Difficulty: Easy to moderate. The 3.6 miles of trails on the preserve are wide, fairly smooth and travel over even terrain, surfaced with gravel or moved grass and shrubs. One challenge you may face is the trails being overgrown, especially the White Trail. The most well-maintained trail is the Loop Trail, which starts and ends at the driveway near The Nature Conservancy office and leads to all other trails in the network.
How to get there: The Interstate 95 Exit 19 to Wells. At the light, turn right (west) onto Route 109 and drive about 5 miles toward Sanford. Turn right onto Wire Road and drive about 1.5 miles and the parking lot will be on your left. Park outside the gated driveway that leads into the preserve and is for authorized vehicles only. Walk into the preserve on the driveway and the Loop Trail will soon start on your right, marked with a large sign. The address for the preserve is 572 Wire Road in Wells.
Information: The sandy, shrubby landscape of Wells Barrens Preserve, punctuated with twisted pitch pines and bright wood lilies, is a place of beauty and ecological importance. Home to a number of rare plants and birds, the preserve was established in 2007, when The Nature Conservancy purchased 367 acres from Wells Blueberry Inc. Today, the public can explore this property by foot, on a network of trails that form four interconnecting loops and altogether total 3.6 miles.
Each trail is blazed with a different color. Starting at the parking area, visitors must walk past the gate and into the preserve on a short driveway. Just before reaching the large white building that serves as an office for The Nature Conservancy, the Yellow Trail begins on your right, marked with a sign that says Loop Trail. Just beyond that sign is an educational display about black racer snakes.
The Yellow Trail forms the main loop trail on the property, measuring at 1.5 miles long. Branching off of this main loop is the 0.5-mile Red Trail, 0.5-mile Blue Trail and 1.1-mile White Trails, all of which loop back to the Yellow Trail. Because the trail network travels through sandplain grasslands and barrens, there is little shelter from the elements. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses.
Wells Barrens, together with the adjacent Kennebunk Plains, is the largest intact example of sandplain grasslands remaining in New England. It was formed by melting glaciers about 14,000 years ago, when meltwater streams deposited sand and gravel over the land, according to a report by Beginning with Habitat, a collaborative conservation program of federal, state and local agencies and non-governmental organizations. This type of soil has little capacity to hold water and nutrients, meaning all plants and animals living on it need to be adapted for frequent droughts and fires.
According to the report, the area is home to four natural community types — sandplain grassland, pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, pitch pine-heath barrens and red maple alluvial swamp forest — and supports populations of 14 rare plant and animal species.
The grasslands on the property are home to what may be the world’s largest population of northern blazing star, a tall perennial with showy, thistle-like flowers that are a light purple. Other rare plants on the property include toothed white-topped aster and upright bindweed.
The site is also only one of few known locations in Maine that the black racer snake calls home. Though common in the south, the black racer snake is on Maine’s endangered species list. It is also Maine’s largest snake, growing up to 6 feet long, and it’s known for being especially fast, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. As its name implies, the snake is uniformly black or bluish-black, with shiny scales and a white chin and throat.
Wells Barrens and the Kennebunk Plains are also home to the ribbon snake and wood turtle, two reptiles that are listed as species of special concern in Maine. And bird species found there include (but are certainly not limited to) grasshopper sparrows, sandpipers, vesper sparrows and eastern meadowlarks.
If you are particularly interested in the geology of the land, be sure to check out the Red Trail of the preserve, which has a side trail leading out to a sand pit that is just outside the preserve boundary but is owned by the water district. The preserve lies above an important drinking water aquifer within the Branch Brook Watershed, a key drinking water resource for Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells.
The preserve is open from dawn until dusk, and visitors are expected to pick up after themselves and stay on the trails. Dogs are not permitted. Bikes, fires and camping are also prohibited. Snowmobiles are allowed on the trails, but ATVS and other motorized vehicles are not.
For more information, call The Nature Conservancy Maine field office at 207-729-5181.
Personal note: It has been a rainy, cold summer so far, by Maine standards, but perhaps I shouldn’t complain about muddy trails and cloudy skies after last summer’s drought. Usually I try to plan my outdoor adventures for sunny days, but recently I’ve just had to take what Mother Nature gives me — or would it be Father Sky?
Anyway, it was disappointingly gloomy last Thursday, July 13, when I drove to southern Maine for a work event, but I decided to tack an outdoor adventure onto my travels anyway. I had read about Wells Barrens Preserve online while looking for places to hike, and it seemed like a great option. The trail network was extensive but not daunting, the habitats on the property sounded interesting, and when I saw the preserve was home to the black racer snake, I was sold. I’m a big fan of critters, big or small, furry or scaly.
It was early afternoon when I started off on the preserve’s Yellow Trail, in awe at the abundance of tiny ripe lowbush blueberries lining the trail. A white-tailed deer darted across the trail ahead of me, crows made strange sounds from the forest nearby and a gentle wind kept the mosquitoes at bay. I scanned the shrubs and grasses for the rare black racer snake. Every once in awhile, a dark, rain-soaked root of a pitch pine tree would trick me into thinking I’d finally stumbled upon the snake, but it wasn’t in the cards that day. And quite honestly, I knew my odds of finding the endangered snake were fairly low. I wasn’t too disappointed.
As I walked along the trail, I paused several times to photograph plants, including bright wood lilies, which are a neon orange-pink-red color that I can’t quite put my finger on.I also enjoyed the songs of various songbirds, most of which I couldn’t identify at first sight. But birding, even if you aren’t especially knowledgeable or experienced, can be quite fun because if you manage to capture a photograph, you can use a lot of tools to identify birds later.
One bird, in particular, I kept seeing over and over again, flying from bush to bush. They were quite illusive, always keeping an eye on me and a step ahead, though they were easy to spot because every time they flew into a bush, they made its leaves shake as they jumped from branch to branch. In the fading daylight, I could tell the bird was rather large, with a dark back and head, a long dark tail, and a white and reddish-orange breast. My first two thoughts, American robin and evening grosbeak, I knew were incorrect because of the pattern on the birds chest. So I photographed the bird and later looked it up online using Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. It appeared to be an eastern towhee, and to be sure, I compared sound clips from my hike to sound clips of the towhee’s call online. They matched perfectly. So now I can add that species to my list!
Before wrapping up my adventure, I hiked part of the White Trail, which was a bit overgrown, and the entire Red Trail, so I could visit the sand pit that I noticed on the trail map posted on the kiosk at the parking area. (It’s always a good idea to study trail maps for interesting features on a property.) I walked around the sand put for several minutes, inspecting the fine sand and noticing a number of animal tracks, including deer tracks and what appeared to be wild turkey tracks. I then had a tough time locating the trail I’d entered the sand pit on. “I’m lost in the desert,” I thought, then laughed at my own joke. Tracing the edge of the sand pit, I eventually did find the trail.
The adventure was a great success, but I will leave you with one word of caution. Beware of ticks on this property. I picked about a dozen ticks off me after my walk. None of them embedded into my skin, but that’s because I performed several tick checks directly after my hike. I had been wearing jeans, boots and tall socks during my hike, and the ticks managed to wiggle into the folds of my socks, the creases in my boots and several crawled up my jeans. I would not go back to the preserve without long pants tucked into socks, with both articles of clothing treated with permethrin beforehand.