The Upper Damariscotta River Region is one of immense natural beauty, a scenic landscape of bays and islands, salt marshes and mudflats, rivers and streams. Bordered by hills, fields, and forests, the Damariscotta River is a nutrient-rich tidal estuary that is home to a diverse array of marine life, birds and animals.
It is here that the Damariscotta River Association, established in 1973, has worked to protect 2,900 acres of land and 22 miles of shoreline. Hikers can take advantage of numerous opportunities to explore this special area starting with the Hart Family Heritage Trail, which makes a 3-mile loop through the DRA’s Great Salt Bay Preserve in Newcastle.
The trail starts on Mill Road (Route 215) near the Newcastle post office just off Route 1. The path begins by circling a cove through eel grass meadows before entering the woods and swinging around Grandfather Point. After crossing a footbridge, the trail reaches the white pines on Picnic Point and then proceeds to Lookout Point, with lots of great views out across Great Salt Bay en route. At low tide you can poke among the rocks and seaweed, where you’re likely to find not only abundant clam and mussel shells, but horseshoe crab shells as well. Gulls, cormorants, herons, kingfishers, ospreys and eagles are common here.
Ahead, the trail passes a large erratic before cutting across Glidden Point and crossing underneath Route 1 by way of a tunnel. Just beyond, a short spur trail leads to the Damariscotta River and the Glidden Midden, one of the largest oyster shell heaps remaining in the eastern U.S. Accumulated over several thousand years by Native Americans, this incredible shell heap is 30 feet deep, 150 feet long and 75 feet wide. The trail finishes through mixed woods, passing a tidal salt marsh and freshwater pond.
For hikers with time to spare, there’s much more to see and do. Plan to make a day of it if you can.
On the southeast shore of the bay is Great Salt Bay Farm, a lovely 100-acre preserve of rolling fields, salt and freshwater marshes, woods, and a mile of water frontage.
Here also is the Salt Bay Farm Heritage Center, an 18th-century farmhouse that is home to the DRA. The center is busy year-round with a wide variety of environmental education programs and cultural events, all open to the public.
Four trails wind through the pretty farmstead, offering several miles of hiking. Combine the Bayside, Fox Run and Blackstone trails for a pleasant loop walk. Dogs are allowed off leash on the Back Meadow Loop across the road.
A short distance south of the farm is the Whaleback Shell Midden, a state historic site. Situated on the east bank of the Damariscotta River across from Glidden Point, the oyster shells of this once enormous midden were mined in the late 1800s to supply a chicken feed processing operation. Only a fraction of the original midden remains, but the history is nonetheless fascinating. A half-mile interpretive trail loops through the property.
On the northwest side of Great Salt Bay is the historic Fish Ladder at Damariscotta Mills. Built in 1807, the ladder provides passage for spawning alewives, also known as river herring, on their annual migration from the ocean to Damariscotta Lake.
The fish ladder, comprised of 1,500 linear feet of stone walls, rises 42 feet from the bay to the lake. Some 300,000 alewives make the journey each year. Restoration of the ladder began in 2007, and a short pathway gives visitors a close-up look at this amazing spot and the work in progress to protect this important fishery.
For more information on DRA trails, programs, and activities, go to www.damariscottariver.org. Go to www.parksandlands.com to find out more on the Whaleback Shell Midden. Info on the fish ladder can be found at www.damariscottamills.org.
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is writing a book on classic Maine coast hikes from Kittery to Lubec. Send comments and suggestions to: