[Ed.s Note – This story appeared in the Fall 2019 Rails to Trails magazine published by the Rails to Trails Conservancy]
STORY AND PHOTOS BY CINDY BARKS
As I dipped my toes into the chilly surf of the Atlantic Ocean, I had to marvel at the spectacular diversity along the Eastern Trail that runs through the coastal region of southern Maine.
During my several spring days of meandering along the 29-mile stretch from South Portland to Kennebunk, I stared down a raccoon in the deep pine woods in Kennebunk, watched lobster boats comb the blue waters of Portland’s Casco Bay and was awed by a flock of graceful snowy egrets wading in the saltwater ponds of the Scarborough Marsh.
And that’s not even mentioning my day at Old Orchard Beach, beach combing along a 7-mile strand of wide, sandy oceanfront complete with a quaint pier, amusement park and multiple places to buy fried dough and pizza slices.
Not only was the beach a lovely bonus after my days of walking and bicycling on the trail, but it brought me full circle, ending at a tourist attraction central to the Eastern Trail’s early history.
Trains and Trolleys
By the mid-1800s, tourism was well under way in coastal Maine. The Eastern Railroad dates back to 1842, when the Portland, Saco and Portsmouth Railroad line opened as the first railway between Portland and Boston.
A few decades later, the Portland Electric Railroad Company connected a trolley line to the railroad route to give tourists arriving in Portland direct access to the “Grand Beach at Old Orchard.”
Although increasing automobile use brought an end to the rail line in 1945, efforts were under way a half century later to use a portion of the disused right-of-way as a recreational/nonmotorized transportation trail. The Eastern Trail Alliance (ETA) was born in 1998, and the first section of the Eastern Trail opened at Scarborough Marsh in 2004.
The ETA’s vision for a 65-mile off-road trail is about 30 percent complete, which means that the route combines off-road sections with well-marked on-road sections. Trail completion will get a major boost in the next year or so, when two new bridges will be built, closing a gap and making for a continuous 16-mile off-road stretch between South Portland and Saco.
Today the Eastern Trail already boasts many jewels. Carole Brush, executive director of the Eastern Trail Management District, told me that Old Orchard Beach “is southern Maine’s go-to spot in the summer.”
Lighthouses and Lobster
Another of the trail’s most popular destinations is the 5.5-mile greenbelt that begins on the trail’s northeastern end at Bug Light Park and the Bug Light (Portland Breakwater) lighthouse in South Portland.
With its expansive view of the Portland Harbor and its 1875-era lighthouse, Bug Light Park was the perfect place for me to start my exploration of the trail. As I admired the lighthouse’s Corinthian-column design, I noticed locals arriving by car or on bikes, greeting one another and setting out to walk their dogs along the park’s pathways.
Mark MacIsaac, who visits the park daily with his dog Phoebe, told me the park and its trail are a beloved community amenity. “South Portland has done an incredible job,” he said. “We take great pride in the parks, and certainly in this trail.”
That community pride was apparent as I proceeded southwest past the park’s informative Liberty Ship Memorial, which commemorates Maine’s massive World War II shipbuilding efforts, and along the wide, paved greenway that traverses neighborhoods and hugs the harbor’s edge.
Framed by the distant Portland skyline, the sea tides were putting on a show as I walked by, ebbing to reveal the harbor’s sandy bottom and beautiful channels.
South Portland’s booming restaurant and brewery scene was also on display. Nearing downtown, I made a quick coffee stop at Verbena, a creative breakfast and sandwich/bowl eatery on Ocean Street, just blocks from the trail. Later I took another short detour to Cape Whoopies for a sample of Maine’s official state treat—the decadent, irresistible whoopie pie.
An even larger array of restaurants and breweries is just across the Casco Bay Bridge in downtown Portland. In the popular Old Port, lobster is king—and countless restaurants and bars feature Maine’s most famous food. I joined locals on my first evening in Portland at perennial favorite J’s Oyster for a twist on scampi—featuring lobster, of course!
