Pines and Ridges Hut is one of two warming huts of the Penobscot River Trails near Grindstone. It sits on a small hill, from which you can see Katahdin on a clear day. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Penobscot River Trails opened to the public at the beginning of February after three years of construction. Located on a privately owned preserve covering about 5,000 acres near Grindstone, the property features more than 15 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails that explore forestland along the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

The trails are open to the public on weekends and holidays while snow conditions last.

The project — estimated to cost $5 million — was funded by a charitable foundation established by millionaire philanthropist Gilbert Butler. And in addition to being a place for public recreation, the facility is home to the Maine Outdoor Education Program, founded by Butler in 2012 to provide free outdoor programs to children and teens.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

“We haven’t had a place to call our own until this place,” Val Locke, the communication and program coordinator for Maine Outdoor Education Program, said. “We have a small parcel of land on the Passadumkeag [River] that didn’t have any indoor facilities at all, so when the students came, there were portable toilets and a deck.”

Penobscot River Trails features a heated visitor center, which has a front desk where visitors register, as well as round wooden tables with chairs, benches and restrooms. The trail network also features two “warming huts,” which are spacious buildings with big windows, high ceilings and exposed beams. Like the visitor center, these huts feature wood burning stoves, tables and chairs, benches and hooks for hanging wet gear.

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The buildings, completed this winter, serve as destinations for visitors to picnic, escape the cold and rest. They also serve as classrooms for students of the Maine Outdoor Education Program, which range from grades 4 to 12 and come from many Maine towns. Since 2012, more than 13,000 students have taken part in the programs.

“We’ll be able to use this space for any of our needs, including storage of gear,” Locke said. “The road system is easy for the buses to access. They come from as far south as Newport and as far north as Houlton.”

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

The trails on the property are “Olympic quality,” according to a press release about the network opening to the public. They measure 8 feet wide and are groomed by a PistonBully snow groomer with a tiller. Some of the trails are groomed for both skate skiing and classic cross-country skiing, while others are designated for classic cross-country skiing only, with two sets of parallel tracks set in the snow to make skiing easier.

“Really we’re just wrapping up construction,” Carl Carlson, CEO of The Butler Foundations, said. “This is the first time we’ve been able to groom the trails and use it for skiing in the winter.”

In the spring, the facility will close during mud season, when the ground is soft and trails are easily ruined by foot traffic. It will then open back up for the summer for bicyclists and hikers. The trails are surfaced with crushed rock.

“They’re almost identical to the Acadia [bike] trails,” Locke said.

In addition, the preserve features hand-carry boat launch called Hay Brook Boat Launch, with a separate parking area that will be open to the public throughout the summer, including weekdays. This boat launch provides access to a relatively calm section of the East Branch.

“A great paddling trip for that area is to put in at Whetstone Falls and take out at Hay Brook Boat Launch,” Locke said. “It’s probably a five- to six-hour paddle.”

Credit: Courtesy of Woodworth Associate

The Butler Foundations owns similar outdoor education facilities in the Adirondack Mountains in New York and in South Carolina, Carlson said. Those facilities are also used for youth outdoor education programs and are open to the public on weekends and holidays for low-impact outdoor recreation.

An experienced outdoorsmen and businessman, Butler was born in Utica, New York, and has traveled the world to enjoy biking, paddling and skiing. After a highly successful career developing alternative investment vehicles for pension funds, endowments and other institutions, he established a number of foundations and funds, starting in 1988, to support environmental conservation as well as education, historic preservation, the arts, and other social initiatives.

His ties to Maine extend to his childhood, when he would vacation on Mount Desert Island, where he now owns a summer home, Carlson said. And he fell in love with the Katahdin region when he started kayaking there six years ago, according to a previous BDN story.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

When asked if Butler had any statement to share about the opening of Penobscot River Trails, Carlson said, ““He doesn’t like to talk too much. He lets the facilities speak for themselves.”

The Butler Foundations also owns parcels of land on the coast of Maine. Projects on those properties will be announced in the near future, Carlson said.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...