There’s a green gate on the north side of Route 1/3 in East Orland, about halfway between Bucksport and Ellsworth. Next to it is a parking lot for a few cars, an information kiosk and a small white sign that reads, “Great Pond Mountain Wildlands.”
Cruising along at 55 mph on this straightaway stretch of highway, it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.
The gate and the sign finally caught my eye one day and I turned the car around and drove in. It was one of those “Well, I’ll be” moments. I’d heard of this place, but hadn’t a clue where it was. No more. I didn’t have time to explore that day, but my wife and I returned on a fine day last May.
We shouldered our day packs and struck off for adventure, passing by the gate and romping down the road, excited to see what lay ahead. We quickly turned onto the Esker Path and followed its snaking route for a mile before bearing right on Hilltop Trail. Ahead at a junction, we climbed switchbacks to the grassy summit of Oak Hill and fine views south toward the coast and west across Hothole Valley to the impressive cliffs on Great Pond Mountain.
Descending to the north on the East Ridge Path, we reached Hemlock Brook. Beyond, the Flag Path led us up the long, rocky ridge of Flag Hill and views that got better with each step. We could see Katahdin and the White Mountains in the north and west, across Branch Lake to Schoodic Mountain in the east, and Fort Knox and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge in Bucksport to the south.
“It’s remarkable,” exclaimed Scott Bennett, an active member of the trust and chair of its paths committee. “Views just don’t get any better on the coast.”
No doubt. We looped back to the car via paths and gravel roads (the trust calls them trails) to complete a most excellent hike of about nine miles.
The Great Pond Mountain Wildlands was purchased in 2005 by the Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust. At 4,300 acres, it is one of the largest parcels of land ever acquired by a Maine land trust. The purchase fulfilled the dream of a local man named Stewart Gross, who founded the trust in 1993.
“Stewart Gross climbed Great Pond Mountain several times a week,” said Bennett. “He looked around each time and wanted to protect it, but he died in 1997 without reaching his goal of buying the land.”
Instead, a logger bought the property and cut it heavily. By 2005, the owner’s plan was to subdivide the parcel, but that proved impractical and so it was put up for sale. That’s when the trust stepped in and raised an astounding $2.86 million to seal the conservation deal.
“A private donor gave $1 million, the Land for Maine’s Future Program injected $346,000, and the remainder came from a host of small contributions from individuals,” Bennett said.
The trust immediately set about stabilizing the miles of gravel roads, conducting a natural resource and timber inventory, cleaning up trash, erecting signs, developing maps and then building foot paths.
The Wildlands is actually two parcels, Hothole Valley to the east and Dead River to the west, separated by the summit of Great Pond Mountain, which is not part of the trust.
Hothole Valley is 3,400 acres of mostly trail-less summits, except for Oak and Flag hills. Paths reach into Hothole Pond, a favorite of bird watchers, and to Hothole Brook.
The two access points are the South Gate on Route 1/3, which visitors can drive into on weekends from June 15 through the end of September, and on Sundays through October. At all other times, visitors must enter on foot or bicycle. The North Gate on Bald Mountain Road is always closed.
Visitors can enjoy a mix of recreational pursuits in the Wildlands, from hiking and cross-country skiing, to hunting and snowmobiling.
“We don’t fit the mold of the typical land trust,” noted Bennett. “We attract a variety of different constituencies, and they all seem to fit well here.”
There’s also the 900-acre Dead River parcel, accessed through the Craig Pond National Fish Hatchery.
There’s great flat-water paddling to be had on the Dead River, and the amazing, alpine-like, 1,038-foot summit of Great Pond Mountain is an easy 2-mile hike over private property up the west ridge.
“The public has been welcome to use the trail for decades,” said Bennett. “The landowners are very gracious, and public access is very important to them.”
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is an avid hiker and freelance writer. Comments are welcome at: MaineOutdoors@aol.com