Cruising along at 55 miles per hour on U.S. Route 1A through the outskirts of Ellsworth a half-dozen miles north of downtown, it’s easy to miss the black and white sign that reads “Branch Lake Public Forest.” But now that you know to look for it, you certainly should the next time you’re in the neighborhood. Be sure to have your daypack and hiking shoes with you because there’s a lot to explore at this scenic gem.

Branch Lake is nearly 3,000 acres in size, close to 6 miles long and as much as 124 feet deep. Camps and homes dot the upper part of the beautiful lake, which is ringed by low mountains. The lake’s lower section, however, is mostly undeveloped and cloaked in thick forest. Branch Lake drains into the Union River and Blue Hill Bay, a nationally significant estuary. The lake, one of the clearest and cleanest in Maine, is Ellsworth’s sole public drinking water supply.

Branch Lake Public Forest encompasses 239 acres on the southeastern side of the lake, including a 3/4-mile stretch of pristine shoreline. Four foot trails and an old gravel tote road offer hikers more than 3 miles of pleasant meandering. The forest is open year-round from dawn to dusk. Dogs are allowed. The trailhead is a mile in from the highway, and the drive isn’t plowed in winter, so plan accordingly if that’s when you’re visiting.

Branch Lake is nearly 3,000 acres in size, close to 6 miles long, and as much as 124 feet deep. Carey Kish photo

Protection for about 450 acres around what is now the Branch Lake Public Forest, as well as some 750 acres on the opposite shore, was achieved in 2010. Through acquisition and easements under the Branch Lake Conservation Initiative – a partnership between the Mary C. Fenn Trust, the City of Ellsworth, the Forest Society of Maine, the Frenchman Bay Conservancy and the Maine Dept. of Conservation – much of the lake’s watershed, including an astounding 3 1/2 miles of waterfront, was permanently preserved. The agreement also fostered new opportunities for non-motorized recreation and sustainable timber harvesting.

“The Fenn family had owned over 1,500 acres of land around the lower half of Branch Lake for four generations,” said Tom Sidar, Executive Director of the Frenchman Bay from 2009 to 2015. “The lake is a popular fishery and one of the few you can drink right out of. It was important to see the water supply and forests protected.”

In the early days of the project, Sidar and others bushwhacked in from the road and out to the lake, through the rich green moss beds, the many wildflowers and the mature conifers. At the rockbound lakeshore, Sidar took note of the crystal clear water, the wonderful vista and the sparse development.


“I fell in love with the place,” Sidar said. “It’s a remarkable property, and I knew that we just had to do this. The conservation deal was a long and difficult back-and-forth process, but we got it done.”

The 239-acre Branch Lake Public Forest in Ellsworth features four trails and 3 miles of hiking. Carey Kish photo

A trail map of the Branch Lake Public Forest is posted at the trailhead gate. From there, the tote road will lead you into the woods. A half-mile in, the Marsh Trail leaves to visit some wetlands. Not far ahead, the Pine Trail diverges into a mix of hardwoods and softwoods. Further on the tote road, the Brookside Trail heads into wet woods to a pocket beach and canoe landing on Branch Lake.

The jewel of the trail system is the last you’ll come to, the Lake Loop Trail, which leads to the lake over a soft path of needles beneath tall, straight stems of spruce. Several spurs off the lakeside path lead out to the granite boulders along the shore, where you can see over the Narrows as far as Flying Moose Mountain and Flag Hill in the Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland and Bald Mountain in Dedham. Swimming possibilities abound along this section, as do large, sun-splashed rocks for enjoying lunch.

There’s plenty more hiking to do around the Ellsworth area. The Frenchman Bay Conservancy’s Jordan Homestead Preserve and Indian Point Preserve both feature lovely trails along the Union River. At Woodlawn Museum, Gardens & Park, there are a couple miles of trails in the woods of the historic 180-acre estate. And at Birdsacre, 3 miles of footpaths meander through the Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is veteran adventurer and freelance writer. His latest book, Beer Hiking New England, will be available this spring. Follow more of Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish

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