A well-worn bit of Maine humor refers to two seasons in Maine: winter and the Fourth of July. Time to pause in working up next winter’s wood (or wood for the following year if your standard is well-seasoned firewood), and get outdoors. Better yet, if there are kids within reach – your own, a grandchild, a niece or nephew, a young person who is part of your household or circle – now is a good time to introduce them to the Maine outdoors, on trail.
This month’s article is about doing just that – with a focus on two short and rewarding family-friendly trails in Mt. Blue State Park designed with kids in mind. One is the Center Hill Nature Trail in the Center Hill/Mt. Blue Unit of the park. The other is the Hopping Frog Nature Trail in the Webb Lake Unit, location of the park swim area and campground. I have returned to these trails many times, and recently did so yet again on a bright summer day – no longer a kid, but hopefully still young at heart!
One of the great gifts adults can give to children is to help them become familiar and comfortable, and to have their sense of wonder and discovery heightened, in outdoor settings. Our children are adults now. When they were quite young, we spent many a day in Mt. Blue State Park – hiking, swimming, paddling canoes, and camping overnight. All of them have found much joy and peace in the outdoors, ever since.
On many occasions when we have come to the park as a family, we drive to the Center Hill picnic area and viewpoint, which is at the top of an ascending driveway 1.4 mile past the Park Headquarters on the Center Hill Road. This turn-off to the right is well signed. A seasonal ranger cabin and a gate (open in summer) are at the base of the hill. The driveway arcs around a broad field as it climbs 0.4 miles to reach the parking area. (This is a popular sliding hill in winter!). Here there are over a dozen picnic tables – including an accessible table – a vault toilet, and one covered picnic shelter. Instant reward – the view northwest towards the Tumbledown-Jackson Range and Byron Notch is striking!
To the far right (north from this viewpoint) is Blueberry Mountain, which has a rocky summit, and 360-degree views, though it appears wooded from this angle of view. Next peak to the left (west) in that panorama is 3,570′ Big Jackson, which is forested on top. Rising to the left (west) is the open peak of 3424’ Little Jackson. Sharp cliffs immediately to the left of Little Jackson are the cliffs of Tumbledown, rising above Byron Notch. Cradled out of view in a bowl between the cliffs and Little Jackson is well-known Tumbledown Pond. At the center of the view, beyond the sharp cut of Byron Notch, rises Old Blue Mountain, near Black Brook Notch, north of Andover.
I have always enjoyed spending time with our children to take in this iconic view, and to hear their reaction. Over the years I have hiked to each of these peaks with one or more of them. This is a fine vantage point for a stop before, or after, such a hike – to see where we are about to hike, or for a look back at where we have been, once our hike is over.
There are trails departing from Byron Notch to the Jacksons, and to Tumbledown Pond, which is one of the most frequented natural features in Franklin County. Blueberry Mountain has its own trail, departing from Maine Highway 142 north of Weld. Those considering one of these hikes are advised that the trails are steep and rugged underfoot, with elevation gains in excess of 2,000’. My day-pack is well-supplied with two liters of water per person, extra food, first aid kit, headlamp (even on a day hike), sunscreen, signal whistle, and extra clothing for cool temperatures up top, whenever I hike in the Tumbledown-Jackson Range.
Nature Trail on Center Hill
The 0.5-mile Nature Trail departs from the south end of the parking area, ascends a set of rock steps past an Adirondack-style picnic shelter, enters the woods. A box by the trailhead holds flyers with nature information keyed to a series of numbered posts. These flyers do run out. If you do not have a flyer, simply stop at each post and ask your kids what they see. Make your own trail narrative! I have done this on walks as a guest of elementary school groups. It works!
The trail enters the shade of the confers, where the air is markedly cool. The trail continues to ascend, now over log steps, and ledge outcrops. Soil is thin on the high ground of Center Hill. A fair amount of walking is on ledge. The route swings to the left (east) to reach a signed turn-off to the right – a spur trail of no more than 100’ -to a ledge-topped overlook. An impressive view – Tumbledown-Jackson Range from a different angle, Webb Lake in the heart of the Weld Valley, the long west-lying range of seldom visited wooded peaks, and the twin-like mountains on the southern horizon – Bald Mountain and Saddleback Wind Mountain. To have a full view of this last two peaks, I walk to the far-right end of the ledge, and look south.
We always take time here, as there is much to see – not all of that as distant views. Striations – long parallel scrapes on the rock – indicate the passage of glaciers which shaped and scoured this landscape over 10,000 years ago. Watch, too, for the smallest of trees, some not-so-small growing from cracks in the rugged ledge. Stories there!
There is yet more to see. As we continue the hike, in five minutes we reach an area where two picnic tables to the left of the trail, a log bench to the right, and another long view. This one takes in the south end of the Weld Valley, in the direction of Bald and Saddleback Wind Mountains. When we pack a lunch, or some snacks, we often stop here, which is less visited than the popular ledges viewpoint.
One of our favorite features of this hike, comes next, a tiny bog 30’ to the left (north) of the trail, in a small opening in the woods. I have timed my hike in hopes of finding purple iris in bloom – and I do! Imagine! Near the top of rocky Center Hill, a bog! The cause, again, is the work of the glaciers, which hollowed out enough of a depression in the rock, that over time water collected from snowmelt and rain, duff – bits of vegetation – collected, and the result is this seemingly out-of-place bog. The purple iris, its brightness in afternoon sun, contrasts with the deep green bog grass, and the dark spruce and fir rimming the bog.
