CUTLER, Me. – As I was about to pull the car into a small dirt parking lot, a yearling moose appeared at roadside, ambled into the deep spruce forest in front of us and disappeared.
This was going to be good.
My daughter, Allison, and I parked, strapped on our packs and, within a half-hour on a cool, windy morning in late spring, began hiking the Bold Coast Trail, a trail that is about as northeast as you can get in the Northeastern United States.
If the quintessential knock-your-wool-socks-off scenic trail is supposed to be a mountain path in the Rockies or Appalachians, the Bold Coast Trail, we quickly discovered, is doing its part to displace that image with one of seacoast and spruce.
There are no big mountains in Cutler, only some hills, but there are thousands of acres of shaggy spruce and fir forest, like a gargantuan Christmas tree farm gone native, and miles of coastal cliffs that drop dramatically to the frothy sea below.
Within a 12,000-acre state-owned preserve that abuts the sea — known as the Cutler Coast Unit — the Bold Coast Trail hugs those cliff edges for nearly 5 miles, tracing every cove, every promontory, before wending another 5-plus miles inland through a forest spiced with brooks, wetlands and ponds. It is one of the wildest remaining pieces of coastline in the Eastern United States, so unspoiled you can see moose in the woods and whales in the water but hike for hours without seeing a building.
The trail, which opened to the public only in 1994, is the happy ending to what might have been a shame. The land, owned by a forest-products company, went on the market and was to be carved up for development. Alarmed, the community launched a move to preserve the land, and eventually the state acquired it.
It was immediately obvious that this tract would be a great place for a trail, and the resulting layout is dramatic enough to deserve status as a destination hike.
You can make a long weekend out of a visit to the preserve, combining it with other coastal trails nearby and a visit to Cutler, as authentic a fishing village as you are likely to encounter anywhere in New England. There is the blue water of the harbor, the old wooden docks and the colorful lobster boats, with nary a tourism amenity to intrude.
This is the Bold Coast area of Maine, in Downeast Maine, which means it is serious lobster and blueberry country. Good lobster is not hard to find, and as for the blueberries, which grow in vast heath-like colonies, there is not only blueberry cobbler, but blueberry everything for sale.
The Bold Coast Trail gives hikers choices. From the parking area, it is only 1.5 miles to the cliffs, where, if you just want a quick look at this wild coast, you can scan the seascape and go back to the car; a great photo op for a hike of 3 miles. Or you can hike to the sea and follow the coastal cliffs another 1.5 miles to the Black Pond Brook Cutoff, making a 5.8-mile loop.
This is a perfect day hike for many people and will provide plenty of coastal views and a real feel for the forest. There is a map of the layout at the trailhead.
Or you can hike the entire 9.8-mile loop trail, which is, again, a mix of coast and forest hiking. At the farthest point from the parking lot, about 5 miles away, there are three widely spaced campsites tucked into the forest edge at cliffside and accessible only by the trail. Each has a view of the sea and the sunrise, your reward for lugging that backpack.
Allison and I wanted to hike the entire trail. The question was whether to camp or not, hiking 5 miles one day, 5 the next. With rain in the forecast, and the black flies bountiful (they’re at their worst in late May and early June but not much of a problem after that), we decided at the last minute not to camp. We would hike the whole thing in one day. With spring in our step, we soon found ourselves at the edge of the sea, Grand Manan Island, Canada, in front of us, and to our right the coastline that we would follow for the next 3.8 miles.
For the most part, the trail follows the cliff edge closely — so closely, there are places you need to be most careful. This is meant to be a natural area, and there are no railings. There is cliff, and then there is the water and rocks below. If you were to bring a child, you will hold hands here.
We could see for miles, and lobster pot buoys in the water below were the only sign of civilization. Out of sight, but only miles away, was Cutler Harbor and the fishermen who tend the pots. We saw only one small boat in more than two hours along the cliffs.
In places, the trail dipped down to water’s edge, over stones smoothed by years of crashing waves. A raft of eiders bobbed in the water — which is astonishingly clear — next to some exposed offshore rocks. Gulls flew by. From early summer to early fall, humpback, northern right, finback and minke whales can sometimes be seen from the trail. We missed the whales.
Up and down we went, from one cliffside outlook to the next on a trail marked mostly in blue blazes but sometimes with cairns, little pyramids of stones. This was not a mountain hike, but the elevation changes were continuous and burned up plenty of energy. At the 5-mile point, we stopped beside one of the campsites — thinking how nice it would have been to camp for the night — and had our lunch. We could see in the distance the lighthouse near Cutler Harbor. A flock of waxwings was busy in the trees behind us.
The coastal section of the trail easily ranks as one of the most dramatically scenic in the East, but the section through the forest is a pleasure in its own right.
The trees alone are enough to hold interest. At one point a boardwalk crosses a white cedar swamp, a habitat increasingly uncommon. In places, birches are abundant, or tamaracks, with delicate needles that are shed each fall. Wildlife is plentiful.
As we came down a small hill, a tiny mass of brilliant yellow feathers flitted from limb to limb, in sharp contrast to the deep green of a spruce bough not 10 feet off the ground. It was a magnolia warbler, one of the most colorful of warblers, with black streaks on its bright yellow breast. It is a species that spends its summers in spruces.
Stopping for every interesting bird — we also saw a three-toed woodpecker, a bird of the far North and a real find — and wanting to etch every vantage into our memories, we took nearly all day making the 9.8-mile loop.
Because the trail was more up and down than we expected, we were very tired and hungry when we finished. A lobster or fish dinner is never hard to find in Downeast Maine, nor is a good chowder, which was the first thing I ordered when we reached town. That’s how you toast a coastal hike.
If you plan to hike the Bold Coast Trail: Directions: From Bangor, Maine, take Route 1A to Ellsworth, Route 1 to Machias. Turn right on Route 191, and continue 16.9 miles, through the village of Cutler to the trail parking area on the right. There is an entrance sign.