One of my favorite “backyard” walks is the “sea-to-summit” hike from Highland Farm in York to the summit of Mount Agamenticus. The walk doesn’t actually start at the beach, but at the York Land Trust Highland Farm property, located on a hill overlooking the saltwater marshes of the York River. From Highland Farm, a series of interconnected trails on various parcels of land lead to the summit of Mount A, the highest peak on the coast south of Camden.
This hike through the forest is full of intriguing natural features as well as the ghosts of those who once farmed this land: Bluebirds and blue herons; old cemeteries deep in the woods and granite-walled cellar holes where families lived and died; a scenic overview above an isolated pond; erratic boulders and steep cliffs carved by glaciers; and finally, at the Mount A summit, a view of the sea to the east and Mount Washington (on a clear day) to the west. Not bad for a hike just that begins just a few minutes from my house.
This fall, on Columbus Day weekend, I completed the “Sea-to-Summit” walk once again with a small group of friends and two active kids. The distance from Highland Farms to the summit of Mt. A is about five miles, including a small portion on Mountain Road. Hard-core hikers can easily hike to the mountain summit and back, but most people probably will want to spot cars. If you can’t spot cars, just exploring these trails half-way is a great morning or afternoon walk.
When we dropped one car at Mount A at noon, the summit was busy with hikers and families enjoying the foliage and views of the Atlantic Ocean. But later, deep in the woods, we didn’t see another hiker on the four-mile hike in the woods from Highland Farm to Mountain Road. (We did run into a York police officer patrolling on an ATV, the same guy we had seen the year before, in almost the exact spot, time and day). The area is great mountain biking terrain, but the trails are not as “discovered” as the trails in the immediate vicinity of Mount A. Mostly, these woods are unpeopled. While I love my visits to Yellowstone or Acadia National Parks, every time I walk through this forest, I am reminded that beautiful and often more peaceful destinations await discovery in my own neighborhood.
We began the walk at Highland Farm (a farm for generations, until it became a nine-hole course that went bust), with the two boys sprinting ahead to look at the graves in the first of three Junkins family cemeteries on this route, two on the Highland Farm property and a third deep in the woods on land owned by the Kittery and York Water Districts.
The Junkins family first came to York in 1661, when Robert Junkins settled in the part of York known as Scotland, where he built a garrison house overlooking the York River (on what is now Cider Hill Road, I believe). Junkins was a Scotsman who had fought against Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. He was taken prisoner in 1650 and, with 150 others, sold into indentured servitude on a ship headed for Boston. Junkins was purchased by Valentine Hill of Durham, New Hampshire, and worked for him until the completing the term of his indenture, when he moved to York. (Valentine Hill’s home in Durham is now the Three Chimneys Inn).
The Junkinses multiplied mightily and many still live in the area. They have an entire website devoted to their geneaology and history, the Junkins Family Association, including a more comprehensive (and fascinating) account of how Robert landed in York. Two of his sons died in an Indian attack in 1714 and the family cradle that rocked these two sons and many other children that followed now sits inside the Old Gaol Museum in York. I don’t know if Robert walked these lands, exactly, but his descendants did, and I love walking on this trail that shows such visible artifacts of the human past: the gravestones, the stone walls, the foundations and covered wells.
Jeremy and his friend soon located the oldest grave is the first cemetery, a small well-maintained patch of land surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Then they dashed off down the Barred Owl trail, where we found the second Jenkins cemetery up on a little knoll. One small stone marked the grave of a small child. “What do these initials mean?” Jeremy asked as he pointed towards an even smaller stone. I explained that the stone was probably the footstone for the headstone, which memorialized a baby’s short life.
We walked on, intersecting with the Kingsbury Trail, which we followed down a small hill to causeway/dam on the swampy edge of Boulter Pond, where an osprey soared above us. Shortly after entering the forest again, we picked up the “White Trail” (on Water District land) Water District land. Soon we were deep in the woods, with steep cliffs and piles of rocks looming above us on the eastern side of the trail.
