YORK, Maine - Although minutes from Route 1, Mount Agamenticus is the heart of a 10,000-acre wooded wilderness, the largest unfragmented coastal forest between Acadia National Park and the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Rising 692 feet above sea level, the mountain provides important wetland and forest habitats for diverse plant, water, and woodland creatures, as well as 40 miles of secluded trails that attract 30,000 visitors annually, including hikers, equestrians, and riders of mountain bikes and ATVs.
Especially during foliage season, a half day on the trails or a drive to the top reaches its zenith with the summit's panoramic view, which sweeps from the ocean to the Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains.
From late September to early October, the mountain hosts a spectacular show. Thousands of migrating hawks, including peregrine falcons, bald eagles, osprey, and northern goshawks, rely on the coastline for navigation and take advantage of the mountain's thermal lift, making this one of Maine's most renowned hawk-watching sites. Optimal viewing is on cool, clear days with strong northwest breezes.
"It's wonderful to have all this so close," said Neil Jorgensen, a biologist, geologist, and author whose books include the "Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to Southern New England." The Kittery resident said the auto route is popular with hikers but is steep. Much easier is a side road from Agamenticus Village. "It's well-marked. You fear you'll get lost but you never do. It feels like you're in the forest primeval."
Jorgensen's favorite hikes take him past an old cemetery and the stone walls and cellar holes of a long-gone farmhouse. Another trail crosses a granite quarry. At the summit, he said erosion has exposed a ledge that bears parallel lines scraped by a glacier 15,000 years ago as it moved northwest to southeast toward the sea. Rocks in the ice created the abrasions, he said, but on the south/southeast side of the mountain, as the ice melted, it pulled the rocks out, leaving a smoother surface. "It was something Henry David Thoreau observed during his time in Maine."
Agamenticus was also an early name for the York River and the nearby village. One interpretation is that it derives from an Algonquin word meaning "other side of the river," said Robin Stanley, conservation coordinator for the Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region.
The group of collaborating landowners that includes York and South Berwick, York and Kittery water districts, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Great Works Regional Land Trust, and The Nature Conservancy helps oversee the region and its environmentally sensitive habitat. It also coordinates volunteer conservation efforts and offers information on the area's history, ecology, facilities, and resources for teachers, including downloadable trail maps.
"It's a very special place," said Stanley. "I grew up nearby and am very thankful that so many others had the foresight to protect this land for the public and wildlife to enjoy. Mount A is a 'carry in/carry out' area. We've been working very hard over the past nine years to find a balance between protecting its unique natural resources, including many rare plants, animals and the habitats they call home, along with sustainable forms of recreation."
One recent afternoon on Agamenticus Stanley found a Blandings turtle, an endangered species in the state. Vultures are a common sight and a few porcupines like to hang out at the summit. Visitors occasionally spot tracks or scat left by moose, white-tailed deer, black bear, or fisher. In spring, vernal pools formed by snow melt become breeding grounds for frogs and salamanders, while Spotted Turtles and dragonflies live nearby.
Years ago, there was a horse stable for day rentals. It closed about five years ago, but equestrians are still welcome on specially marked trails.
Some routes are only for hiking while others, marked with color blazes, allow mountain bikes and other recreation. In winter, it's wonderful for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing although trails are not groomed.
Hiking trails are easy to moderate, mostly the latter. Stanley recommends taking the Ring Trail from the base to Witch Hazel to the summit, especially for those with children. The route includes a self-guided interpretive trail and takes about an hour and a half to travel approximately two miles up the mount's western side through a variety of terrains and perspectives. The most difficult trail is probably Vulture's View, she said. Less than a mile long, it follows an old ski trail.
Locals remember The Big A ski area, which operated from 1964 to 1973, when it was shut down by warm saltwater winds and low snowfall. Now along Witch Hazel and at the mountain's base you'll find rusty remnants of the T-bar and lift equipment as well as a deep man-made pond that was used for snow-making. Today, the pond is an important habitat for plants and wildlife.
Aspinquid's Grave is another landmark, said Gary Sredzienski, a Kittery resident, year-round saltwater swimmer, and hiker. The rock pile memorializes a Native American medicine man revered by local tribes in the 1600s, according to legend. Reportedly they believed he converted to Christianity and thereafter was known as St. Aspinquid. When he died in 1682, hundreds of Indians came to the mountain for his funeral. Historians now think Aspinquid most likely was a fictional figure based loosely on Passaconaway, a 17th century wise man.
Sredzienski uses the trails in every season, often with his friend Steve Sullivan. "When snow and ice form, we go snowshoeing. Steve likes the view of the White Mountains. I enjoy looking out to the ocean and seeing Boon Island Light House and the Isles of Shoals where on some days, you can see the waves crashing. When I swam to the shoals [a roughly six-mile effort] in January, Mount Aggie stood out when I looked toward land."
A community fund-raising campaign ending in 2006 raised $17 million to protect 2,400 acres in addition to an existing 11,000 of protected land and open space in six adjacent municipalities. That effort led to formation of the Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative by 10 national, regional, and local government agencies and three land trusts. Now MtA2C hopes to protect 48,000 acres from Wells to Kittery Point by acquiring land through purchase or donation of development rights, and by partnering with the six municipalities on conservation issues in the area.
Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the amount of acreage the Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative hopes to protect was incorrect in a story in the Travel section on Sept. 28. The group hopes to protect 14,000 acres.