What do you call a trailhead without a trail?

This may sound like the setup for a bad joke, but it’s actually a question I faced when I set out to explore the Waterboro Barrens Preserve in June. This 2475-acre woodland preserve – managed by The Nature Conservancy for nearly 30 years – is billed as the state’s “best example of a boreal pine barrens,” and has been on my list of places to visit for some time. So on a particularly sunny Friday afternoon, I plugged the trailhead into Google Maps to get the preserve’s 4.4 miles of trail under my boots.

Just 25 miles southwest of Portland and only a 15-minute drive from Main Street in Waterboro, the trailhead is easy enough to get to – just take West Road to Ross Corner, turn right onto Newfield Road for about a mile, then take a right onto the easy-to-miss dirt Round Pond Road. The hiker parking lot, with space for half a dozen cars, is about 500 feet ahead on the left.

Except this isn’t the trailhead – at least not yet. A sign under the trail map says that a new interpretive hiking trail from this new parking area is in the works, with no directions to the existing trailhead. A little flummoxed – and chastened for being overly reliant on Google Maps – I snapped a photo of the trail map and did some online research on The Nature Conservancy’s website to find my way to the trails.

The entry to the Waterboro Barrens Preserve. Finding the trailhead may take a bit of doing, but have faith. It’s worth exploring this unique landscape. Photo by Jake Christie

Luckily, I was close. To get to the current trailhead, follow Round Pond Road for another half-mile, take a hard left turn onto Buff Brook Road, and keep going for just under a mile, until you reach the gated entrance of the preserve. There’s space on the left for a few cars to park, as well as a peeling, faded map that made me glad I took a picture of the much newer map down the road.

Walking around the gate onto the sandy dirt road into the preserve, I was still half-convinced that I was in the wrong place; the trails through the barrens are actually old fire roads, and not marked by blazes or signs bearing trail names. But about a quarter-mile down the road I finally saw a “hiker” symbol on a tree, and I was able to relax and explore this truly unique forest.

From the first step, the Waterboro Barrens felt different from most other forests I’ve walked through. The sandy roads are part of the loose, nutrient-poor soils – in places 90 feet deep – that filter water into groundwater aquifers, ponds, streams and bogs. These soils and the level topography of the scraggly forest are prime candidates for development, which is why this type of ecotype is so rare.

Pitch pines tower over the roads, and scrub oak, bracken fern, blueberry bushes and woodland sedge fill the spaces in between. These fire-tolerant trees still thrive after fires burn away other trees and shrubs, and The Nature Conservancy has periodically burned areas around the borders of the preserve to thin the forest and reduce the fuel for an unexpected forest fire. Nearly 20 rare plants, including some that are endangered or critically imperiled in Maine, can be found here.

In addition to unique plant and tree growth, the barrens are also home to a plethora of unique wildlife. Moths and butterflies are particularly diverse; a sampling yielded 364 different species, including more than a dozen that are rare in the state. Rare snakes, rabbits and turtles also make their home in the barrens, along with much more common animals like bear, deer and moose.

This all means that there’s a lot to see and explore in the barrens, if you can figure out a way to navigate the trails. In lieu of trail markers and blazes, I hope the following recommendations will be helpful in hiking through the preserve.

Sand Pool Hike (2 miles): From the gate, follow the road – Thyngs Mill Road in map apps – for a quarter-mile, enjoying expansive views over field and new-growth forest (recovering from a previous burn) to your right. At the trail junction, marked by a green hiker sign, continue straight, dipping down slightly in elevation as you continue into the scrubby woods. In another quarter mile, you’ll come to another trail junction, with a sharp turn on your left; continue straight on the road. In just under half a mile, you’ll come to a unique sandy pool in Buff Brook, where the banks of the stream rise to a striking ridge; you’ll also find the remains of an old stone dam that was blown out in 1968. Retrace your steps to get back to the parking area.

Pine Springs Lake Loop (3 miles): From the gate, follow the road for half a mile (passing a trail junction at .25 miles), to the trail junction with a sharp left turn mentioned above. Take this left and follow the wide road for a quarter-mile, then take your first right onto a narrower route into the woods. Follow this meandering path for half a mile, passing a junction on your right, to an intersection with a sharp rise on the left. A small out-and-back path straight ahead will take you to a nice view on the shores of Pine Springs Lake, while the turn on the left will take you on a route The Nature Conservancy map calls Rainbow Road. Follow Rainbow Road over some steeper ups and downs for half a mile to a large, open T-junction with Thyngs Mill Road; a left turn will bring you back to an earlier junction in half a mile, and bearing right from there on familiar trails will bring you back to the parking area.

These are just two options on the many old roads that crisscross the Waterboro Barrens Preserve; other roads lead to views of Buff Brook, Harvey Mill Stream, Lake Sherburne and wide-open burn areas. If you do a little preparation, and have a good sense of direction and a thirst for adventure, this preserve is definitely one you should add to your list of places to visit – there really isn’t any other place quite like it.

Jake Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Josh, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Jake can be reached at:

[email protected]

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