Tucked into the rural countryside east of Randolph and the Kennebec River, the Hidden Valley Nature Center surely lives up to its name. Only a nondescript dirt parking lot, a small sign and a gate mark the entrance to the property on quiet Egypt Road in Jefferson.

Getting there, however, is just part of the adventure. Hike on past the gate and you’ll soon discover the true beauty of this special place, hidden away amid 1,000 acres of forest, ponds, rocky ridges, old woods roads and trails.

I can’t recall how I first heard of the center, but it had lingered on my to-do list for a while until a brilliant day several weeks ago. It was sunny and in the 70s as my wife and I strode excitedly away from the car, eager to explore some new ground.

Twenty-five miles of trails crisscross the property, leading to a variety of wild and scenic spots. We decided on a healthy tour of the place and immediately headed to Little Dyer Pond, reveling in fine views across its mirror-calm waters. After a climb to North Head we enjoyed a cliff-top picnic lunch, then made a traverse of a long wooded ridge. Beyond, Reed’s Meadow led to Yurt Hill, and we finished with a circumnavigation of Kidney Pond. All the while we saw nobody else.

“It’s a special place,” said Gary Hayward, the center’s director and a registered Maine guide. “There’s a real remote feel out there that’s pretty unique for the midcoast.”

Hayward takes a lot of pride in how the center welcomes visitors, noting that “we’re out there most times, especially on weekends, working and plugging away on projects. We like treating everybody as if they’re owners.”

Landowners Bambi Jones and David Moscovitz purchased the property in 2005 to both protect it and use it as a place for friends and family to recreate. After a yurt erected in 2006 proved popular, the couple decided to officially open up the property for public use. And that’s how Hidden Valley Nature Center came to be in 2007.

“Dedicated to providing educational and low-impact recreational opportunities to the community,” the center is much more than just a place to go hiking. There’s mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, swimming and wildlife watching, and an ongoing series of educational programs on insects, plants, trees, amphibians, mushrooms and the like.

“Our mission is about forestry, education, recreation and wildlife, yes, but it’s also about having fun,” noted Hayward.

And as far as I can tell, Hayward and his team of dedicated volunteers have plenty of fun, indeed. Catch up with them and you can join a guided nature walk, witness a sustainable forestry demonstration, or take a timber framing class. It’s all done with amazing skill, good humor and a keen love for the land.

The forestry operations set the center apart from most nature preserves, but make sense when you know the history of the property.

“This place has always been a wood lot. It was never farmed,” Hayward said. “And it’s still a wood lot today, where we practice low-impact forestry. It helps pay the bills.”

Visitors can make use of Hidden Valley Nature Center year round from dawn to dusk. That is, of course, unless you’re camping overnight at one of five backcountry sites accessible only by foot.

Two sweet campsites are situated on the west shore of Little Dyer Pond. Each features a picnic table, a fire pit, a privy and plenty of peace and quiet. There are also two cabins, Hermit Hut and Two Dog Hut, hidden in the woods. Each has bunks, a wood stove, a table and chairs, and a privy. Finally, the yurt offers the aforementioned amenities, plus a gas cooking stove and a big deck out front.

It’s all plain and simple, just as it should be. You just need to pack in the rest of your gear and food.

Come winter, the center’s most popular season, visitors can enjoy great snowshoeing and miles of fabulous groomed cross-country skiing, so make a plan to visit and enjoy.

For more information and to download a trail map of Hidden Valley Nature Center, go to hnvc.org or call 586-6752.

Carey Kish of Bowdoin is an avid hiker and freelance writer. Comments are welcome at: [email protected]