Difficulty: Easy to moderate. The intersecting trails in the woods total more than 2 miles and vary a bit in difficulty. The easiest trails are the Corniche Trail and Heifer Field Loop Trail. Both are wide, smooth and travel over gradual hills. The other trails in the network are narrow footpaths that travel over some steeper terrain.
How to get there: The woods has two parking areas. The largest parking area is behind Hall-Dale High School at 97 Maple Street in Farmingdale, but this parking lot is only open to trail users when school is not in session. Specifically, this is afternoons and weekends year round, and anytime during daylight hours during summer vacation. From the school parking lot, the trailhead is on the west side of the tennis courts.
In Hallowell, there is limited parking available at the corner of Litchfield Road and Middle Street. Park only in the designated parking area, not along the road. The trailhead is to the left of the informational kiosk at the parking area.
Information: Covering 197 acres in the town of Hallowell, Vaughan Woods has long been known for its natural beauty and fascinating history. In fact, local residents call it “Hobbitland,” a reference to the whimsical world imagined by the famous author J.R.R. Tolkien. But don’t let that confuse you. The property is a nature preserve, home to a network of public walking trails that are open year round.
Owned and maintained by the Vaughan Woods & Historic Homestead, with an easement held by the Kennebec Land Trust, the land is covered with old forests filled with giant white pines, tall hemlocks, old red oaks and stands of beech trees. It is a place for people to picnic by waterfalls, walk their dogs, snowshoe in silence, enjoy the brilliant fall foliage, and cool off in the shade on hot summer days.
At the northwest edge of the property, Vaughan Brook flows out of Cascade Pond, which was formed by Stickney and Page dam in 1871. Flowing swiftly through the woods, the brook travels downhill, forming small waterfalls along the way. Trail users can view this brook in several places on historic stone bridges that span the small but dynamic waterway.
The interconnected trails on the property are:
-Heifer Field Loop Trail: a wide, smooth, 1.2-mile trail that starts at the stone Driving Bridge just east of Cascade Pond and travels through a mixed forest, up and over a gradual hill, and across a field to form a loop.
-Ridge Trail: a narrow 0.5-mile footpath that travels up and along a small ridge in the landscape, starting at Uncle Sam’s Bridge (a stone bridge that is now broken) and ending in the field at Heifer Field Loop Trail.
-Arch Bridge Extension: a steep 0.1-mile trail that connects the Stone Arch Bridge to the Ridge Trail.
-Corniche Trail: a wide, smooth 0.3-mile trail that leads from the Hallowell trailhead along the side of a steep hill and down to the Driving Bridge and Cascade Pond.
-Vaughan Stream Trail: a narrow 0.3-mile trail that starts at the Corniche Trail, just before Uncle Sam’s bridge, and follows the banks of Vaughan Brook east to a waterfall known as Twelve Foot Falls and beyond that to the Stone Arch Bridge.
For history buffs, Vaughan Woods has a particularly interesting one. According to the Kennebec Land Trust, the property was once owned by the Plymouth Colony, which patented the property to facilitate trade with local Abenaki Indians. As trade decreased, the land was sold in 1661 to Benjamin Hallowell, a prominent Boston investor, and the land was later settled by his grandson Charles Vaughan in 1791. Charles’ older brother, Benjamin Vaughan (who was acquainted with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) transformed the property into an agricultural showplace, drawing many famous visitors to the homestead, including John James Audubon and Daniel Webster.
Due to this interesting history, the property is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1991, Diana Gibson, a seventh generation descendent of Benjamin Hallowell, along with her husband George, placed a conservation easement on the land through the Kennebec Land Trust, thus ensuring the woods will be protected from development and open to the public forever. Then, in 2002, Vaughan Woods & Historic Homestead was established as a nonprofit nature preserve and non-traditional house museum.
The nonprofit asks that trail users follow certain guidelines while visiting the woods, which is open to the public dawn until dusk. Motorized vehicles, bicycles, fires, camping, firearms, hunting and nighttime use are prohibited, as is the removal of natural and cultural items, such as rocks or wildflowers. Dogs must be leashed at all times, and dog waste must be carried out. And visitors are expected to park in designated areas.
Groups visiting the preserve should be no larger than 20 people, and schools and organized groups must register prior to visiting the preserve. Weddings and other group events are not permitted.
As a general rule, follow Leave No Trace principles, which include staying on maintained trails and leaving what you find.
The Vaughan Homestead was open for tours on Tuesdays throughout July and August 2016, and is also open by appointment and on the occasion of public programs and events. Admittance to the grounds is prohibited at all other times.
For more information about Vaughan Woods, call 622-9831, email email@example.com or visit vaughanhomestead.org.
Personal note: Drizzle blurred the windshield as we drove south on Interstate 95 on Sunday, Nov. 27. My husband Derek and I had family plans that afternoon in Augusta, so we decided to head out early and go on a little hike in the area beforehand. It only took me a few minutes of online research to settle on Vaughan Woods, a place that a few people had suggested to me over the years.
“Great weather,” I observed as the drizzle transitioned to a steady shower.
Derek just laughed. Fortunately, by the time we arrived in the beautiful town of Hallowell, built up along the edge of the Kennebec River, the rain had abated, but the sun was nowhere to be seen. Under a white sky, we crossed a small field, passed a old, gnarled oak tree, and entered the shady Vaughan Woods, our dog Oreo attempting to lead the way at the end of his leash.
Despite the gloomy forecast, the forest was filled with visitors, from dog walkers to families to nature photographers. Everyone we met acted respectful and friendly, but I was a bit perturbed to notice several tree trunks marred with carved initials, hearts and symbols. We also spotted a number of fairy houses — small structures made out of natural materials — located along the trail. At the time, I found them to just be interesting features to point out, but after our hike, I read online that the trail maintainers dismantle these structures in an effort to keep the scenery as natural as possible.
Good thing we didn’t take it upon ourselves to build one that day.
The experience reminded me that different places have different rules for different reasons, and it’s important to know what those rules are so you can respect the landowner’s wishes. That may seem a bit “goody two-shoes” of me, but I don’t care. I use public trails so often, often for free, and it’s important to me that I follow the rules.
As Derek, Oreo and I navigated the well-traveled trails, we talked about how the forest would look different during other seasons. In the autumn, during peak fall foliage season, I bet the woods is a beautiful place, filled with bright colors due to all of the different deciduous trees, including plenty of big oaks. And in the winter, the wide paths must be great for snowshoeing, and I can imagine ice forming along the edge of the brook in intricate shapes that make you stop and wonder.