As I pour hot water from my well-traveled vacuum bottle into the cup, steam rises into the air. This steam could be floating up into the icy overhang of a snowed-in Appalachian Trail shelter, or it could be ripped sideward by chill winds racing down a wild stream side flush with snowmelt.
It is not doing either of these things, nor is it doing anything else romantic and exciting in breathtaking places. Nope. This steam is swirling upward around a baby bottle sitting in the small container of hot water. As the steam wafts away toward magazines, boxes of cat food, headache medicine and the multitudes of other items in the local Target, it hits me that my “little critters” — both still in diapers — really do affect my adventures. Though as most parents can attest, just getting kids out of the house to run errands can be an adventure itself.
Before I give the impression that I have nicknamed my two kids “Ball” and “Chain,” let me say that when it comes to family time, small outdoor adventures are no less enjoyable and rewarding than backcountry outings. Rather, “tame” outdoor outings can be big time adventures for little ones, and there is a real vicarious thrill to seeing your kids experience natural wonders, even if those wonders are taking place only a short distance down a trail or in front-country settings such as small community parks.
So, while there are thousands of acres toward which I could point people for backcountry excitement, let me instead share a few easy places in our Maine state parks and public lands where you can take young kids to explore nature and have fun.
Our state parks provide unique opportunities for families to mix and match their outdoor fun and adventure. This is especially true where developed settings, including playgrounds, transition into settings defined more by natural landscapes. A perfect example this time of year is Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal. A new playground, funded as a small part of a 2007 statewide bond, sits right near the park entrance. Nearby, biking and hiking trails head off in different directions, including the low but open summit of Bradbury Mountain. It is as short as 0.3 miles of somewhat steep hiking to reach the summit, where an annual hawk watch is under way. Your child can witness migratory birds gliding across Maine’s forests and can then follow that up by reenacting that gliding on a swing back at the playground. Especially consider visiting Bradbury Mountain and Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport on April 28-29 for the “Feathers Over Freeport” birding festival, which includes many kid-friendly events.
Bradbury Mountain is not the only park with playgrounds. Lake St. George, Moose Point, Sebago, Two Lights, Swan Lake, Cobscook Bay and Mount Blue state parks all received playground upgrades from recent state bonds, and other parks have playground equipment as well. All of these parks also provide the opportunity to interact with nature. Moose Point State Park in Searsport, for example, has a 1½-mile network of trails through pleasant forests as well as access to the shoreline of Penobscot Bay. Youngsters can look for forest and marine life, including tidal pool organisms at low tide. After exploring the shore and trails, families can have a picnic at one of the picnic areas overlooking the bay.
Mount Blue State Park in Weld is yet another example of a destination that blends easy-access experiences with opportunities to interact with nature. There is a popular beach, boat launch, nature center and camping area on Webb Lake, and there also is a diverse set of trails at the Center Hill area, which includes 3,187-foot-high Mount Blue. The steep, 3.2 mile (round trip) Mount Blue Trail may be beyond the ability of some families, but other trails, especially the ½-mile (round trip) Center Hill Nature Trail, provide a taste of the western mountains in a setting well suited to youngsters. Picnic tables, an Adirondack shelter for day use, restroom facilities and a tremendous view of Tumbledown, Big Jackson and Little Jackson mountains await visitors here.
While public reserved lands are typically more at the big and wild end of the spectrum compared to state parks, they still provide some great destinations for families looking to at least dip their kids’ toes into the wild.
Suggested public lands with hiking trails less than 2 miles in total length include several trail routes at Dodge Point in Newcastle, the Cataracts Trail located in the Andover West Surplus portion of the Mahoosuc Public Lands, Bald Mountain Trail in Oquossoc and Hancock County’s Caribou Mountain Trail at the Donnell Pond Public Lands (the 1.8-mile round trip northern access trail to the larger 12-mile Caribou Mountain Loop network). In addition to trails such as these and many longer trails, there are terrific beaches, primitive camping, boat access to pristine waters and unfettered open spaces to teach kids to hunt, fish and observe plants and wildlife.
Young children have an almost unparalleled ability to shape your daily life. Backpacking across the Bigelow Preserve can get replaced with visits to the swings and sandbox. And all things considered, that’s just fine. Thankfully, parks, both state and local, are available to start kids down a path that can lead to bigger and bigger adventures.
Before you know it, you may have your kids on the Appalachian Trail or other backcountry destinations — and they may be waiting for you to catch up!
Rex Turner is outdoor recreation planner for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. For more information about Maine state parks, visit parksandlands.com.