The downtown Portland spots are all within easy reach of the Eastern Trail and other attractions on foot or bicycle. One morning I joined a bike tour organized by Portland’s Summer Feet cycling and rode from the Eastern Trail to three scenic lighthouses: Portland Breakwater, Spring Point Ledge and Portland Head. (During the summer, the bike tour includes the twin lighthouses at Two Lights State Park as well.)
Off-Road and On-Road Mix
Moving on from South Portland, I visited the Scarborough Marsh, Maine’s largest saltwater marsh, where I walked for a couple of miles with Carole Brush and Nancy Borg, ETA executive director.
I quickly learned that, similar to South Portland, the nearby Scarborough and Saco communities are big boosters of the trail. The day I visited, the trail was busy with runners, bicyclists and families with small children. “It’s flat, so it’s for everyone,” Borg said.
Patrick O’Reilly, who with his wife, Sue, owns the Scarborough pub O’Reilly’s Cure, said he became involved with the trail years ago at the urging of his friend John Andrews. Andrews, who died in 2017, is credited with founding and mentoring the Eastern Trail. For the past three years, O’Reilly’s Cure has sponsored the John Andrews Memorial Eastern Trail 5K, a trail fundraiser.
O’Reilly sees the trail as an economic boon for local businesses, and a place to experience the region’s unique natural landscape. “It is fantastic that within five or 10 minutes from anywhere in town, you can be on that trail, and in a different world,” he said.
Farther along, the terrain transitions abruptly from marsh to woodlands. As the trail passes through the quaint towns of Biddeford, Arundel and Kennebunk, white pine trees tower overhead. Even though I knew that houses, schools and roads were nearby, this section of trail felt like deep wilderness.
Brush said the trail’s changing landscape and diverse uses are among its major assets. “Each year over 250,000 people enjoy this amazing resource for transportation, exercise, ‘forest bathing,’ bird watching and many, many other activities,” she said, quoting from the trail’s mission statement.
After spending several days exploring the route’s northern half, I couldn’t help but agree: For my first taste of Maine, the Eastern Trail was the perfect showcase.
Accessing the Trail
Bug Light Park at the northern end of the trail is a convenient access spot. It offers plenty of parking, as well as views of the picturesque Portland Breakwater Lighthouse. From the Portland International Jetport, take Jetport Boulevard to Congress Street and then turn right on Fore River Parkway. Continue onto Commercial Street and exit onto Highway 77 South/Casco Bay Bridge. Continue onto Broadway to Madison Street.
What to See
One of the Portland area’s foremost attractions is the Portland Head Light — the iconic lighthouse perched on the edge of a beautiful and rocky cliff. Old Orchard Beach is a 30-minute drive from downtown Portland, and just a couple of blocks off the Eastern Trail. Just down the trail is Scarborough Marsh, Maine’s largest saltwater marsh.
Where to Stay
For a newspaper-themed stay in downtown Portland, check out the Press Hotel, the luxuriously renovated former offices of the Portland Press Herald. The Holiday Inn by the Bay offers rooms at a reasonable rate with sweeping views of downtown Portland and Casco Bay. Campers can be within a mile or so of the trail at Bayley’s Camping Resort in Scarborough; it has a variety of accommodation choices.
Portland, a city of about 65,000, boasts an estimated 18 breweries, which puts it at the top of lists of communities with the most breweries per capita. Among the best are Allagash Brewing Company, Fore River Brewing and Shipyard Brewing Company.
Where to Eat
For brunch or dinner right along the Eastern Trail in Scarborough, O’Reilly’s Cure offers classic New England chowder and crab cakes in an Irish pub setting. In nearby Portland, visitors need remember just one word — lobster. Enjoy authentic lobster rolls, along with other seafood choices, at Bite into Maine (biteintomaine.com), The High Roller Lobster Company or J’s Oyster. For a Maine breakfast said to be favored by lobstermen, head to the local favorite, Becky’s Diner.
Where to Rent
Portland EnCYCLEpedia offers a range of bike rentals, and Summer Feet Cycling leads informative bike tours. Fun and Sun Rentals in Scarborough provides bikes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. Maine Audubon has a kayak and canoe rental site on the Scarborough Marsh, just steps from the Eastern Trail.•