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Would you believe my wife and I were on our way to Popham Beach for a walk, but were captured by dinosaurs in route? There is a very plausible explanation.
We stopped by the Ridgewell Preserve in Phippsburg a few miles north of Popham Beach just to scope it out for a future hike. Our quick look-see turned into a three-hour exploration of the preserve, culminating in a wonderful walk through the aptly named “Dinosaur Rocks” maze. Here in the Town Forest, just south of the Ridgewell Preserve boundary, three parallel humped ridges sit amidst a vast pitch pine forest.
The easterly ledge offers a glimpse five miles south to the fortress-like island of Seguin. At 180 feet above the ocean, the flashing beacon of Seguin Lighthouse is the highest light above water in Maine. The view is a bit restricted through the tops of the trees, but with binoculars is nonetheless impressive.
The preserve is at Pride Rock Way on the left side of Route 209, approximately 2.5 miles beyond the Phippsburg Town Hall. It is easy to drive right by the road, so slow down at mile two from the Town Hall and be on the lookout for a small green street sign at the north end of the circular gravel entrance. You will see a green preserve sign at the edge of the woods, and a kiosk with information on all the trails (30 miles worth!) in Phippsburg.
There are two loop trails within the 50-acre preserve, the northerly one marked with red blazes and the adjacent loop marked with orange blazes. The red blazes are a bit hard to see at times, and with the leaves down it is easy to walk off the trail, so pay attention to the blazes. Detailed maps of the preserve are posted at most trail junctions, letting you know exactly where you are, and the choices before you. If you explore the two loops, then follow the white-blazed trail south into the Town Forest to the dinosaurs, you will hike a total of 4.5 miles.
As you start out you will skirt around North Creek marsh on a series of boardwalks. Note on the right a huge red pine. At eight feet in circumference this is one of the larger red pines we have seen in the Mid-Coast region. This is but a sign of things to come. Throughout the preserve there are many pockets of red pine, their reddish, scaly bark glowing in the soft afternoon light. Like their more famous white pine brethren, the red pine were also used for ship masts. The British were still buying these tall, straight trees from us as late as 1875.
A blue-blazed side trail leads out to the marsh. Then the trail climbs 100 feet in elevation up a series of switchbacks onto a vast ledge-pocked plateau. There are a host of vernal pools on the plateau, critical habitat in the spring for wood frogs and spotted salamanders. Greenery abounds everywhere, from treetops to ground level. Shiny green wintergreen leaves and their tasty red berries were everywhere. Oval laurel leaves held fast on their branches. Crunchy patches of reindeer moss dotted the forest floor. Many species of mushrooms had still avoided a killing frost.
Outcroppings of ledges were dotted with nubbins of white quartz and sparkling flecks of mica. Some of the trail-side ledges were ergonomically designed and invited us to sit and listen to the birds. Moss and pine needles provided the perfect cushion. (We were not going to make it to Popham Beach on this perfect Indian Summer day!) A downy woodpecker landed above us on a slender branch, its red head patch clearly visible. Later we would see two hairy woodpeckers chasing each other from tree to tree and calling back and forth.
The red-blazed northerly loop starts out by going through a narrow defile between two 20-feet tall vertical ledges covered with rock tripe. If you changed the rock color to red you might think you were in Utah canyon country. As the trail circled back around to the south we entered a dense grove of pitch pine. The gnarled and twisted trunks were spooky, and we laughed about not wanting to be in this forest on a full-moon Halloween night.
Eventually we made it down to the Dinosaur Rocks and enjoyed the trail maze created both between and up onto the humps. We felt like the Flintstones walking beside huge dinosaurs and then venturing right up their broad, curved backs and back down again. Hidden deep within the vast pine wilderness between Route 209 and the Parker Head Road we were amazed that someone had found these unique formations and blazed a path to them.
The Ridgewell Preserve is one of many beautiful properties managed by the Phippsburg Land Trust. Check out their website (www.phippsburglandtrust.org) for further information about the preserve and other trust projects. With holiday feasting soon upon us, a good walk in a wild place can help counterbalance those extra wedges of pie.