Why I love hiking during shoulder seasons in Maine
The beach stretched out in front of us, empty and undisturbed by footprints. With the freedom to sit anywhere for our picnic, I walked my dog Juno along the shore to a sunny stretch of sand.
Schoodic Beach on Donnell Pond is a popular spot during the summer, with shallows perfect for swimming. The tent sites are tucked away in the woods along its edge, with picnic tables, fire pits, and outhouses. Mingling with hikers and campers, boaters often stop as they explore the crystal-clear pond.
But on that sunny Tuesday in early November, Juno and I had the beach to ourselves. And before that, on our hike up and down nearby Schoodic Mountain, we hadn’t encountered anyone. That’s one thing I love about hiking in the shoulder season: the solitude.
As soon as the leaves fall from the trees in Maine, parking lots for outdoor destinations such as hiking trails empty. The change is dramatic. One weekend in October, the trails are crowded with excited leaf peepers, and the following weekend, that same parking lot is empty – or close by.
It’s not just because tourists stop visiting. I have learned that many Maine locals stop hiking after the fall foliage disappears. The other day a friend said to me, “I have to put on my hiking boots until next year.” It surprised me at first but then realized that I only hike during the summer and the colorful fall days as well. It wasn’t until the last decade that I became a year round hiker.
I understand why a lot of Mainers put away their hiking gear in November. The weather is approaching freezing. The trees are skeletal. The landscape is dull. Dry leaves make the feet difficult. (I don’t sell very well in the shoulder season, do I?) But here’s the thing: there are a lot of wonderful things about hiking in late fall and early spring.
For starters, there are no mosquitoes, black flies or deer flies. The cold keeps these irritating, biting insects at bay. As someone whose mosquito bites turn into itchy welts, this aspect of hiking in the shoulder season alone is enough to convince me that it is worth it.
While I lament the end of the fall foliage season, there is one advantage to bare trees: high visibility. As the leaves fall to the ground and the vegetation fades, you can look further into the dense forest of Maine to spot interesting wildlife and natural features such as boulders. And when hiking in the mountains or hills, you may enjoy a clearer view than at other times of the year.
With fewer people, you don’t have to worry about not finding open parking spots at the trailhead. In some parts of the state, that’s okay, but where I live, not too far from Acadia National Park, it’s huge. All summer and throughout the fall foliage season, it’s hard to find parking in some of my favorite mountains in Acadia. But in November, even on the sunniest and hottest days, I usually don’t have to worry about this being a problem.
If you’ve never hiked in late fall before, there are a few things to consider.
First, November is deer hunting season in Maine, so it’s important to wear bright orange clothing and other bright clothing to stay visible while sharing the antlers. On my recent hike I wore a neon orange pink fuzzy jacket. It is wonderfully odious.
Layering your clothes is essential to staying cozy and warm. For example, I started my hike to Schoodic Mountain wearing my fluffy jacket and a winter hat, and took an extra jacket in my bag. Halfway up the mountain, I was so hot I had to take off the hat and jacket to walk with a long-sleeved shirt. The trail was on a southern slope which made it particularly sunny and warm.
Coming down the mountain, however, I was in the shade. Also, I had cooled off during my stay at the Windy Summit. So I put my jacket back on. This dance with layers of clothing occurs a lot during shoulder seasons and in winter.
I’m probably sounding a bit judgmental, but I hope I can convince a few readers not to put their hiking boots away just yet. They might miss out on all kinds of wonderful outdoor experiences.
During my recent Schoodic Mountain hike, I saw a bald eagle hovering in front of me and around the mountain. Bronze leaves clung to the beeches, rustling in the breeze. Plush green moss and crooked tree roots added an air of mystery to some sections of the trail.
At the top of the mountain, the red, lance-shaped leaves of wild blueberry plants bled through the rocky landscape. A small golden beetle landed on my hand. And at one point the sun was so hot I could imagine it was still summer.