ELLSWORTH, Maine — A few years after opening the 85-mile Down East Sunrise Trail from Hancock to Pembroke, the state is gearing up to extend it another two miles.

Two miles might not be much in terms of the trail’s overall length, but it’s where they are being added that matters, according to city and state officials.

Maine Department of Transportation is looking to extend the western end of the trail from Washington Junction in the neighboring town of Hancock into central Ellsworth, where it will be within easy walking distance of many businesses on High Street, the city’s busy commercial thoroughfare. Trail users, which include all-terrain vehicle riders and snowmobilers, will be able to continue using the existing parking area and trail access point at Washington Junction during and after the trail extension project.

Dan Stewart, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for MDOT, said Thursday that since before the 85-mile trail was built along the former Calais Branch rail corridor in 2009 and 2010, the plan has always been eventually to connect it into the center of Hancock County’s biggest and busiest municipality.

“It’s critical to finish the [trail] project into Ellsworth,” Stewart said.

Stewart said the trail extension is expected to cost $1.4 million to design and build. He said the agency is putting out requests for the design phase of the project, which is expected to get underway this fall, and hopes to start construction in late 2014 or early 2015.

Unlike the rest of the trail, however, which was built along the restored rail bed after the deteriorated rail and ties were removed, the new section will run alongside the existing rail line, which runs west from Washington Junction through Ellsworth toward Brewer. Stewart said the extension project will be funded entirely with money MDOT still has from the sale of the removed steel rail along the rest of the former rail corridor.

Stewart said in areas where the trail may be less than 15 feet from the existing rail, a fence will be erected to separate the two. He said the minimum distance between any rail and trail allowed by MDOT is 10 feet. There already is a paved walking and biking trail that runs next to the rail line in Ellsworth between Birch Avenue and North Street — roughly a mile northwest of where the gravel Downeast Sunrise Trail will end — that has a fence between the trail and rail bed.

Michele Gagnon, Ellsworth’s city planner, said Saturday that city officials are excited that the trail will be extended into Ellsworth’s business district. She said it will help draw attention to other outdoor recreation facilities in the area outside Acadia National Park, such as the Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland or the city’s public forest and trails on the eastern shore of Branch Lake.

“The more choices you have, the more active you are,” Gagnon said.

The success of the paved walking and biking path between North Street and Birch Avenue has been “huge,” she added.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said of the planned extension of the Downeast Sunrise Trail. “I think it’s a missing link.”

Exactly where the western terminus will be located has not been determined, officials said, but it will be somewhere among the many commercial properties that abut the rail corridor on the eastern side of High Street.

Planners say the hope is to build at some point a facility at the end of the trail that would include parking for trail users, restroom facilities, a local transit bus stop, a tourist information center and possibly a boarding site for the seasonal Downeast Scenic Railroad, which offers excursion rides in the Ellsworth area.

Stewart said MDOT will make sure the public has immediate easy access to the new trailhead when the project is complete, even if it takes more time to plan and build a service facility for trail users.

“We need to make sure the trail has a logical ending point,” he said. “[Trail users] are going to want gas. They are going to want food.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....