Cobscook Shores, a new system of parks scattered along the coast of eastern Maine, will celebrate its grand opening on Memorial Day 2021. A number of the properties, however, are already open for the public to enjoy.

Covering more than 13.5 miles of Down East coastline, the parklands currently consist of 14 separate properties scattered from Whiting to Lubec. These separate preserves feature about 8 miles of trails, as well as boat launches, picnic areas, campsites and other amenities for recreationists.

The $11 million project was funded by the Butler Conservation Fund, a private family foundation based in New York. The foundation also recently spent $26 million building Penobscot River Trails, a state-of-the-art system of trails for cross-country skiing, biking and walking near Millinocket.

“Both of our Maine projects include trails, bridges and a variety of features that are beautifully designed to last 100 years and are easily accessible for walking, bicycles and even baby carriages,” said Carl Carlson, Butler Conservation Fund’s chief operating officer.

From left: Picnic tables are located at viewpoints throughout the Cobscook Shores system of shorefront parks; A trail crosses a land bridge between Red Point in Lubec and a nearby island at low tide; Screened-in wooden pavilions are located at scenic locations throughout the Cobscook Shores system. (Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN)

The Cobscook Shores project began about four years ago, when the Butler Conservation Fund began purchasing parcels of land along the Maine coast. The organization’s founder, environmental philanthropist Gilbert Butler, grew up spending his summers in Northeast Harbor. He fell in love with the Cobscook Bay region decades ago, when introduced to it by a friend, Carlson said.

Though work is still being done to improve Cobscook Shores properties, 11 of the 14 preserves have opened to visitors throughout the summer. Three of the properties remain closed as trails are being developed and important features such as parking lots and outhouses are added.

“Right now, everything kind of soft open,” Carlson said. “All the gates are open [on 11 properties]. Trails are available. Porta potties are open. Everythings available for use right now … There’s still a little detail work that needs to be done and still small construction projects here and there.”

Built to the design standards of a national park, Cobscook Shores, like its sister project

Penobscot River Trails in Grindstone, is intended to offer an alternative to the state’s heavily trafficked recreational destinations, most notably Acadia National Park, which in recent years has seen 3.5 million visits annually.

One of the Cobscook Shores properties, Red Point in Lubec, serves as a central hub where administrative offices are located. The property also features a wide gravel road for biking and a coastal hiking trail that travels across a land bridge at low tide to explore a beautiful undeveloped island. The most developed of the 14 properties, Red Point also features drinking fountains, landscaped picnic areas and lawns, an old apple orchard, maintained fields, bike racks, dog waste stations, vault toilets, several private and scenic picnic areas and a number of screened wooden pavilions.

“This is kind of the center of the system,” Carlson said. “Everything is administered out of here, and the hiking trail has quickly become a favorite for people.”

A kiosk with maps and information is located at the parking area for Red Point in Lubec, one of the 14 properties that make up Cobscook Shores coastal parklands. (Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN)

At the parking lot for Red Point — located at 591 County Road in Lubec — a large kiosk displays a detailed map showing all the properties in the system. This map is displayed on kiosks at all of the parking lots in the Cobscook Shores system. In addition, the kiosks feature detailed trail maps and information about each property, including user guidelines. For example, dogs are permitted but must be on leash on all properties except for one.

“We’re trying to cater to people who want to go out hiking,” Carlson said. “Some [trails] are a little bit easier, some are a little bit harder. We’re really encouraging bicycling as well. We think it’s a great way to get in between the parks.”

In fact, the Butler Conservation Fund is working with the town at the Maine Department of Transportation to help fund a bike lane along Route 189. The lane will make the busy road safer for bicyclists traveling between Cobscook Shores parks and other conserved properties in the area.

In developing Cobscook Shores, the Butler Conservation Fund is working closely with Downeast Coastal Conservancy, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, all of which own and maintain conserved lands in the area. Many of the Cobscook Shores preserves were strategically located beside other conserved lands or provide views of other conserved lands, Carlson said. One Cobscook Shores property, Race Point, actually improves access to a state-owned parcel and trail on Race Point.

“We’re hoping to help link these properties together so people can have good access to all the various land trust properties,” Carlson said.

From left: A trail travels through the forest near the shore at Morong Cove, one of the 14 properties that make up Cobscook Shores coastal parklands; Recently planted trees dot a manicured lawn by the ocean at Red Point, which features a picnic area that features a screened in pavilion; Trail signs made by carpenters from Cutler mark the trailheads and intersections of Cobscook Shores parklands. (Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN)

On every property in the Cobscook Shores system, visitors can expect hiking trails, picnic tables, benches and screened-in wooden pavilions strategically placed in scenic locations. And every property features a portion of shoreline, offering visitors ocean access.

Some properties feature hand-carry boat launches, though Carlson advises that only experienced paddlers venture out into Cobscook Bay, which has some of the highest tides in the world.

“There are some places that are safer, but there are a lot of places in Cobscook Bay that are pretty dangerous,” he said. “We wouldn’t want anyone coming out here and getting hurt.”

The parklands are open from dawn until dark, May through October, with the exception of the Huckins Beach property, which features five walk-in campsites that visitors are free to use on a first-come, first-serve basis. That particular also features a hiking trail and screened pavilions designed for small groups to dine together. Campfires are not permitted.

The Cobscook Shores Huckins Beach property is home to five walk-in campsites, each featuring a tent pad and picnic table. (Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN)

Visitor rules, listed at each parking lot, were established to help maintain the natural beauty and tranquility of each property. For example, radios and drones are not permitted because they could cause noise pollution and disturb other visitors.

“You can come out here for a picnic,” Carlson said. “Bird watching is great around here, especially this time of season when the birds are migrating through. Anything that’s kind of quiet contemplative reflection, it’s a great spot for it here.”

The Butler Conservation Fund has been a leading funder of conservation projects along the Maine Coast for more than 30 years. In recent years, Gilbert Butler began pairing land conservation with major investments in infrastructure and the creation of large-scale parks. This transformation was born in part from a long friendship with the late Doug Tompkins, founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands, and his wife Kris Tompkins, former Patagonia CEO. Butler’s first gift to the Tompkins in 2007 supported a vast project in Patagonia, Chile, now called Patagonia National Park.

The Butler Conservation Foundation now manages large-scale legacy conservation park projects in the Adirondack region of New York, the low-country coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia, the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, the North Woods and Down East regions of Maine and the Bears Ears area of southeastern Utah.

“Everything flipped for Mr. Butler in a very short period of time,” Carlson said. “Where BCF had largely been a grant-making organization for land trusts and environmental organizations, Mr. Butler realized that he really wanted to build parks for people who would come out and use them.”

Though the grand opening of Cobscook Shores is set for Memorial Day 2021, the project is ongoing, Carlson said. There is no end goal in acres of land or miles of trails, but he anticipates that more properties, trails and other amenities will be added to the system in the near future.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...