Island Odyssey | Exploring the Maine Island Trail

The 375-mile Maine Island Trail offers stunning coastline, wild islands, and lasting memories.

By Joe Bills

Sep 12 2022


Maine Island Trail

Photo Credit : Courtesy of Maine Island Trail Association
Sponsored by the Maine Tourism Office

Working off the belief that “people who care about the islands will care for them,” as founder Dave Getchell Sr. once put it, the Maine Island Trail has been sharing the beauty of the coast with small-boat travelers for more than three decades.

Encompassing some 255 sites—some on the mainland but most on islands spanning the Maine coast from New Hampshire to Canada—the Maine Island Trail is recognized as the first-ever modern recreational water trail. But in truth, it isn’t a trail at all: There is no official route to follow, and most users choose to explore its wonders over multiple journeys.

Kayakers and other small-boat travelers can follow the trail to discover more than 250 wild islands and mainland sites along the entire Maine coast, from Kittery to Cobscook Bay.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Maine Island Trail Association
Camping overnight is permitted on several islands, including Potato Island in Deer Isle; however, since these are truly wild places, sometimes boaters must steer clear when ospreys or eagles are nesting there.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Maine Island Trail Association

The roots of the trail go back to 1987, when the nonprofit Island Institute was doing a survey of Maine’s coastal islands. As Getchell later recalled in an interview for Yankee, “In the course of the survey we came across 30-odd [islands] that had tremendous recreational potential. And it occurred to me that if we set up a water trail instead of a land trail, people could cruise along the coast and have a place to stay at night.”

Getchell plugged the idea in an issue of Small Boat Journal, and the response was enthusiastic. The Maine Island Trail Association (MITA) was established as a program of the Island Institute, with additional funding from L.L. Bean and the Maine Bureau of Parks & Lands. In 1993, MITA spun off as an independent nonprofit.

The mission of MITA has never changed, and executive director Doug Welch sees that as one of its primary strengths. It doesn’t own land or hold easements, so initially all of the trail’s sites were public property. But owners of private islands were soon asking to be included as well, happy to open their properties to camping in exchange for the association’s stewardship services.

An overnight stay on South Little Hen Island offers a sunrise view over Seal Bay, on the east side of Vinalhaven.
Photo Credit : Dan Smith/Courtesy of Maine Island Trail Association

Trail users are expected, at minimum, to leave no trace of their visit, but many go even further, aiming to leave sites nicer than when they arrived. Boatloads of trash are removed from the islands each year—most of it left not by visitors but by the ocean itself.

Encompassing sand beaches and rock ledges, and islands that are hundreds of acres in size as well as others that are less than an acre, the sites on today’s Maine Island Trail represent 106 different landowners. Participation in the trail is governed by trust, Welch says: “There is something uniquely Maine about doing this with nothing more than a handshake. People aspiring to launch water trails in their own regions sometimes ask to see the contracts that spell out the terms between land owners and MITA—they find it hard to believe there isn’t one!”

Stewardship is a core part of the Maine Island Trail Association. Here, volunteers assist in a cleanup effort on Burnt Island, which lies near the entrance to Boothbay Harbor.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Maine Island Trail Association

Today, MITA continues its work to increase access to and stewardship of Maine’s coastal islands. For instance, Welch says, MITA is piloting a program this year to help partner organizations to bring their participants out to the islands, including guides, camps, and educational partners working with younger people. “A core activity for us is to take people to the islands for meaningful, inspiring stewardship activities such as cleaning beaches, clearing trails, etc. Volunteer outings are a great opportunity for people who don’t have ocean boating skills and experience to visit some of the uninhabited islands.”

In addition to caring for the islands, MITA is also the keeper and distributor of the Maine Island Trail Guide and its companion app, a comprehensive resource for maps and landing spots, campsite locations, and up-to-date information on the islands.

But if you go, know this: Having an island entirely to yourself can be a life-changing experience. And by now it’s pretty well established that once you care about these natural wonders, you’ll want to care for them, too. 

For more information to to become a MITA members, go to