March 11, 2010

Pretty Hermit Island a 'throwback in time'

— Hermit Island lies near the end of Route 216 on the southern tip of Phippsburg. It's a privately owned island with 255 acres of beaches and forest, trails and woods roads, and a campground with an exceptional number of ocean-side and ocean-view campsites that are off-the-scale gorgeous.

The hiking trails on Hermit Island are open for general public use when the campground is closed, from Columbus Day through May 15. During the busy camping season, visitors (other than campers, of course) are not allowed in an effort to lessen the environmental impact and preserve the island experience.

Right now, however, there's nobody around and you can wander to your heart's delight, soaking in the bountiful ocean scenery. In fact, Hermit Island sports some of the best coastal hiking south of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, in my humble opinion. So pack up the rucksack and come out and enjoy!

''Hermit Island is a throwback in time,'' said Danny Wallace, campground manager. ''Little has changed. A visit here is a very rustic experience, and we're trying to keep it that way.''

When I last visited, we parked on the causeway behind Head Beach (ample parking) and followed the sandy path to the beach. From there we set off west (right) to see what we could see.

En route to nowhere in particular, we passed Joe's Head and hopped around on the rocks, and meandered through the campground (jotting down campsite numbers for later reference) past Sand Dune Beach and West Dune. We next explored the Bath Tub and Breakwater Point before moving along to Lagoon Beach at Sunset Lagoon.

Scrambling above the beach, we discovered campsites in cliff-top settings that were progressively more scenic and inviting. Tents here, camp chairs and cooler there, happy hour over yonder.

At the edge of the campground, on the hill above Osprey Point, we picked up the trail system -- four trails labeled simply Red, Blue, Orange and White. Even without a map in hand (you can download a map online), we were able to navigate rather easily, choosing to follow the Red Trail around the perimeter of the island.

The route follows the waters of Small Point Harbor, in and out of the woods and across the shoreline rocks, to Spring Beach and Sailboat Beach, which are pocket beaches perfect for a few minutes of extra exploration and a snack break.

We carried on past Bounty Cove and on through the dune grass to the broad expanse of Sand Dollar Beach at the northern tip of the island, a sweet spot to laze in the sand and sun.

We turned back south at this point and walked a woods road past a lobster pond and weir, with Tennants Island and The Branch on our left. Re-entering the campground, we passed more campsites tucked snugly in the trees, before returning to the car.

A round-trip hiking tour of the island covers about three to four miles and takes anywhere from a couple of hours to a half-day or more, depending on your propensity for dawdling (likely to be high on Hermit Island).

Campers interested in visiting for a weekend or a week will enjoy the unique outdoor experience here. According to the campground's Web site, there are 275 campsites near sandy beaches, on rocky cliffs, along the tidal harbor and in the wooded interior. Each campsite has a picnic table, fire ring and parking for one vehicle. Campsites are categorized (and priced) by their proximity to the ocean and whether they have an ocean view and/or direct water access. Tents, tent trailers and campers up to 25 feet in length are welcome. RVs and hard-top trailers are not permitted.

Campground amenities are simple: Free warm showers, potable water and flush toilets. The Kelp Shed functions as reception, community room and snack bar. A small store sells ice and firewood, groceries and adult beverages, and lobsters. The gift shop stocks the typical trinkets and memorabilia.

Besides hiking, campers can go bicycling, canoe and kayak, take nature walks with a naturalist, fish from the shore, enjoy a cruise, or swim at any of six sandy beaches. And come late fall, hikers can again take to Hermit Island's trails.

Get more information and a trail map online at www.hermitisland.com, or call 443-2101. Campground reservations for the period June 19 through Sept. 7 (Labor Day) are now being accepted by mail or phone, but hurry, because the prime campsites go fast.

Carey Kish of Bowdoin scouts the little-known places in Maine where great hiking can be found. Send comments and hike suggestions to:

MaineOutdoors@aol.com

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