A hiker uses snowshoes while traversing the summit of French Mountain in Rome overlooking Long Pond in Belgrade. David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

A mere 15 miles north of the capital hubbub of Augusta, a pleasant drive via Route 27, is where you’ll find the Belgrade Lakes and the Kennebec Highlands. Recreational opportunities abound in this bucolic region, and hikers especially will discover plenty to their liking thanks to the conservation and trail building work of the 7 Lakes Alliance.

The Belgrade Lakes are a chain of seven interconnected lakes and ponds. Messalonskee Lake, Great Pond, Long Pond, North Pond and East Pond, Salmon Lake and McGrath Pond – plus a host of smaller ponds, streams and brooks – comprise the watershed of the Belgrade Lakes, 180 square miles of some of the best water anywhere in the state.

A 7 Lakes Alliance trail marker. Carey Kish photo

The Kennebec Highlands are home to the highest summits in Kennebec County, including McGaffey Mountain, which tops out at 1,288 feet. Some 6,800 acres of this mountainous sector of the Belgrade Lakes region have been preserved to date, a grand rural landscape that represents the largest contiguous chunk of conservation land in central Maine.

Maine’s Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the 7 Lakes Alliance jointly manage the Kennebec Highlands, which was assembled in phases through a project initiated in 1998 by the Belgrade Lakes Conservation Association. The BRCA and the Belgrade Lakes Association merged to create the 7 Lakes Alliance three years ago to address the many and varied natural resource management challenges of the area.

“People looking for a wild experience can find it here,” said Laura Rose Day, 7 Lakes’ president and CEO, when I spoke with her last month. “You can hike in some areas where you won’t see anyone.”

For all its wild character, much of the Kennebec Highlands are relatively accessible, noted Rose Day. French Mountain, for example, on Watson Pond Road just off Route 27 in Rome, is one of the more accessible of the 7 Lakes properties. At Rose Day’s behest, I checked out the preserve for the first time several weeks ago.

“If you desire to stand on a cliff top with gorgeous views without driving too far, this is one of those places,” Rose Day said.

The almost 1-mile loop, signed French’s Mountain at the trailhead, leads to a series of lookouts along the peak’s 700-foot ridgeline. The vista southward down the length of Long Pond is indeed a big reward for a modicum of hiking effort.

Dana Thurston of Raymond checks out Watson Pond on the Sanders Hill Trail in Rome. Carey Kish photo

With just enough waning early December daylight to spare, I decided to tackle The Mountain as well. Intrigued by its name and its location between Great Pond and Long Pond, this loop hike of about 2 miles also proved to be a real beauty.

In addition to formal hiking trails in the Kennebec Highlands and at French Mountain and The Mountain, the 7 Lakes Alliance also maintains the Mount Philip Trail and the Fogg Island Trail, the latter part of their newest conservation project.

“We’ve owned it (Fogg Island Preserve) for a while now but just opened it to the public last year,” Rose Day said of the 469-acre preserve of woods and wetlands in Mount Vernon, which includes a glorious 2-mile stretch of shoreline on Long Pond.

All told, there are about 18 miles of marked and maintained trails in the 7 Lakes Alliance system, and that much and probably more of unimproved trails (old tote roads) open for wandering about and mountain biking, and in winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

A couple of winters back, I joined a friend for a snowshoe trek on the Sanders Hill Trail. From beautiful Watson Pond, the trail wound up the eastern slope of Sanders Hill to its crest at 854 feet. The snow was fresh and deep that day and the air frosty cold and invigorating, as I recall of that great 3 1/2-mile loop through the pretty hardwood and hemlock forest.

Those fine memories have me pondering anew more winter adventures in the Kennebec Highlands, to Round Top Mountain and McGaffey Mountain, perhaps. And I’m probably not alone in this thinking. Given the unprecedented craziness of this pandemic year of 2020, Rose Day noted that “this winter will be a real important time for people to get outside.”

I couldn’t agree more. Hope to see you out on the snowy trails of the Kennebec Highlands or elsewhere. At a distance, of course.

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @ Carey Kish.

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