciting part of our hike was when we spotted a beaver swimming in a pond not far from a beaver lodge. Standing on a grassy hill above the pond, we watched the beaver for several minutes (me photographing it with glee). The beaver was so close to us — and the forest was so quiet — that we could hear its teeth as it scraped bark off sticks and munched on leaves. I could also watch its flat tail move from side to side, acting as a rudder as it swam. And several times, it slapped its tail, creating a big splash as it dove underwater.
More photos from the hike: