The Great Outdoors: Exploring the Spurwink Trail in Cape Elizabeth

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This is a great time of year for bird watching and for enjoying wildflowers. The many preserves and trail systems of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust provide outstanding opportunities to do both.

We recently enjoyed a hike along the upper reaches of the Spurwink River on the mile-long Spurwink Trail, then crossed Spurwink Avenue at the Spurwink Church to meander for 20 minutes up into the Runaway Farm parcel. The Spurwink Trail dazzled us with a wide range of birding discoveries, while the Runaway Farm Trail led us to thick mats of emerging spring wildflowers.

These two trails can be a bit difficult to follow in spots. Now is the best time to go, before summer vegetation fills in and makes travel more daunting. Hikers should have a good sense of direction, and proceed with patience and common sense. A helpful map can be downloaded from the Land Trust website.

Park on the west side of Spurwink Avenue opposite the Cape Elizabeth Waste Water Treatment facility. A small dirt turnaround at the edge of a meadow provides parking for a few cars. A beaten path follows along the edge of a grove of trees offering far reaching views down the field and out over the Spurwink marsh. Tree swallows flitted in and out of nest boxes placed along the path. Their shiny blue backs contrasted sharply with their plump snow-white breasts. Everything was in full bloom: apple trees, blueberry bushes, pin cherry trees, and strawberry plants.

As the path follows around the grove of trees and appears to be heading back to your vehicle stop and look down to the southern corner of the field. You will see a 3-foot high post at the edge of the woods. The Spurwink Trail enters the woods here and follows along the eastern margins of the marsh. Metal Cape Elizabeth Greenbelt markers have been placed on trees along the route.

There are many open views out over the fingers of water and matted marsh grasses. Canada geese were everywhere; on the water, in the air, and nesting on raised hummocks. Cormorants struggled mightily to keep their big bodies airborne. Kingfisher calls rattled from cove to cove.

We stopped to watch a Great Egret scan the shallows for food. Their long black legs are a perfect compliment to their shiny white plumage. Like their relative the blue heron they were almost hunted to extinction for the decorative beauty they added to women’s hats a century ago. Of the 40 species of birds that contributed feathers for fashion, the Great Egret feathers were the highest priced at $32 an ounce in 1900.

Eventually you will walk right up to someone’s yard. The trail, now mowed, passes to the right of the house, but soon starts to loop back around toward the house. As the trail turns, just before a green canopy shed, stop and look to your right. A faint trail leads into a stand of poplar. Thirty yards in from the mowed path you will see a metal marker on a tree, and once again be following along the edge of the marsh.

Through the trees you will soon see a cemetery up on a green hillside. You have reached Riverside Memorial Cemetery and the historic Spurwink Church. The church was built in 1802 and is the oldest public building in Cape Elizabeth. Its simple design, classic white with green trim exterior, and outstanding views out over the marsh make this church a popular choice for weddings.

You can either retrace your hike back to your vehicle or walk back along Spurwink Avenue. A hundred yards north of the church sits a sign on the right side of Spurwink Avenue marking the Runaway Farm Trail. It is narrowly situated between two driveways. The white-blazed trail is marginally maintained but is well worth following into the forest. There are a few tiny ponds and marshy areas in the preserve that are home to many varieties of ferns and brilliant green leafy false hellebore.

Wildflower displays change weekly. On our third week of May visit we enjoyed carpets of Canada mayflowers, goldthread, trout lilies, and a brilliant pinkish-purple patch of fringed polygala. These amazing little flowers look just like sawed off airplanes complete with propellers. They had us down on our knees in wonder and amazement admiring the infinite variety of nature. On your visit maybe the clintonia, bunchberry, and starflowers will be out.

There was ample evidence of woodpecker activity. Decaying trees had huge flakes of bark strewn about the forest floor. Live trees were peppered with rows of drill holes. All of a sudden the trail just seemed to end, so we turned around and headed back out to the road. We sure had seen a lot in two hours.

Two Lights State Park and Portland Head Light are close by. If you have a little extra time you can add an ocean experience to your recently concluded woods, meadow, and marsh walk. See the Delorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer Map No. 3 for help in getting onto Spurwink Avenue from Route 77 in Cape Elizabeth.

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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