It was a small lighthouse that eventually guided me back: jutting out into Maine’s Cutler Harbor, a stubby green-and-white tower that served as a reminder that I needed to turn back for home. For three hours I’d been moseying through a patchwork of woods and meadows, tiptoeing close to dazzling rock-walled cliffs and losing myself in the endless expanse of a soft blue Atlantic. It had been some time since I’d even seen another hiker, and, except for the occasional fishing boat laconically crossing the water in the far distance, I seemed to have the entire Gulf of Maine to myself.
Washington County–the easternmost county in the United States–can fool you like that. This isn’t a region you casually decide to visit. Up and up you go, way past Portland, past Bar Harbor even, through undiscovered little towns with million-dollar views, before landing just south of the Canadian border. Here, amid all the woods and water, the crush of summer crowds and the parade of traffic are refreshingly absent.
But it’s the area’s Bold Coast Trail, a pristine and at times solitary trek along rugged ocean cliffs and through forests of spruce and fir, that offers the best escape. Your wait to hit the trailhead comes down to how fast you can lace up your hiking boots.
Its isolation is due in part to the fact that the trail isn’t all that old or well known. After decades of ownership and logging by the Hearst Corporation, this 2,200-acre swath of coastal land came under state control in 1989. Five years later, a small band of builders spent the spring and summer months camping and constructing the trail. They cleared forest paths, laid out stone steps that gave access to lookout points, stamped out routes through small fields, and built campsites above the rocky beach. When they were ready, National Guard helicopters delivered the cedar planks that would go to create walkways through the bogs.
The resulting trail network is laid out like a figure 8: The full loop covers almost ten miles, while the shorter version is just about half that. Neither walk could be classified as easy, but if you’ve got the stamina, the longer one is a worthy goal. For a little more than three and a half miles you follow the coast, soaring above the water in places, finding your footing along the bony beachscape in others. Stopping points abound, from the pink sea rose, lupine, and other wildflowers dotting the land, to the offshoot pathways that lead visitors to the edge of the earth. Below, waves crash into the shore; to the right and the left, slabs of giant rock rise hundreds of feet.
Of course, a visit here is a commitment–not just of time but of mindset. The Bold Coast’s beauty lies in its lack of polish. It’s raw and untamed. There are no fences or signs blaring “Caution!” to warn of the dangers its steep cliffs impose. Nature, as it’s found here, hasn’t been groomed or reduced to some pretty painting for visitors to come and gaze at. Instead, the scenes encourage interaction: to pause to smell the wildflowers, to get a little muddy, to work up some sweat, to dangle your feet atop a bluff. It’s a bold idea, indeed, but if you can slow down enough to do it, you may just discover that there are still vacation spots where you truly can still get away.