Difficulty: Moderate. A few sections of the trail are steep on Appleton Ridge. Also, the trail is fairly uneven, with rocks and exposed tree roots that require attention.
To reach the east trailhead, start at the intersection of Route 131 and Route 173 in Searsmont, near Fraternity Village Store. Head south on 131 for about 1.7 miles and turn left onto Ghent Road. Drive 0.25 miles to the large gravel parking area on the right, just after crossing the bridge. To reach the trailhead, walk across the bridge to the kiosk for the Canal Path. Facing the kiosk, the Ridge to River Trail is to your left, across the road and marked with blue blazes beside the river. (The Canal Path is to your right.)
To reach the west trailhead, start at Fraternity Village Store in Searsmont and drive west on Route 173 (Woodmans Mill Road) for about 2 miles, then turn left on Ripley Corner Road (which appears as Riley Corner Road on Google Maps). Park on the shoulder of the road. Walk down the gravel road and cross the wood/concrete bridge. Take your first right onto an overgrown woods road and walk about 0.25 miles to where the Ridge to River Trail is on your left, marked with blue blazes. (The Gibson Preserve entrance is on the right.)
Information: The Ridge to River Trail in Searsmont is a 4-mile footpath that travels along the banks of the St. George River before climbing to the fields atop Appleton Ridge and views of the river valley. The trail is just a small section of the Georges Highland Path, a 50-mile network of footpaths in the Midcoast region that is maintained by the Georges River Land Trust.
As of January 2015, the Ridge to River Trail was about 70 percent done, according to Jay Astle, the land trust’s stewardship program manager.
“We just finished that trail back in August, and there’s still some massaging of it that needs to happens, as you probably found as you got closer to Route 173,” Astle said.
Starting from the east trailhead on Ghent Road, the first half of the trail was well marked and maintained on Jan. 3, but the second half became harder to follow due to a recent timber harvest and downed trees from several early winter storms. One option is to simply hike the first 2 miles of the trail, turn around, and return to the east trailhead.
The east trailhead, which is across the Ghent Road from the Canal Path, wasn’t marked with a sign on Jan. 3, but there are plans to add signs in the near future. Marked with blue blazes on trees and wooden posts, the trail travels along the side of St. George River then turns away from the river to climb Appleton Ridge through a hardwood forest of tall oaks and birches. At 0.8 miles, the trail travels through a field, crosses Route 131 and re-enters the woods. Be sure to stick with the blue blazes, as the trail sometimes takes a turn. Usually the trail will be marked with two blue blazes (instead of one) before an abrupt turn.
As the trail climbs the ridge, it travels along the edge of a Christmas tree farm and crosses Appleton Ridge Road before traveling along the edge of a blueberry field, which afford great views of the area.
Continuing northeast, the trail re-enters the forest and descends the ridge to meet the St. George River once more. Following along the banks of the river, the trail comes to an inlet that has flooded in recent years. Here there are four blue blazes on a tree that indicate you should take the bypass trail (to your left) around the flooded
area. However, if the water is frozen, you can walk straight across and pick up the trail on the other side. Eventually, there will be a bridge there and the bypass trail will be discontinued, according to Astle.
At 2.3 miles, the trail comes to old bridge abutments, which appear as tall stone walls on both sides of the river. At 2.5 miles, the trail comes to an old woods road. At the road, it turns right and crosses a rickety wooden bridge, then turns right again to continue along the edge of the river.
At 3.2 miles, the trail turns away from the river and travels through a mixed forest to Ripley Corner Road, a discontinued dirt road, which it crosses at 3.8 miles. The trail loops around and ends farther down Ripley’s Corner Road. In January, this was the trail’s west trailhead, however, there are plans to extend the trail to Gibson Preserve.
Follow Ripley Corner Road and it will cross a wide bridge before reaching Route 173 at 4.4 miles. If you want to leave a car at this end of the hike, park it on the shoulder of Ripley Corner Road near Route 173.
