The wooden railroad ties were covered in moss and fallen leaves, their edges softened by time and the slow work of nature. Lying across the trail at random intervals, they almost blended into the forest floor. But here and there, a metal spike poked from the decaying wood.
Originally built by Maine Central Railroad in the 1880s, the railway used to carry passengers to McNeil Point in Hancock, where they would board steamer ferries to cross Frenchman Bay to Bar Harbor. It was a busy route then, with multiple trains running daily. Just like today, people were eager to experience the beauty of Mount Desert Island.
This once-popular method of travel, known as the Bar Harbor Express, chugged along until 1931, when the railway from Ellsworth to Hancock was discontinued. An auto bridge had been built to MDI, providing easier access to the island’s oceanside resorts and the newly formed Acadia National Park.
It was the end of an era. But nowadays, you can still ride a train on a 13-mile section of the restored railroad, starting at the rail yard and boarding platform on Washington Junction Road in Hancock. Known as the Downeast Scenic Railroad, the experience is like stepping back in time.
Or you can walk along a 3-mile stretch of the former railway on the Old Pond Railway Trail. That’s what I was doing on April 28, with my dog Juno in tow.
Spanning Point Road and Old Route 1 in Hancock, the trail travels through a lovely forest of oaks, maples, balsam firs and other trees. Along the way, it crosses a trestle bridge over a saltwater bay called Old Pond. There, at low tide, I spotted gulls wading through the shallows, an osprey fishing farther out, and a man digging for clams in the extensive mudflats.
Juno wanted to join him, but I didn’t feel like dealing with a muddy puppy for the rest of our walk. I also didn’t think the clammer would appreciate a husky-boxer mix digging enthusiastically alongside him. Yet in hindsight, I think he may have been impressed. Juno has dug up clams, unprompted, before. Perhaps she has a nose for them.
I first visited the Old Pond Railway Trail back in 2014. Boy does time fly. And it hasn’t changed much since then. I suppose the old railroad ties might have a bit more moss on them. And there’s new graffiti on the trestle bridge. “Smile,” “you’re loved” and “poetic justice” are now among the painted words.
Juno and I passed a few other visitors during our walk. I imagine everyone was enjoying the spring weather. Though the day was blustery, the sun was shining bright. Plants were budding. Frogs and salamanders had laid egg masses in woodland vernal pools. And tiny spiders had built their intricate webs among tree branches.
The trail, plus the adjoining Kilkenny Cove Preserve, is a collaboration of three local land trusts: Crabtree Neck Land Trust, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Frenchman Bay Conservancy. The property was acquired in 2008, and local Eagle Scouts helped prepare the trail.
There are two trailheads: the East Entrance, on Point Road near its intersection with Route 1; and the West Entrance, with parking on Old Route 1. Both include parking lots for four cars.
The trail is about three miles long, so it’s a 6-mile walk, out and back. But you certainly don’t have to walk the whole thing.
People who are particularly interested in the trestle bridge and Old Pond start at the East Entrance. From there, it’s about a half-mile on the trail to the bridge. Since it follows the bed of an old railway, the trail is flat and straight. The biggest challenge is watching your step so you don’t trip over the old railroad ties.
In addition to having a cool history, the trail is a good place for birding, according to the Frenchman Bay Conservancy website, with plenty of migrating songbirds and shorebirds during the spring and fall.
Back in April of 2014, I watched a group of four Canada geese from the trestle bridge. I also mentioned “black and white ducks of some variety” in my column about the hike. Perhaps they were buffleheads? From afar, they look black and white, although their dark feathers are actually iridescent.
Also back then, I noticed signs of porcupines along the forested part of the trail. A good reason to keep your dog on leash.
Throughout Maine, trails have been built along the bones of old railways. It makes sense. They make for even, solid surfaces. And they aren’t being used anymore.
Many of those railway trails are open to a variety of activities, including ATVing and horseback riding. However, Old Pond Railway Trail is a bit different. It’s fairly narrow, and with some of the railroad ties remaining on the ground, it’s not suitable for ATVing or even mountain biking. It’s only open to walkers and runners (for those brave enough to navigate over the ties at such a speed), and in the winter, snowshoers and skiers.
While walking through the dense forest, I at times found it hard to imagine a train chugging along the tracks, headed for the coast, its passengers sipping flutes of champagne. It’s amazing how quickly the wilderness takes over. There’s something satisfying about seeing moss creep over a sawed piece of timber, and a woodland flower sprout from its decaying wood.