Difficulty: Easy. The 1-mile trail on the property is smooth and wide, with a solid enough surface for strollers and wheelchairs, which are permitted on the trail.
How to get there: From Interstate 95, take Exit 19. At the end of the exit ramp, turn left onto Route 9-Route 109 and drive about 1.5 miles to the traffic light on Route 1. Turn left and drive north on Route 1 for 1.8 miles, then turn right onto Route 9 (Port Road). Drive 0.6 miles and the refuge entrance will be on your right.
Information: Named in honor of a famous American environmentalist, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1966 in southern Maine to protect valuable salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds. Located along 50 miles of coastline in York and Cumberland counties, the refuge consists of 11 divisions between Kittery and Cape Elizabeth.
Land acquisition for the refuge is ongoing, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the plan is for the refuge to reach the approximate size of 14,600 acres.
Known as an excellent place for wildlife watching, easy nature walks and quiet water paddling, the refuge sees between 260,000 and 330,000 visitors from all over the world each year; of those visitors, about 100,000 walk the 1-mile Carson Trail located at the refuge headquarters in Wells.
Open to visitors year round, from sunrise to sunset, the Carson Trail forms a loop through a fern-filled forest between the salt marsh surrounding the Branch Brook and Merriland River where they flow together to form the Little River. The easy trail is wide and surfaced with gravel, with wooden observation platforms along the way that offer views of the forest and marsh.
Before exploring the trail, pick up a brochure at the trailhead kiosk. These brochures include a detailed trail map and information about the refuge that can be read as a self-guided tour. The brochure text, numbered to match with 11 stations along the trail, touches upon topics including salt marsh restoration, phenology, waterfowl and shrubland management.
Also along the trail is a memorial plaque for Rachel Carson (1907-1964), an environmentalist and marine biologist who is best known for her influential book “Silent Spring.” Published in 1962, “Silent Spring” was a call to society to take responsibility for other forms of life, focusing on the harmful effects of pesticides, such as DDT, on the natural world. The controversial book pushed the federal government to order a complete review of its pesticide policy and ban DDT.
Born in rural Pennsylvania, Carson had a knack for writing about nature and science in an engaging and poetic way that spoke to the general public. In addition to “Silent Spring,” Carson taught people about nature — and especially the ocean — through newspaper articles, radio programs and her work as an aquatic biologist and editor-in-chief for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Carson died from cancer in 1964 at the age of 57. The refuge, named in honor of her in 1969, is near Carson’s summer home on the coast of Maine.
In addition to the Carson Trail, there are two other public trails maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on divisions of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge: the 1.8-mile Cutts Island Trail in the Brave Boat Harbor Division in Kittery, and the 1.25-mile Timber Point Trail in the Little River Division in Biddeford.
People also can enjoy the refuge by boat. There are three areas within the refuge where nonmotorized canoes and kayaks can launch and land during daylight hours only. These areas are Chauncey Creek, on Seapoint Road in Kittery; Little River, at the end of Granite Point Road in Biddeford; and Spurwink River, at the fish pier on Route 77 in Scarborough.
Wildlife enthusiasts can find a variety of wading birds, waterfowl and songbirds, including saltmarsh sparrows, throughout the refuge. While people are permitted to enjoy designated visitor use areas on the refuge year round, sunrise to sunset, it’s important to note that many areas of the refuge are closed to the public. These areas are marked with boundary signs that read “Area Closed” or “Unauthorized Entry Prohibited.”
Hunting, fishing and recreational shellfishing are permitted on the refuge in certain areas and only with specific permits and licenses. The special regulations for these activities are listed at fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson/.
Leashed dogs are allowed on the Carson Trail only, and horses are not permitted anywhere on the refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asks that refuge visitors follow “Leave No Trace” principles. Carry out all trash (including dog waste) and stay on designated trails to avoid trampling plants and coming into contact with poison ivy and ticks. Disturbing or collecting plants, animals and artifacts is prohibited. Camping, ATVs, bikes and fires are also prohibited on the property.
Restrooms are located near the Carson Trailhead at the refuge headquarters in Wells and near the Cutts Island Trailhead in the Brave Boat Harbor Division in Kittery.
For information, call the refuge office at 646-9226 or visit fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson/.
Personal note: Earlier this month, I had a girls weekend in southern Maine with my mom, big sister and 4½-year-old niece. We stayed at a hotel in Portland, shopped, ate at Sebago Brewing Co. and drove a bit farther south to visit the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells.
My niece, Willa, snagged the trail brochure from my hands and led the way as we walked the Carson Trail. Wooden signs marked with numbered stations on the trail, so we had her identify the number on each sign, then find it on the map. She got so excited about finding the next number that we had to remind her to slow down, take in the views of the marsh and look at all the different ferns and trees.
At some of the stops, my sister, Jillian, read the matching text on the brochure so we could learn more about the salt marsh and the wildlife we might see. Mimicking her mother, Willa decided to do the same and “read” to us about butterflies. While standing on a wooden platform in the sun at a beautiful overlook by Branch Brook, we learned that butterflies like to fly and swim, eat and drink, and watch people.
The sparrows and tree swallows also slowed Willa down. Once I pointed out the birds, Willa was fascinated. Beside the trail, she crouched beside me as I photographed a tree swallow from afar as it fed its young in one of the nesting boxes that were posted throughout the marsh. By the end of the hike, Willa was doing her best to “talk back” to the birds she heard in the forest, tweeting and screeching as she skipped down the smooth trail.