Foot and Paddle: Cathedral Pines for all seasons

12 mins read
Yellow Trail, Cathedral Pines

An April day in the Western Mountains is like a Forrest Gump box of chocolates. You never know what flavor you are going to get! A gardener in New Sharon could be planting peas this month; while people in Phillips are still making maple syrup; and north of Eustis, snowshoes or backcountry skis may be the order of the day for travel on foot.

One of my favored spots in any season is Cathedral Pines in Eustis. Here a well-marked trail system offers a choice of routes over essentially level ground (a rarity in our mountain country) under the canopy of a 300-acre stand of towering red pine. Walk a half-mile, a mile, or even two or more, by choosing a route to your liking – hiking clockwise and then reverse, or trekking around the system a number of times.

With April drawing near, the sky an electric blue, and the air comfortably cool, my wife and I head to Cathedral Pines for an afternoon hike. The trailhead is at the junction of Maine Highway 27, known as the Arnold Trail in this section, and the Eustis Ridge Road. This junction is 3.6 miles north of the Highways 16/27 intersection in Stratton Village by the Dead River Historical Society museum.

Cross the bridge over the South Branch of the Dead River, and pass the turnout that offers a striking view east over Flagstaff Lake to the Bigelow Range. Actually, I rarely pass this viewpoint. I almost always turn in, step out of the truck, hang here for a time, take in the bold profile of Cranberry Peak, the Horns – North and South – West Peak, and Avery Peak.

In the next mile, stands of pine, red and white, line the roadside, and the south edge of Cathedral Pines appears on the left. The Eustis Ridge Road and the Cathedral Pines trailhead are on the left, across from the entrance to the Cathedral Pines Campground on the right. A metal gate marks the beginning of the Blue Trail.

Red pine canopy against blue sky

Think of the system as a circle with a line running up the center and extending below and above the circle. The Blue Trail is that bisecting line. We walk 50’ to a junction: Yellow Trail to the left (south); Red Trail to the right (north). The Blue Trail continues in a straight line to a point where the Yellow and Red Trails meet near the farther edge of the circle.

What trail surface do we have this day? Will this be a snowshoe hike? We find the pathways to be snow-covered, packed firm, but without ice. The Stratton-Eustis Corporation, which manages this tract, grooms the trails for snowshoe and ski travel in winter, and we have the benefit of their thoughtful trail work. Today’s conditions are just right for walking in our winter hiking shoes, without sinking. Back into the truck go the snowshoes we had hauled out at first, and we are underway.

At the Blue, Red, and Yellow Trails intersection we opt for the Yellow Trail, turning left, hiking clockwise. I am struck immediately by the sheer height of 80’ pines, reddish-brown bark aglow in the afternoon sun. Long, long, shadows reach across glossy white snow. My eyes run to the canopy above – a rich, dark green. I throw my head back; follow the vertical rise of a near pine, to fix on the treetops. Sighting up a single tree, my field of view becomes all canopy and blue sky behind. Quite the sight!

I bring my gaze back towards earth, but hold for a time on the bark of the red pine. For a good close-up inspection of the broad scales of the bark, I remove my gloves, run my bare hand over the roughness. It is a remarkable occasion, to be up close to such a sizeable living thing, far older than I am – and far, far taller. My imagination takes me to the day when a crew of tree planters placed this one pine and its neighbors in the sandy soil as seedlings, the decades that followed, the comings and goings of farmers, people of the woods, travelers heading for Canada and back, people who once lived in the former Flagstaff Village who may have stopped here.

Onward! We make our way readily over the packed surface, walking in silence, the light crunch of boots on snow, the slightest of breezes the only sound. Trail designers have been thoughtful to lay out a route that meanders ever so slightly among the pines, breaking up the line of sight, inviting pause, reflection, and not being in too much of a hurry.

Our Yellow Trail arcs westward, then northward in a 0.5 mile semicircular route to reach a second, upper, junction with the Blue Trail. Here, in the heart of the stand, a sign welcomes visitor to Cathedral Pines. There are no other people in sight. We have the heart of the pine stand to ourselves.

Here and there a few balsam fir poke above the snow, the exception to the vast, nearly exclusive, stand of red pine. Seed cones for the fir have likely been carried here on prevailing northwest winds, out of the nearby mixed growth forest that grows in that direction. A few of these reach to a height of 10-12’, diminutive beside the 80‘ pines.

We could turn right (east) on the Blue Trail to return to the trailhead and our truck, but we wish to explore much more of the trail system. Straight ahead (north) the 0.5-mile Red Trail leads in a northern semicircle that will join the Blue Trail near the trailhead. We will take the Red Trail eventually, but choose now to head left (west) on an extension of the Blue Trail towards a backwoods bog. The trail leaves the red pine stand in 100’, enters a forest of balsam fir, white cedar, and paper birch, and nears the snow-covered wetland.

Beneath our feet – well beneath, under the snow, the trail is a boardwalk. No sign of the boards on this snowbound day, but in warmer seasons, the walkway enables hikers to reach and cross the marsh – with all the viewing opportunities that offers. In summer we might expect red-winged blackbirds, and other birds that favor such a rich, edge environment, to show themselves.

Today a few willows and alders, and an occasional cedar rise out of the snow, to break up what otherwise is open, snow blanketed, bog. Tracks of deer and snowshoe hare run from adjacent woods back to the bog and back. I gain a partial glimpse to the southeast of the distant Bigelow Range. The sun brightens the snow cover on the bare summit ledge of each of the multiple peaks.

The Blue Trail continues across the marsh to enter woods on the far side, but we turn around here on the boardwalk section, soon reach the Cathedral Pines sign at the trail junction, and head left (north) on the Red Trail, More high pine, more quiet, more display of rich afternoon light to savor as we walk the Red semicircle to return to our starting point. On some days I reverse course, re-hiking first the Red rail, and then the Yellow to spend yet more time in this peaceful setting. We have enjoyed a fine spring walk on the distance we have covered already, and choose to call it a day.

Red pine is also known as Norway pine, which contributes to the misconception that this magnificent tree is an import from Scandinavia. However, that alternate name derives from stands of red pine in Oxford County, in the vicinity of Norway, Maine. Reaching heights of 80’ with diameter ranging from 1-2 ‘, red pine is truly an impressive tree. Cathedral Pines offers Franklin County residents and visitors a readily reached setting open to the public. Many thanks to the Stratton-Eustis Development Corporation for managing Cathedral Pines, and making this fine resource available for the public to enjoy.

A red pine note: Maine’s champion red pine is in Franklin County, and accessible to the public Find it in the Webb Beach unit of Mt. Blue State Park, on the short footpath between the beach and the boat launch. I snowshoed there this winter to have a look. Look for it to the right of the south-leading path, about halfway between the beach and the launch.

We have in Franklin County some of the most pristine and ruggedly beautiful landscape to be found anywhere in the Eastern USA. – right in our backyard. Spring has arrived, and with it a new season of opportunities to enjoy this landscape on foot. Make your own exploring plans for the days to come. I hope to see you on trail!

Text and photos copyright Doug Dunlap 2021

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