Big cities always have something to hide. And when you think of the secrets of a big city, you usually imagine them to be bad secrets. But when it comes to Portland – Maine’s largest city – those secrets are more like hidden treasures. Not many people know about them, but those who do are among a very special group. And so it is with Portland Trails, a network of multi-use trails all tucked away within the borders of Maine’s metropolis. My friend Bryan and I count ourselves among the special group of outdoors enthusiasts who know about these trails. And one day last week, we set out to find some of Portland’s amazing treasures.
Dead End Road
We set out from my apartment in downtown Portland at around ten in the morning, plugged some coordinates into my compadre’s GPS unit, and headed toward the Presumpscot River Sanctuary. Most of the Portland Trails trailheads lie at the end of dead-end residential streets, most times only marked with a small but colorful sign. We really didn’t need the GPS, as the directions are fairly simple, but to be safe, we used it anyway. Plus, we’re geeks, and we like techy gadgets. The Presumpscot River Sanctuary trails feature a canoe and kayak portage around Presumpscot Falls, a short section of rapids that breaks the relative tranquility of the surrounding river. I assume that due to this portage, a small parking area was built at the trailhead.
Walking less than a quarter of a mile, we came upon a break in the treeline. The glistening water drew us closer as we headed to a T-junction in the trail. We took a right down the trail that follows the beautiful Presumpscot River, stopping every few hundred yards at small outcroppings or breaks in the foliage to admire the view over the river. The trails are well used, but they’re also well maintained and obviously well loved. Man-made staircases lead down some of the steeper sections of the river bank to the water below, where I could imagine sitting for hours casting a line.
As Bryan and I walked further downstream, we happened upon signs for the river’s portage, where kayakers and canoeists can hop out of the river before they inadvertently shoot down what looks to be class 3 or 4 rapids. You can’t really see or hear Presumpscot Falls until you’re nearly on top of them. A slight bend in the river combined with a short uphill keeps the falls out of sight for much of the hike. But when you do finally happen upon them, the roar of the crashing water and sight of foaming curls makes for an intense and exciting experience.
Stomping down a quick downhill nearby, I noticed an interpretive sign posted by the Portland Trails organization. Apparently in the 1700s, early settlers to the area had built a dam just downstream from the falls in order to capture some of the power of the river. Mills were built, and the falls were covered by the high waterline. Later, what was known as the Smelt Hill Dam was turned into a hydroelectric facility that helped power the nearby community. Flooding and storm damage eventually shut down the facility, and in 2006, the State of Maine deconstructed the dam, finally revealing Presumpscot Falls after more than 260 years.
We spent a few minutes exploring the area around the falls, and just past them, you come to the end of the Portland Trails owned land. You can head onto private property beyond, but beware because at that point, you’re trespassing and that information is posted. A few hundred feet past the end of the trail is the recovered land where the Smelt Hill Dam used to reside. I don’t recommend you go down there, but if you do, be prepared to talk to unhappy landowners. I, for one, am prone to exploring reclaimed and/or abandoned areas, so take that as you will.
After spending a good amount of time at the falls, we headed back upstream and hiked past the approach trail we had taken to the river walk. The trail winds its way NorthWest following the contour of the river. At several points we noticed small offshoot trails, marked “Loop,” which take you up into the woods and back down to the trail. We continued our hike over a few trail bridges and made our way towards the area where Interstate 95 passes over the trail. We stopped at a tree whose boughs overhang the river. The tree is perfect for a tree swing, and I’m sure that’s exactly what hangs there during the summer months. As the mid-Autumn daylight began to fade, Bryan and I took one last look at the beautiful Presumpscot River, then set off for the trailhead. It was time for a late lunch.
Short, but Satisfying
The entire Presumpscot River Sanctuary trail system only covers approximately 2.5 miles overall, but it feels like an oasis in the middle of the brick and concrete of Portland and its suburbs. The main attraction is, of course, the river itself, but the rest of the sanctuary offers a richness of flora and fauna that will make you forget that you’re still within Portland’s borders. Spend a few hours wandering the trails, staring at the rapids, or dropping a fishing line into the river. It’s a great local refuge from the busy-ness of city life.
For more info on the Presumpscot River Sanctuary, or to learn about the rest of the Portland Trails system, visit www.trails.org.
To view more images from the trip to Presumpscot River Preserve, Go HERE!