The Great Outdoors: Hiking the Giant's Stairs Trail on Bailey Island

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We are just entering the in-between season as far as outdoor activities are concerned. Area trails are transitioning from snow to mud, and are best left for the drier days of late April. Biking and kayaking seasons are just around the corner.

So for a spectacular hike where you can keep your boots dry and not damage the trails consider a visit to the Giant’s Stairs on Bailey Island.

We parked at the head of Mackerel Cove and walked up through the grassy slopes of the Johnson Field Preserve to Route 24 for that classic Mackerel Cove view, 25 lobster boats of all colors pointed out to sea. From the road we scanned the western horizon with our binoculars and found it – the imposing white massif of Mt. Washington still held deep within winter’s icy grip. It looked like a Himalayan giant towering above the vales of the Saco and Androscoggin.

We walked south on the road a few hundred yards and turned left onto Washington Avenue and followed it to the All Saints By-The-Sea Episcopal Church, a one-story rectangular shingled cottage that has provided a place of worship for generations of summer folks since 1916.The trail along the rocky shoreline starts at the end of Ocean Street and heads south for a half mile to the mouth of Little Harbor, where a 20-foot-wide chasm drops straight down below you. We sat at the edge and urged on the ceaseless waves of water churning up through the narrows.

From here there is a great view south out to Jaquish Island, and far beyond that, Halfway Rock Lighthouse. The early afternoon sun cast a vast carpet of blinding diamonds over the sea. Passing clouds varied the intensity and breadth of the display momentarily, and then we were back to full brilliance. The spring sun and gentle westerly breeze felt wonderful on our faces, the wonder of both warmth and bracing chill. A flock of eider ducks paddled about in the protection of the harbor.

But of course the showstopper is the Giant’s Stairs; a huge vertical cut in the cliff facing due east toward distant Small Point. A series of polished stone steps lead midway down the open shaft. We sat on the last sun-warmed black step, our feet dangling out over the surging seas below. The sun-splashed wall on our left radiated the warmth of sun. Swell after swell rolled in, starting their breaks many yards out and funneling into the cut in a swirling wash of white foam and light green aerated water, with spray flying skyward almost touching our boot soles. It reminded us of Thunder Hole at Acadia National Park, all without the four-hour drive to get there.

How could something so powerful and wondrous be in our own back yard? It had been many years since we had last been out to the Giant’s Stairs. We were impressed with the work recently done by the Maine Department of Conservation Recreational Trails Program, the town of Harpswell, and the volunteers of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust to improve the footpath along the cliffs, install signs, and negotiate a right of way access out to Washington Street to create a loop option for the walk.

As you scan the shoreline from Cundy’s Harbor down to the tip of Small Point you may be able to pick out many interesting landmarks: a ranch-style cottage owned for many years by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, the Lighthouse building at Sebasco Harbor Resort, the summer home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay on Ragged Island, among a few notables. We watched a lobster boat churn past us in the rough seas carefully picking a passage through a series of long ledges awash in surging white foam.

A blue metal sign marks the southern end of the maintained portion of the trail. From here it is possible to follow red paint blazes a few hundred yards over rough, rocky terrain to the mouth of Little Harbor. If you are at all unsteady with your balance or have small children this portion should not be traversed. You can either retrace your steps back along the cliff or hike up through the McIntosh Lot to Washington Avenue.

If you are hungry for lobster stew or other Maine coastal fare, a stop at the iconic Cook’s Lobster House might be in order. The pine interior and wooden booths have an old-time feel, and the views over to the Cribstone Bridge and up Harpswell Sound are unmatched. If you are looking to put more miles of walking under your belt the one-mile walk south along Route 24 to the Land’s End Gift Shop (open weekends) offers scents of spruce and salt spray, and the sounds of gulls and mourning doves. This is a walk you would not want to make during the busy summer tourist season, but right now you can revel in the peace and quiet of the off season.

To get to Bailey Island follow Route 24 12 miles south from Cooks Corner in Brunswick.

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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 michaelj_perry@comcast.net.

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