Difficulty: Easy to moderate. The Belfast section of the 46-mile trail travels through many different types of forests, navigating small hills and a few footbridges along the way.
How to get there: There are several trailheads located along the Hills to Sea Trail so people can explore different sections. All official parking areas are marked on the Hills to Sea Trail map available at www.waldotrails.org.
To explore the Belfast section of the trail, I used the parking lot at the east end of the Hills to Sea Trail, which is located at the City Point Central Railroad Museum at 13 Oak Hill Road in Belfast. To get there from Route 1 in Belfast, turn onto Swan Lake Avenue on the east side of the Route 1 bridge that spans the Passagassawakeag River. Drive about 0.1 mile on Swan Lake Avenue, then turn left onto Robbins Road. Drive about 1 mile, then turn left onto Kaler Road. Drive 1.3 miles, then turn left onto Oak Hill Road. Drive just a few hundred feet and the railroad station parking lot will be on your left.
Information: An ambitious collaborative project to create a continuous walking trail from the hills of Unity to the water in Belfast was completed this fall. The trail, measuring at about 46 miles long, is called the Hills to Sea Trail. Marked with blue blazes and wooden signs, it now stretches from Unity College southeast to the new Belfast Rail Trail.
“The things we’re still doing putting up information on some of the [trailhead] kiosks, but it’s all blazed, and there’s a website where people can download the map,” said Cloe Chunn, secretary for the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, which is one of several local organizations that banded together to create the Waldo County Trails Coalition, the group responsible to planning out and building the trail.
The Hills to Sea Trail now travels through the towns of Unity, Thorndike, Knox, Freedom, Montville, Morrill, Waldo and Belfast.
The first section of the Hills to Sea trail was completed in 2013 between Unity Village and MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center in Thorndike. And the last section of the trail, which was completed on Sept. 22 of this year, spans from Route 131 in Belfast to the road that leads into Frye Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Knox.
“That was the last day that the trail crew had to actually cut the trail,” Chunn said.
Celebrations for the trail’s completion are being planned for spring 2017.
The Waldo County Trails Coalition’s mission is for this trail to raise environmental awareness and education, support community wellness by creating more opportunities for outdoor recreation, support of the area’s working landscape, and economically support farms and other area businesses by attracting tourism.
The Belfast sections of the trail starts (or ends) across Oak Hill Road from the City Point Central Railroad Museum, where trail users can continue their walk on the new multi-use Belfast Rail Trail along the Passagassawakeag River. This 2.2-mile rail trail was completed during the summer of this year and is not an official part of the Hills to Sea Trail. Nevertheless, it serves as a final connection to the waterfront in downtown Belfast.
Heading west on the trail from the railroad station and museum, the Hills to Sea Trail is a traditional hiking trail, narrow but well maintained and marked with blue blazes and plenty of signs. From Oak Hill Road, the trail travels through a mixed forest made up of a wide variety of trees, including large oaks and white pines, stands of beech, white and yellow birches, the occasional tamarack and clusters of fragrant balsam firs.
This section of trail crosses a few powerline corridors as well as East Waldo Road. It also crosses a brook called Marsh Fork on a wide wooden footbridge. In less than 1 mile, the trail crosses the town line into Waldo, and soon after, it arrives at a small boulder called “Lunch Rock.” A sign marks this landmark.
Trail users can turn around there and backtrack their steps or continue up and over a few hills to the nearby Jennifer Hill, a hill in the woods topped by another interesting boulder (and marked with a sign). Or you could just keep walking all the way to Unity.
From Belfast to Unity, the Hills to Sea Trail travels through conserved land and the properties of more than 60 private landowners. Therefore, it’s especially important that trail users stay on trail and respect the privacy of landowners.
The Hills to Sea trail is for foot traffic only. Trail users are expected to carry out what they carry in, wear protective blaze orange clothing during hunting seasons, and know where the dog-restricted areas are. In areas where dogs are permitted, dogs should be kept under control at all times. Camping and fires are not permitted.
The organizations that make up the Waldo County Trails Coalition are Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, Future RSU 3 , Georges River Land Trust, Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, Midcoast Conservancy, Unity College and Unity Barn Raisers.
Personal note: After receiving an email with the new, complete trail map for the Hills to Sea Trail in mid-October, I decided to head to Belfast and check out the easternmost section of the trail with my husband Derek and our dog Oreo. (I had already hiked the westernmost section while exploring the Unity College Forest trails last year.)
It was a blustery day on Sunday, Oct. 23, when we arrived at the Belfast and Moosehead Railroad station and museum, where a little girl was having her picture taken in front of the passenger train. Despite the cold weather, vehicles nearly filled the parking lot. Some of the vehicles belonged to people who were walking the wide, smooth rail trail into downtown Belfast, while others belonged to people who were hiking on the opposite direction on the Hills to Sea Trail.
While on the trail that day, we came across nine other people walking that section of the Hills to Sea Trail, including two boys, ages 6 and 8, looking for a suitable place to hide a geocache with their family.
Cozy in fleece jackets and winter hats, we walked to Lunch Rock and Jennifer Hill before turning around and retracing our steps to the railroad museum. Along the way, we found plenty of interesting natural objects for me to photograph, including a log covered with tree mushroom edged with violet, lichen tipped with bright red and one of the coolest display of orange jelly fungi I’ve ever seen. (…and I’m officially a nature geek.)
While peak fall foliage season had passed, some trees still held onto their colorful leaves in Belfast, and a fluffy layer of leaves also covered the forest floor, shifting and rustling underfoot. Unfortunately, crawling through those leaves were a number of ticks, several of which found their way onto Oreo and our clothing. By the end of the hike, we’d picked about 10 ticks off Oreo, two ticks off my jacket and two ticks off Derek’s pants. For us, the experience drove home the importance of conducting tick checks after hiking in Maine.