Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Altogether, the trails in the network total 2.2 miles and form two long loops with cut-off trails that allow trail users to opt for shorter hikes. For the most part, the trails travel over uneven terrain with plenty of exposed tree roots and rocks. The trails also travel over small but steep hills and a few narrow sections of trail along the edge of steep slopes.
How to get there: From Cooks Corner in Brunswick — which is the intersection of Route 24 (Gurnet Road) and Route 248 (Bath Road) — drive south on Route 24 for 9.4 miles. Soon after crossing onto Orr’s Island, the parking lot will be on your left. The trailhead for the east trail network is located at the corner of the parking lot, and the trailhead for the west trail network is directly across the road.
Information: Located just north of Portland on the Maine coast, the Town of Harpswell is made up of a peninsula and more than 30 islands. One of these islands is Orr’s Island, which is connected to the mainland by a short causeway and is home to the recently developed Devil’s Back Trail Area.
Named after the ridge that runs down the center of the island’s narrow northern tip, Devil’s Back Trail Area is comprised of two loop trails, one on each side of Route 24, which runs down the “spine” of Devil’s Back. Owned and managed by the Town of Harpswell, the west side of the trail network opened in 2012, and the east side opened in 2016. Already, it has become a popular place for local residents and summer visitors to enjoy the island’s mossy old forest and rugged coastline.
Altogether the trails total 2.2 miles, with the west loop trail being slightly larger than the east loop trail, according to the trail map provided on the town website.
On the west side of the road, the trail system explores a mixed forest, that includes clusters of ferns, old abandoned apple trees, a stand of large cedars and towering red pines. The trail starts out wide and smooth, gently descending the Devil’s Back and splitting into a long skinny loop that is bridged with three cut-off trails. A long section of the loop follows the shore of Long Cove, where in places, the bedrock slopes into the ocean to be covered by rockweed and waves. Across the water is West Harpswell, and in the cove, you’ll likely see a number of boats mingling with sea ducks and gulls. Osprey are also commonly seen fishing offshore.
As the trail gets farther from the trailhead, it becomes more narrow and challenging as it navigates small hills. In fact, one section of the trail travels up along the side of such a steep hill that the town has strung up a rope between trees as a sort of handrail to assist hikers. But as a whole, these trails — the trails on the west side of the road — are a bit easier than the trails on the east side of the road.
The trail on the east side of the road also forms a long loop, bisected with a cutoff trail. The trail passes through a forest made up of a wide variety of softwood and hardwood trees, with dramatic slopes that lead down to small cliffs along Gun Point Cove. From various viewpoints along the shore, hikers can observe Seal Rock, rocks in the water where seals often rest in the sun. And across the water is Great Island — just another part of the oddly-shaped Town of Harpswell.
The trails on both sides of the road are marked with white, blue and yellow paint, with the different colors assigned to different trails to make navigation easier.
The trail area guidelines are posted online and on a tree near the beginning of the east trail network. Pets are permitted but must be under their owner’s control at all times. Visitors are expected to carry out all trash, including pet waste. Campfires, camping and overnight parking are not permitted.
Though the trails of Devil’s Back Trail Area are new, the conservation of the land happened long ago. The town acquired the land — approximately 36 acres — in two parcels in 1946. That early conservation of the land accounts for the number of large trees you see on the property today.
For more information about the trail area, visit the Town of Harpswell website at harpswell.maine.gov or call the town office at 207-833-5771. The trail is also featured on the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust website at https://hhltmaine.org, where you can find a wealth of information about many other public trails in the area.
Personal note: My first experience of Devil’s Back Trail Area was in the summer of 2013, just after the opening of the west loop, and long before the opening of the east loop. My sister, Jillian, and I — along with my dog, Oreo — hiked the west loop as a part of the Harpswell Hiking Challenge, in which we hiked eight trails totalling about 10 miles in one day (though most participants complete the challenge in two or more days).
On June 1, 2013, which I remember as being particularly hot and humid, we managed to complete the challenge, though it took us from early morning until sundown. In our haste, we were unable to notice the small details of each trail we hiked, but the challenge gave us an overall idea of just how many awesome trails exist in Harpswell for the public to enjoy, thanks to the town recreation department and the local Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.
What I remembered of Devil’s Back from that challenge was the beautiful mossy forest of the preserve, as well as the hilly, rocky terrain. Four years later, hearing that the trail area had expanded, I resolved to return for a slower, more thoughtful hike. On Sunday, July 2, my husband, Derek, and I — along with our dog, Oreo — arrived at the new parking lot of Devil’s Back to find at least four other vehicles already parked, and as we hiked along the east loop first, we came across some of the cars’ owners.
A salty ocean breeze flowed through the forest, keeping away the mosquitoes, and sunlight glittered off the water, which was a striking blue-green color that Derek and I debated over — was it aqua or turquoise or teal?
After completing that loop, we crossed the road to walk the west loop. Cutting across the loop to the water on Otter Creek Trail, we found a beach-like area where we let Oreo wade into the shallow water and splash about. Unfortunately, he drank a good amount of saltwater and became dehydrated and sick for the next couple of days. In fact, I was so concerned about him that I stayed home from work and watched over him like a mother hen while feeding him wet dog food mixed with pedialyte. The treatment worked, but it doesn’t in all cases. My friend recently had to bring both her dogs to the vets for the same issue, and they had to be rehydrated with IVs.
Anyway — Oreo is fine, and while he splashed about in Long Cove, I found a dead horseshoe crab in the grass along the shore. It was a lucky find, seeing how horseshoe crabs live most of their lives in the deep ocean, only traveling ashore to mate during very specific times. I’ve written about these rather ancient creatures before, and they more I learn, the more fascinating they become. With a shell shaped like a horseshoe, these animals have a clear lineage stretching back more than 400 million years, before the dinosaurs.
By the time we finished our thorough exploration of the trail area, it was time to head home, cook dinner and prepare for the work week, feeling refreshed from a day of sun and sea breeze.