The Georges Highland Path is made possible through the participation of private landowners who give permission for the public to cross their land. While hiking the path, it’s important to stay on trail and respect the fact that you will often by on privately owned land.
The Georges River Land Trust asks that trail users practice Leave No Trace principles; for example, pick up litter, leave natural objects (rocks and plants) and respect wildlife. Dog are permitted if kept on leash. To learn about the trail user stewardship, visit www.georgesriver.org/about/keydocs/ and click on “Georges Highland Path: Standards & Practices.”
From its headwaters above Quantabacook Lake, the St. George River flows south through Searsmont, Appleton, Union and Warren, feeding a chain of ponds and
wetlands and supporting a variety of rare plants and natural communities found nowhere else in central or coastal Maine, according to a document about the area posted on the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry website.
Rare plants along St. George River include bottlebrush grass, horned pondweed, mudwort, pale green orchis, spongy arrow-head, spotted pondweed, swamp white oak, wild garlic and wild leek, according to the department. And significant wildlife habitats in that area include over 1600 acres of inland wading bird and waterfowl habitat, as well as about 600 acres of deer wintering habitat.
The Georges River Land Trust’s mission is “to conserve the ecosystems and traditional heritage of the Georges River watershed region through permanent land protection, stewardship, education and outdoor experiences,” according to its website at www.georgesriver.org. The land trust currently holds 39 conservation easements and owns and manages 15 preserves. For more information, call the trust at 594-5166.
Personal note: When I planned to take my mom and Derek’s mom hiking on Saturday, Jan. 3, I hadn’t anticipated a high temperature of 19 degrees Fahrenheit. Worried that they’d freeze and be miserable, Derek and I packed hand warmers, as well as extra mittens, hats and thick socks. We wanted them to have a good time.
We almost left our dog Oreo home. A pit bull mix, he doesn’t have much fur, so 20 degrees Fahrenheit is usually his cut-off point. But as we got ready for our “moms adventure,” Oreo ran around the house in a frenzy of excitement and we caved in. We wrapped him in two fleece dog coats, slathered his paws in a protective and warming wax called Musher’s Secret, and brought him along.
So we could hike the entire 4-mile trail, we parked cars on both ends and started walking from the east trailhead. As we climbed Appleton Ridge, our bodies warmed up and we actually ended up taking our hats off and unzipping our jackets.
At the Christmas tree farm, we saw a group of more than 40 wild turkeys. Fortunately, we had Oreo on a leash.
It turned out to be a good day for wildlife sightings. As we passed through the fields of Appleton Ridge, Derek spotted a hairy woodpecker drumming on a tree, and in the woods, I spotted a large porcupine climbing high in a tall evergreen tree.
Soon after, we came across a “porcupine tree,” a hollow tree serving as a porcupine’s den, identifiable by the comically large pile of poop at its base. While explaining the tree my hiking companions (I’d seen it before and done some research), I tripped in my bulky winter boots and almost landed face first in the pile of poop. I’m not joking. I caught myself with my hand, placing my mitten right in the pile. Unfortunately, no one caught the excitement on camera.
When we reached the St. George River once more, both of our moms remarked at the beauty of our surroundings. The trail had been clear of any blowdowns and was easy to follow because of all the blue blazes.
However, after crossing the rickety wooden bridge at 2.5 miles, we started climbing over fallen trees and became worried we were somehow lost. But when we checked our GPS, we saw we were still on track, so we continued to follow the blue blazes through the thick forest until we reached Ripley’s Corner Road.
After the hike, we drove to the nearby Fraternity Village Store for sandwiches, which were made right there with fresh ingredients. (The old country store also makes some excellent pizza.) We ate right there in the store’s dining section, a group of old wooden tables and mismatched chairs. Some local residents were
chatting and having coffee at one of the tables, as well as two arm chairs by the window.
“There’s something to be said for places like this,” my mom remarked as she ate her chicken salad sandwich (and I stuffed scraps of turkey and cheese from my Italian into a chip bag for Oreo, who was waiting for us in the car.)
More photos from the hike: