Cresting the bridge over the Piscataqua River in the northbound lanes of Interstate 95, a glance slightly to the left across the treetops nets you a fine look at the rounded hump of Mt. Agamenticus, its open summit, old ski lodge, firetower and communication towers visible 10 miles away as the crow flies.

A short distance ahead on the highway is the familiar blue and white “Maine – Welcome Home” sign, and combined with a sighting of Mt. Agamenticus, I always breathe a happy sigh of relief that I’m back on home turf, perhaps not unlike the early mariners along the southern Maine coast, who relied on the mountain to guide them safely into York Harbor.

Joel Cook (1842-1910), a Pennsylvania congressman, journalist, travel writer and the author of 50 books, described Mt. Agamenticus as a “graceful and imposing mountain” in his 1900 work, “America: Volume 5.”

“The great landmark of this coast beyond Kittery, standing in gloomy isolation down by the shore, is the ‘sailor’s mountain,’ Agamenticus, rising six-hundred and seventy-three feet, a sentinel visible far out at sea,” wrote Cook. “It is a solitary eminence, lifted high above the surrounding country and having three summits of almost equal altitude, the sides clothed with dark forests.”

Cruising at 65 mph through this densely populated stretch of York County, you might be hard pressed to believe that just west of the busy road corridor is the largest unfragmented parcel of coastal forest — some 10,000 acres — between Acadia National Park and the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Here, too, is the site of one of Maine’s great conservation efforts, which sprung to life nearly 20 years ago to address significant development threats.

The Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative is a coalition of eight partners, including non-profits, governmental agencies and state and local trusts, working to protect land within a 48,000-acre focus area ranging across six towns, from the Tatnic Hills in Wells to Brave Boat Harbor in Kittery.

Carey Kish enjoys the colorful northeast view toward Second Hill, Third Hill and the Atlantic Ocean from the Big A Trail on the summit of Mt. Agamenticus. Carey Kish photo

This hiker first visited the iconic Mt. Agamenticus a decade ago, veering off the Maine Turnpike and up the mountain’s auto road for a good look around. From the summit observation platforms, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, yes, you really can see from the Atlantic Ocean to Mt. Washington on a clear day. Wow. I’ve returned a dozen times since to wander all over the place, and with 60 miles of trails in the region, there’s plenty to explore.

My early visits focused on Mt. Agamenticus (also known as First Hill), the Ring Trail and the various routes to the summit from this loop, some of which take in the old ski trails, rusting lift towers and snow roller of the long defunct Big A ski area. It was on a hike led by Robin Kerr, the conservation coordinator for the Town of York, however, that I really got to know the wild woods northeast of Mt. Agamenticus. For a glorious half-day, our group rambled along footpaths and woods roads up and over Second Hill and Third Hill, and reveled in the beauty and quiet of this special chunk of backcountry, so near yet so far from the civilized bustle of the coast.

To date, the Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative has protected 14,455 acres, according to Doreen MacGillis, the York Land Trust’s executive director. “We’re working toward 19,000 acres,” said MacGillis, “a connected landscape big enough to support the native species of plants and animals in this most biologically diverse region of Maine, where the northern spruce forest meets the southern hardwood forest.”

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @ Carey Kish.

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