The trail continues northward to a marked spur trail leading 40’ to an east-facing plank bench with a dramatic view of the near-perfect cone of Mt. Blue. It is not hard to imagine how Mt. Blue was selected to be the site for a Maine Forest Service fire tower. The summit stands well apart from neighboring peaks, and offers a 360-degree view.
The old fire tower, which had fallen into disrepair, was replaced 10 years ago with a new communications tower, built in the shape of a fire tower, barely visible from this angle.
For those considering a hike of Mt. Blue, there is a viewing platform half-way up on the new tower, reached by a set of stairs. The cab on the very top of the tower, holding communications equipment, is for looks only. There is no visitor access. The Mt. Blue trail is steep, gaining 2000’ of elevation. Again, when I hike Mt. Blue, I carry water ample for both the ascent and the descent, food, spare layers of clothing, signal whistle, first aid supplies, headlamp – and a map.
Below this viewpoint, between Center Hill and Mt. Blue, is the valley of Fran Brook. That area was farmed decades ago, the once-cleared ground now grown back in mixed growth of rock maples, white and yellow birch, cedar, fir, spruce, hemlock, and white pine.
For winter visitors, a cross-country ski trail passes through this valley – one of my favorites for its remote setting and remarkable views up towards Mt. Blue and Center Hill.
The trail next descends, gradually at first, then more steeply, passing through an area of blow-downs caused by high winds that channel through this area in winter – or in storms that may develop at any time of year. Over time, woodpeckers and other birds will feed off insects under the bark. As the fallen trees decay, moss will grow, tiny trees take root.
A steep downhill pitch – footwear with good grip highly advised – offers a bit of excitement as the picnic and parking area come into view. There are days when, instead of ending the hike, I reverse direction. Hiking back the way I have come, there are always discoveries to be made, as I change my point of view.
Hopping Frog Nature Trail
The Hopping Frog Trail is in the Webb Beach Unite of the Park, on the southwest corner of Webb Lake. Signage in Weld Village direct visitors towards the Webb Unit as the campground and beach portion of the park. The 1.0-mile trail has its trailhead at the Nature Center, 0.2 mile past the ranger-staffed gatehouse in the Webb Unit. Ask the ranger for a flyer in case there are none left at the trailhead.
In contrast to the Center Hill Trail, the Hopping Frog Nature Trail passes over terrain that is fairly level, some quite boggy. Such wetlands are vital to health of the lake, its fishery, and wildlife. Bog bridges made from cedar logs and one planked bridge keep feet dry, and protect the soft soil from compaction by the passage of hikers. The trail is of “lollypop” layout, dividing at 0.3 miles to reach the shore of Webb Lake by heading either left (signed for Swett Brook) or right (signed for Webb Lake). The two branches meet at the lake, forming the circle on the lollypop.
I start at the prominent trailhead signboard which displays a trail map. The blue-blazed route is well-trodden, leading first downhill before leveling out near the trail junction for the loop section. A red-eyed vireo sings mightily from trailside. Sun filters through the canopy formed from rock maple, white birch, yellow birch, hemlock, pine, fir.
It is a good day to be on trail!
At the loop junction, well-signed, I turn right to reach Webb Lake first, Swett Brook later in the hike. Great white pine up to three feet in diameter rise by the junction. Trailside wetlands are fairly dry at this point in the summer. A day or two of rain will change that. Where there once was water, there is mud. I see a track in the mud I take to be that of a red fox.
The trail emerges from thick woods to a point where the lake – 50’ off – is visible through lighter cover. A left turn (north) runs the trail parallel to the lakeshore for a hundred yards, where it reaches a T-junction. This spot is marked by a double blue-blaze – an indication that a trail is making a turn to a new direction. Right leads immediately to the lake, for a head-on view of Mt. Blue, framed by lakeside alders, birch, beach grass., and the lake itself. A sitting bench completes the picture. Quite the sight.
Here is a fine spot for a break, even lunch. This lakeside spot is lightly trafficked, profoundly quiet. The busy beach, the boat launch area – these are a mile down the shore, and out of sight. Mallards frequent this area, where marsh grass provides them cover near the lakeshore. There is a narrow strip of sand – enough to interest young children who enjoy poking around in it.
When I depart to make my return, I continue the loop in the direction of Swett Brook, to complete. Disovery! When I reach Swett Brook there is a bench here, too. I accept the bench’s invitation to sit, watch the flow of the brook as it winds a corner, channels a way around rocks, rolls downstream towards the lake. Finally, I complete the loop, turn to head for the trailhead, and finish a very satisfying hike. Much to see on this trail to capture the imagination of a child, or a person of any age who is young at heart!
One particular benefit to walking the Hopping Frog Trail is the nearness of Webb Beach. As I drive out of the Nature Center parking area, I turn left for the beach. I jump in and have a have a swim to complete this day in Mt. Blue State Park.
Other Child Friendly Trails
There are child-friendly trails throughout Franklin County, from Jay in the south, to Eustis and Rangeley in the north, and much, much, in between. Ask locally. Though many such trails are short, and usually well-marked, I urge visitors to have a map to be certain of the distance involved. Carry water and food, regardless of the distance. I would not want to have just reached the lookout to Mt. Blue, or the lake view on the Hopping Frog Trail, hear “I’m thirsty” or “I’m hungry” and have no water or food.
For introducing children to hiking, I have learned to start with hikes of modest length, to build in success. Water and food are vital to morale. Be prepared for insects with cover-up clothing, and the judicious use of repellants if necessary. Stop from time to time to watch and listen. Let the natural world work its wonders!
Text and photos copyright Douglas Alan Dunlap 2022