Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Expect exposed tree roots and a few rocky, steep sections when climbing up to the cliffs. The white-blazed Cliff Trail forms a 2.3-mile loop, and the yellow-blazed shortcut up to the cliffs will shorten the loop hike to be about 1.75 miles.
How to get there: The trailhead is at the far corner of the back parking lot of the Harpswell Town Office, 263 Mountain Road in Harpswell. To get there from downtown Brunswick, take Route 123 (Sills Drive, then Harpswell Road) and drive about 6.4 south to North Harpswell, then turn left onto Mountain Road. Drive 1.3 miles and the town office will be your left.
Information: Forming a loop that visits the water and an overlook atop dramatic 150-foot cliffs, the Cliff Trail is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the coastal town of Harpswell. Owned and managed by the town, the trail is located on nearly 200 conserved acres of forestland between Strawberry Creek and Long Cove.
Starting behind the Harpswell Town Office, the trail plunges into a shady forest to enter a fairy house building zone: an area where visitors are welcome to build tiny dwellings of natural materials, adding a touch of whimsy to the landscape. A sign of “Fairy House Ordinances” is posted on a tree, instructing visitors to only use dead natural materials to build homes that “look so natural they are almost hidden.” Also, these constructions can not exceed 1 cubic foot in size. They’re for fairies, after all.
As it winds through the woods, Cliff Trail runs close to the shore of Strawberry Creek, where you’ll find a short side trail leading to a nice viewpoint of the shallow waterway. While walking along the water, keep an eye out for herons and other wading birds.
After a short distance, the trail turns away from the water and intersects with the yellow-blazed Old Town Road — a shortcut that will lead you to the cliff overlook in 0.6 mile.
If you instead remain on the white-blazed Cliff Trail, it will continue through a lovely forest to reach a short side trail leading to an overlook at the edge of Henry Creek, a grassy expanse where you’ll likely spot some birds. The Cliff Trail then strikes east to climb over a ridge and down to the shore of Long Reach, just one of the many fingers of the ocean to be found in Harpswell. The forest drops off steeply to the water, so exercise caution. I suggest anyone with a dog use a leash at this point.
Turning south to trace the steep edge of the forest, the trail leads to a few nice viewpoints of Long Reach, which features tidal mudflats that attract a wide variety of animals, including wading birds and the ancient horseshoe crab. The island you’ll see out there is unnamed, according to the town of Harpswell. An unnamed island sits in the center of Long Reach, and on the opposite shore is the 95-acre Long Reach Preserve, another great hiking destination.
Turning away from the water, the Cliff Trail climbs to intersect with the yellow-blazed Old Town Road — the shortcut from earlier in the hike. Continue following the white-blazed Cliff Trail to reach the cliff overlook, which is well worth the effort. Atop the 150-foot cliffs, the overlook is a pocket of mountain-like terrain, with bare bedrock and an open view of Long Reach. Also at the overlook is a patch of sheep laurel, a low-lying plant that displays beautiful, vibrant pink blossoms.
After a nice break at the overlook, continue on the Cliff Trail south and you’ll descend the ridge to pass through a second fairy house building zone and emerge at the Transfer Station. White footprints painted on the pavement will lead you across the road to re-enter the forest for the final stretch of the hike. The trail ends east of the Harpswell Town Office. Simply walk around the building to return to the back parking lot and your vehicle.
The Cliff Trail traverses two parcels of land owned by the Town of Harpswell, the first acquired in 1978 and the second in 2002, and together these parcels total 194 acres. The idea for the trail was conceived in 2003, and the grand opening was in 2006.
Dogs are permitted if kept under control at all times. A dispenser of dog waste bags is located right at the trailhead, so there’s no excuse for leaving a mess on the trail. An outhouse is also located at the trailhead.
For more information including a trail map, visit the Harpswell Heritage Trust website at https://hhltmaine.org. There’s also information about the trail on the town website, harpswell.maine.gov.
Personal note: The first time I hiked the Cliff Trail was in early June of 2013 with my sister Jillian and my dog Oreo, who was just a young pup at the time. In fact, I’d adopted Oreo from the Bangor Humane Society just a month prior, and he was still learning about this strange activity called hiking.
That day, the three of us traversed eight trails (totalling about 10 miles) to complete the Harpswell Hiking Challenge, so we didn’t have much time to slow down and explore any one area for too long. So in the years since, I’ve returned to the region a few times to do just that: turn down the pace and really get to know certain trails.
Last Friday, I decided to revisit the Cliff Trail. And once again, I was accompanied by Oreo, who with hundreds of hikes under his belt is now a seasoned hiker. Yet he still manages to be a pain in the butt while exploring trails. Antsy from the long car ride, he continually yanked on the leash, wrapped it around trees, and lunged after chattering squirrels. As I struggled with him at the beginning of our walk, we came across a great blue heron wading in Strawberry Creek. Fortunately, the bird was far enough away that Oreo rolling about in the tall grass along the shore, his legs kicking in the air, didn’t bother the bird. I snapped a few photos and we were on our way.
As warm breeze carried the rich scent of mud and salt through the tall trees. In the fairy village, we crouched down to inspect an especially elaborate fairy house built of sticks fastened together with grass or twine. A shell throne sat at the back of the home, which also featured rock staircase and pine cone shrubbery. Then, on the ridge between Henry Creek outlook and Long Reach, I paused to inspect two especially sparkly rocks, and since I don’t know much about geology, I confidently identified the sparkle as fairy dust.
Out hunting in the shallows of Long Reach was a snowy egret, which I could only identify when it lifted its long black leg out of the water to reveal a bright yellow foot. It’s larger look-a-like, the great egret, has black feet. We then scrambled up the steepest section of the trail to the cliff overlook, where we sat in the sun and greeted a man hiking on his own. “A beautiful day for a hike,” he remarked. Yes it was.