A new section of the Down East Sunrise Trail will open in Ellsworth this fall, making Maine’s longest trail easily accessible to the more than 2 million visitors passing through that city each year en route to Acadia National Park.
The trail now extends about 85 miles, providing a way to explore wild and beautiful parts of Hancock and Washington counties. It crosses bogs, passes mountains and lakes and follows the Machias River for a stretch. Along the way, riders and walkers can see beaver dams, ospreys and bald eagles soaring overhead, and an occasional moose or bear.
The East Coast Greenway Alliance chose the trail as part of its designated route from Maine to Florida. But the trail presents challenges for pedestrians and cyclists. Most of the surface is loose and crushed gravel, making for a bumpy bicycle ride. And unlike many other Maine trails, this one allows motorized vehicles (ATVs, snowmobiles and motorcycles).
I was curious how that mix of users was working out, six years after the trail opened. And I wondered if the trail has helped bring tourism to an area that has struggled economically for decades.
Four of the Sunrise Trail Coalition’s board members recently met me at Helen’s Restaurant in Machias to provide an update. Coalition members worked for more than 20 years to win support to build the trail on the former Calais Branch of the Maine Central Railroad. The state owns the trail, but the all-volunteer coalition plays a key role in overseeing and improving it.
Our meeting came just as the Hancock County Planning Commission was finishing a report on the trail’s economic impact. The report has some shortcomings, such as counting trail users only at one location. But it is an admirable effort that could prompt more comprehensive studies.
A camera at Washington Junction, just outside of Ellsworth, took images of trail users in 2014 and 2015. Based on that data, the report estimates 3,704 people used the trail in the 10-month study period. Nearly three-quarters of trail users (73 percent) were on motorized vehicles, primarily ATVs, 17 percent were walking and 7 percent were bicycling. The trail also draws cross-country skiers, horseback riders, joggers and dog sleds.
In a survey of 210 trail users done for the economic report, most responders gave the trail excellent or good ratings for maintenance. But cyclists were the least enthusiastic, because of the difficulty of riding on gravel.
“It is possible that cyclists are staying away from the trail and thus not being counted in this survey,” the report notes. “Nearly all long-distance cyclists on thin-tire bikes are using the paved road network” instead of the trail.
The trail’s new 2-mile section near Ellsworth and an adjoining four miles have a crushed concrete surface, which makes for much easier cycling. The new section also will give cyclists access to Ellsworth-area stores for bicycle parts, repairs and rentals, services not available along most of the trail.
Several trail users told me snowmobilers and ATV users are careful when encountering cyclists or pedestrians on the trail. “Everybody gets along,” said Bill Ceckler, the coalition’s acting vice president.
But the user survey shows that some cyclists and pedestrians are concerned about ATVs and snowmobiles going too fast and passing too closely. And the rumble of motors detracts from the experience of being in a wild place.
The survey found that most trail users live in the vicinity, taking day trips rather than spending the night in local lodging establishments. But cyclists were more likely to stay overnight than other users, one reason making the trail more attractive for bicycling could pay off for local businesses.
The report estimated the trail had generated at least $236,000 in direct spending on food, fuel, other supplies and lodging during the 10-month study period. That figure could double when taking into account indirect benefits, such as hiring local workers at hotels and restaurants.
One great asset of the trail is that it draws visitors at times of the year that normally would be slow for business – late fall, winter and late spring. Signs along the trail point the way to local businesses, and the coalition’s website also shows their locations.
“We do get quite a lot of business” from the trail, said Shelley Roberts, general manager of the Machias River Inn in Machias. “We get a lot of ATVs in spring and fall, some in summer.”
For those who live near the trail, it’s already proving its worth.
Stephen Rees Sr., the coalition’s president, always starts his bicycle rides near the railroad trestle bridge in Cherryfield that crosses the Narraguagus River. “That is the prettiest spot on the trail, bar none,” he says. Rees listens to the rushing stream and appreciates its beauty before he pedals off.
Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who walks and bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at [email protected]