I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the beautiful conserved properties of eastern Maine, yet somehow, a whole mountain escaped my notice until recently.
While I was planning a weekend trip to Lubec in mid-February, my hosts at the Eastern Beacon Inn suggested that I add a hike up Benny’s Mountain to my itinerary. To my surprise, I’d never heard of that landmark. And I was further baffled to discover that the mountain was located in a preserve I’d never visited before: Hamilton Cove Preserve.
Located in Lubec, the 1,225-acre preserve was acquired by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust in four parcels between 1993 and 2008. Right on the water, the property features a dramatic coastline with sheer ocean cliffs, rocky outcroppings and cobblestone beaches — plus 25 different types of plant communities, including a forest filled with old trees on Benny’s Mountain.
How had I missed that? It was like discovering that one of my favorite authors had written a book that I’d somehow overlooked. I couldn’t wait to check it out.
The sun was busy creating mud in the parking lot when we arrived at the preserve midmorning. As I double-checked the gear in my backpack, my husband and mother conspired to throw mushy snowballs at me. Meanwhile, my dog, Juno, wandered at the end of her leash, eager to get moving.
The trail began in a field filled with alders, sumacs and tall grass. I also noticed sheep laurel and wild rhododendron bushes, which had me imagining the trail in the spring, when those pink and purple flowers would be in bloom.
Fresh snowshoe hare tracks crossed the trail in several places. I kept an eye out for the white-furred creature, but it easily eluded us.
While carefully walking along a long section of bog bridges, I heard the distinct, high-pitched chatter of a bald eagle. Pausing, I looked skyward to see not one, not two, but five bald eagles wheeling through the air high overhead. Two of the birds seemed to be in a bit of a disagreement. Every once in a while, they’d dive at each other, collide, then fly off in different directions.
As we watched, more eagles kept materializing. They were so high up, it was hard to keep track of the number. But I could only guess that some sort of food source — such as a large dead animal — was nearby. I can’t think of any other reason bald eagles would congregate like that. They tend to fly solo unless paired up for mating.
We watched the soaring raptors for a few minutes, then continued on the hike, which would be 2.4 miles, out and back. The meadow transitioned into a forest, where blue blazes on tree trunks marked the way.
The yellow birch tree has been a favorite of mine since I was a little girl for its shining golden bark that flakes off in long wisps. And that forest had some of the largest yellow birch trees I’ve ever seen. Their thick trunks supported twisted branches that stretched toward the blue sky, dwarfing neighboring trees.
The forest also featured large paper birch trees and whimsical stands of white cedar. We crossed a scenic wooden bridge and climbed gradually uphill. Our boots crunched through the thin layer of snow that covered the forest floor.
Benny’s Mountain rises just 218 feet above sea level, yet from an overlook at its summit you can see over the trees to the ocean and the cliffs of Grand Manan Island. You can also make out the buildings of downtown Lubec in the distance.
The mountain was named after Benjamin Hamilton, one of the area’s early settlers. However, on some maps, including the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, the mountain is labeled as Porcupine Hill. And let’s face it, it really is just a hill.
Near the top, the trail broke into a small loop, which we navigated counterclockwise for no particular reason. At the top, we stood for a while enjoying the view, then retraced our steps to the parking lot.
But our visit didn’t end there. With the ocean nearby, we felt compelled to follow the short Beach Trail through a meadow to cobble beach on Hamilton Cove. There we ran our fingers over the silky surface of wave-tossed rocks while listening to the soothing sound of waves lapping the shore.
The Beach Trail measures less than one-tenth of a mile, and it intersects with two other trails: the 1.5-mile Coastal Trail and the 0.2-mile Meadow Trail. But my hiking companions and I had worked up an appetite on our trek to the top of Benny’s Mountain, so I decided that I would leave those two trails for another day.
The Coastal Trail is the most popular and scenic trail on the preserve, according to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust website. It leads to a few overlooks — two with benches and one with a platform. My goal is to return in the spring when birds will be nesting in the preserve’s wide variety of habitats. There’s no point in rushing the enjoyment of such a big, beautiful preserve.
So we headed to Bluebird Family Restaurant in Machias, the perfect place to quiet our growling stomachs after hours spent in the fresh Down East air. The place was packed, but we managed to snag a booth and ordered some serious comfort food. And when I say “serious,” I mean that I ordered a full turkey dinner.