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A Treasure Off The Beaten Track

Hikers who perch atop a nearly 100-foot rock cliff that plunges to the crashing surf below are greeted by a spectacular vista with no signs of civilization, perhaps the same scene that caught the eyes of European explorers who passed by these shores 400 years ago.

From Pulpit Rock, we gazed up and down the coast for miles in both directions, onto a landscape unchanged through time: no buildings, no boats, not even another person.

"To look down the coast and not see anything - it's amazing," said Lindsay McMahon, the local ranger for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Looking out to sea, Canada's Grand Manan Island was visible 30 miles in the distance, while Machias Seal Island, a sanctuary for puffins and other seabirds, was obscured from view. Oddly enough on this day, nary a herring gull nor cormorant circled overhead to add a sign of life.

Welcome to Maine's Bold Coast, a little-known treasure east of Acadia National Park where the tourist hordes thin out, the tall spruce and fir reach the shore and the coast assumes a wildness that beachgoers at the southern end of the state can hardly imagine.

It's as though the western coast of Ireland, with its rugged cliffs and pounding surf, had somehow been transported to an out-of-the-way corner of Maine.

The Bold Coast generally refers to the 30 or so miles between Western Head in Cutler and West Quoddy Head in Lubec, which is worth a visit because of its distinctive red-and-white-striped lighthouse. But the Bold Coast's crown jewel is the nearly 5-mile stretch of shoreline that is open to hikers.

Visitors have access to a network of well-maintained trails within the Cutler Coast Public Reserve, a 12,000-acre expanse that came under state protection over the past two decades. But its remote location makes it a travel destination, not a place that tourists would stumble upon by chance.

Cedar log staircases and rock stairs accommodate the frequent ups and downs along the craggy cliffs. There are no fences or safety barriers atop the ledges, some of them 150-feet high, so visitors are advised to be careful, especially with children, and to keep their dogs leashed.

Hikers should be able to handle the gentle terrain in sneakers or light hiking boots, but it's a good idea to leave the flip-flops in the car. But don't forget the bug repellent.

From the trailhead at a 12-car parking area off Route 191 it's little more than a mile walk through boggy woods before the cooling sea breeze and salty air signal that the first panoramic view of the coast is coming right up.

Along the trail, we crossed paths with birders and backpackers, two groups that account for a large share of visitors.

Birders are drawn by the reserve's renown for diverse sightings, with nearly 200 species recorded on or near the trails. There are plenty of warblers, chickadees and other songbirds, along with gulls, black guillemots and eider ducks, as well as peregrine falcons, pileated woodpeckers and several types of owls.

Visitors who want to add even more species to their life lists of sightings can take boat tours of Machias Seal Island, the 15-acre outcrop of rock 10 miles from shore that serves as a summer nesting site for puffins, Arctic terns, razorback auks and other migratory seabirds. The boats leave from Jonesport and Cutler, small fishing villages where lobster boats still outnumber pleasure craft.

The Bold Coast is also home to moose, deer, black bears, bobcats and coyotes. Visitors may see seals, porpoises and perhaps a whale from the many outlooks along the Coastal Trail.

The trails within the reserve are mostly dry during midsummer, but they can get wet from spring rains and melting snow earlier in the season. Trail steward Lynn Bradbury of Cobscook Trails supervises maintenance of the trails, which have lengthy bog bridges made from logs that enable hikers to keep their feet dry when the terrain turns mucky.

Backpackers can stay at three primitive campsites at Fairy Head at the southern end of the Coastal Trail. The sites, each of which accommodates two one-person tents or one larger tent, are available on a first-come, first-served basis; hikers looking to camp overnight are advised to arrive early, especially on summer weekends. No fires are permitted and there is no water at the campsites, so those who stay must carry in their own water and rely on camp stoves.

The 10½-mile loop that includes the entire stretch of coastline plus the Inland Trail takes about five hours to complete on foot. Those seeking a shorter hike can cut their time in half by leaving the Coastal Trail at the midway point and taking the Black Point Brook Trail to get onto the Inland Trail.

Frequent and unpredictable fog is a fact of life along the eastern Maine coast, so hikers intent on enjoying a full range of coastal views are often disappointed. With fog most likely in spring and early summer, the best chances for a clear, warm-weather day come in late August and September.

With only about 5 percent of Maine's more than 3,500 miles of coastline open to the public, the Bold Coast Trails offer rare access to one of the longest unbroken stretches of shoreline.

The sign-in sheets at the trailhead attest to the enthusiasm of visitors who travel here from all over the country.

"They'll say, 'It's the most spectacular place on earth, don't tell anybody,"' Bradbury said. "And then they'll go ahead and tell everybody."

If You Go ...

GETTING THERE: Heading north on U.S. 1, turn right onto Route 191 in East Machias and drive 17 miles to the trailhead. Southbound travelers turn left off U.S. 1 onto Route 189 at Whiting, then right on 191. (East Machias is about 325 miles from Boston, 220 miles from Portland, 90 miles from Bangor, 80 miles from Bar Harbor and 380 miles from Montreal.)

PUFFIN TOURS: Birders planning puffin tours to Machias Seal Island may want to wait until next year. The season runs from late spring and ends in the middle or end of August.

TRAIL GUIDEBOOK: Cobscook Trails publishes a guidebook to the Bold Coast Trails and other hiking opportunities in the region.

ACCOMMODATIONS: If you don't want to camp or can't get a camp site, there are several options in nearby towns, including the Riverside Inn in East Machias, , and the Peacock House Bed & Breakfast in Lubec.

AREA ATTRACTIONS: Roosevelt Cottage on Campbello Island, New Brunswick, across the bridge from Lubec.

By Jerry Harkavy