The beach stretched before us, empty and undisturbed by footprints. With the freedom to sit anywhere for our picnic lunch, I walked my dog Juno along the shore to a sunny patch of sand.
Schoodic Beach on Donnell Pond is a popular place during the summer, with shallows that are perfect for swimming. Tent sites are nestled in the woods along its edge, with picnic tables, fire pits and outhouses. Mingling with hikers and campers, boaters often stop by during their explorations of the crystal clear pond.
But on that sunny Tuesday in early November, Juno and I had the beach to ourselves. And prior to that, on our hike up and down the nearby Schoodic Mountain, we’d encountered not a soul. That is one thing I love about shoulder season hiking: the solitude.
As soon as the leaves fall from the trees in Maine, parking lots for outdoor destinations such as hiking trails empty out. The change is dramatic. One weekend in October, trailheads are crowded with excited leaf peepers, and the next weekend, that same parking lot is empty — or close to it.
It’s not just because tourists stop visiting. A lot of Maine residents, I’ve learned, stop hiking after the fall foliage fades. Just the other day a friend said to me: “Gotta put up my hiking boots until next year.” It surprised me at first, but then I realized that I used to only hike during the summer and colorful days of fall, too. It’s only in the past decade that I’ve become a year-round hiker.
I understand why a lot of Mainers stow away their hiking gear in November. The weather is creeping toward freezing. Trees are skeletal. The landscape’s drab. Dry leaves make footing tricky. (I’m not selling the shoulder season very well, am I?) But here’s the thing: there are a lot of wonderful things about late fall and early spring hiking.
For starters, there are no mosquitoes, blackflies or deer flies. The cold weather keeps those biting, maddening insects at bay. As a person whose mosquito bites swell into itchy welts, that aspect of shoulder season hiking alone is enough to convince me that it’s worthwhile.
While I do lament the end of fall foliage season, there is one perk to bare trees: high visibility. As leaves fall to the ground and vegetation withers, you’re able to see farther into the dense Maine forest to spot wildlife and interesting natural features such as boulders. And while hiking mountains or hills, you may enjoy more open views than at other times of year.
With fewer people out and about, you don’t have to worry about not finding any open parking spots at a trailhead. In some areas of the state, this isn’t a big deal, but where I live, not too far from Acadia National Park, it’s huge. All summer and through fall foliage season, it’s a struggle to find parking at some of my favorite mountains in Acadia. But in November, even on the sunniest, warmest days, I usually don’t have to worry about that being a problem.
If you’ve never hiked in late fall before, there are a few things to consider.
Firstly, November is deer hunting season in Maine, so it’s important to wear blaze orange and other bright clothing to remain visible while sharing the woods. On my recent hike, I wore a fuzzy, neon orange-pink jacket. It’s wonderfully obnoxious.
Layering your clothes is key to staying comfortable and warm. For example, I started my hike up Schoodic Mountain wearing my fuzzy jacket and a winter hat, plus I carried an extra jacket in my pack. Halfway up the mountain, I was so hot that I had to strip off both the hat and jacket to hike in a long-sleeve shirt. The trail was on a south-facing slope, which made it especially sunny and warm.
On the way down the mountain, however, I was in the shade. Plus I’d cooled down during my time on the windy summit. So I threw my jacket back on. This dance with layers of clothing happens a lot during the shoulder seasons and in the winter.
I probably sound a little preachy, but my hope is that I can convince just a few readers to not stow away their hiking boots just yet. They could miss out on all sorts of wonderful outdoor experiences.
During my recent Schoodic Mountain hike, I watched a bald eagle soar past me and around the mountain. Bronze leaves clung to the beech trees, rustling in the breeze. Plush green moss and twisting tree roots added an air of mystery to some sections of trail.
Atop the mountain, the red, spear-shaped leaves of wild blueberry plants bled through the rocky landscape. A tiny golden beetle landed on my hand. And at one overlook, the sun was so warm that I could imagine it was summer once more.