The Great Outdoors: Exploring the Bowdoin College Coastal Studies Center trails on Orr's Island

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If you are looking for a bit of an Acadia National Park, Monhegan Island, and Norwegian fjords experience all rolled into one, consider a visit to the spectacular trail system at the Bowdoin College Coastal Studies Center on the northwestern tip of Orr’s Island.

This off the beaten path parcel of land gets little publicity and little visitation. The 118 acres of peaceful meadows, secluded evergreen forests, and steep ridge lines and cliffs were a gift to the college from William and Irma Thalheimer, with the desire to create a world-class coastal studies program.

Seven distinct trails offer a variety of experiences and comprise a total of nearly four miles of walking if you hike them all. We spent three hours recently walking the perimeter trails of the narrow peninsula, bordered to the west by the sparkling waters of Harpswell Sound, and to the east by the sheltered waters of Long Cove.

To get to the property follow Route 24 south from Brunswick. As you approach the short bridge leading onto Orr’s Island slow down. Gaze out to the left down the narrow slot of Gun Point Cove. Cliffs strung with tiers of seaweed topped by pointed firs lead out to open sea. This has to be one of the most beautiful coastal scenes in Mid-Coast Maine.

From the bridge drive 1.7 miles south to the Bayview Road and turn right. The road is a few hundred yards past the Orr’s Island Store. Follow the Bayview Road for a mile, staying right at a fork. Pavement turns to gravel at the entrance into the Coastal Studies Center.

Drive in another quarter mile. You will see an information kiosk on the right where you can park and pick up a trail map. Rules are posted. Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times. The college also asks that no flowers, plants or trees be picked or in any way disturbed.

We started down the trail toward Dipper Cove and the music started; the deep throb of lobster boat engines mixing with the soothing song of the wind in the balsam fir and red spruce; the calls of crows, gulls and terns competing for attention. The trail quickly led us to the edge of Harpswell Sound and then followed the shoreline northward.

There is a steep, 15-foot drop down to the water with no access point until you reach a short path on the left leading out to a series of sharp fin-like ledges. This is a great spot to nestle in and scan Harpswell Sound with your binoculars. To the south stands the large water tower in West Harpswell adjacent to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station fuel depot. Eider families with young in tow were scattered about the broad expanse of water. On the far shore wharves were piled high with yellow wire lobster traps. Barely submerged white sand shoals shimmered brilliantly in the sun contrasting with the deeper blue water around them.

From this small cove the path heads steeply uphill to the Thalheimer farmhouse and acres of peaceful meadows. From here we followed the Pine Needle Path up to open ledges bordering Brewer Cove. The cry of osprey echoed above the canopy of trees. This is the perfect spot to take a break and go for a swim. The water was cool and refreshing, and we plunged in over and over. To the north we could see the Mountain Road bridge spanning Ewing Narrows. A small oasis of green on the ledges offered a bouquet of August flowers: daisy fleabane, St John’s wort, and goldenrod.

The highlight of our visit was the walk around Brewer Cove to the northern tip of the property. It was absolutely spectacular. The trail on the eastern side of the cove is a thin level platform carved out of a very steep slope leading straight down to the deep dark emerald waters of the cove. Red pine and hemlock dotted the hillside. We felt like mountain goats as we focused on the path ahead.

Through the trees we could see across to where we had been swimming a half hour earlier. The path eventually leads out to more open ledges perfect for another swim. As we floated on our backs soaking in the mid-morning sun we watched lobster boats ply the waters west of the Orr’s Island bridge. Two yellowlegs flitted about the nearby ledges.

This was a hard spot to leave. We followed the Long Cove Loop trail south back out to the meadows and our vehicle. The trail follows along the cove at water level offering nice views up and down the 1.5- mile stretch of Long Cove. You will hear some traffic on this portion of your walk over on Route 24.

Three hours had gone by too quickly. Guess where we were the following Monday with out of state friends visiting for the day – yes, right back out at the Bowdoin College Coastal Studies Center to give them a feel for the real Maine.

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Michael Perry is the former director of the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools and founder of Dreams Unlimited, specializing in inspiring outdoor slide programs for civic groups, businesses and schools. Contact him at