Further on, we spotted a cellar hole, just off the trail, that opens the door to the human past. Who lived here? What did this branch of the Junkins family do to keep body and soul together? When was this home abandoned, or moved to another location?
Within the granite-slab cellar-hole is a small dark chamber constructed from other stones. Was this a root cellar? A special pen for sheep or other animals? I wanted to know, but in a way, not knowing makes the structure more intriguing.
A few minutes later, we came upon another cellar-hole, lined with large slabs of cut granite. A couple of hundred yards off the trail, (to the left) is another cemetery, the family cemetery of the particular band of Junkins who farmed this parcel and probably raised sheep.
Sheep were big in New England in the first part of the 19th century and far more profitable than cash crop farming in the stone-filled soil common to this area. But as the sheep industry in the West expanded, the industry began to decline in Maine, and so did the farms. This abandoned home that seems so remote once was part of a small community, one that was isolated from the village of York, but existed as a complete small world of Junkinses.
“Look, there’s a porcupine,” my friend called out.
The boys immediately dashed up the main trail towards a tree, where a porcupine was inching its way up the trunk. After reaching an overhanging branch, the animal settled, sloth-like, above our heads.
Although I wanted to show the boys the third Junkins cemetery, we needed to continue on, due to the press of time and daylight.
When the White Trail intersected with the “Yellow Trail”, we took the turn (on “yellow”) towards Mount A, 2.4 miles away. A few minutes later, I recognized the side trail up to the rise that overlooks Folly Pond. We climbed uphill, then settled on some smooth stones carpeted with pine needles to enjoy a picnic lunch and the view of the pond through the pine trees. Steep cliffs drop down to the pond, but the boys were busy on another rock, discussing Minecraft, so I enjoyed my lunch without the hovering possibility of a boy falling overboard.
After lunch, we continued onward, crossing streams, and passing by the berm at the lower end of Folly Pond.Eventually we emerged from the woods onto Mountain Road, where hikers can either turn left and then take a path into the woods to connect with a trail that parallels the road, or turn left along the road. We chose the road and walked on pavement to the base of the mountain, then headed up the mountain towards the Ring Trail.
Mount Agamenticus offers many routes to its summit (the most direct being the road). The most direct route, from the parking area at the base of the access road, is the Ring Trail to the Witch Hazel Trail. After 20 minutes of steady uphill hiking, we again emerged from the woods, to a view of a granite cliff topped with a row of pines. Nearby, the viewing platform offers a view of Mount Washington, but not on this day, as the clouds had rolled in.
We drove a circuitous route — probably 8 or 10 miles — back to our car at Highland Farm. Within a few minutes, we arrived at the parking lot from whence we departed three hours earlier. In taking the more direct route to the mountain, through the woods, we had become time travellers of a sort. We had visited the past and walked at the same speed the with which the Junkins children once had travelled to school. It felt strange to return so quickly in our cars at the Farm. Maybe this “small adventure” wasn’t so small after all.
Notes and Resources.
The Highland Farm property, (see map at this link) owned by the York Land Trust, offers a neat walk all by itself, through fields and woods and along rocky cliffs. One spring day a couple of years ago, while walking up on the highest part of the land, I was surrounded by an angry bunch of turkey vultures, probably because I was near nesting site. Watch out for ticks.
Hikers often get lost in the woods surrounding Mount Agamenticus. Although trail signage has improved over the years, both at Mount A and on the Water Districts’ properties, hikers who are not very familiar with the area should bring a map to avoid trudging many unintended miles. The York and Kittery Water Districts offer a combined map of their properties here. A map of Mount Agamenticus is here. Pets must be leashed on these lands. Hunting is permitted on Water District lands; hikers should wear bright orange during fall hunting season, or better yet, hike on Sundays, when hunting is not permitted.
The York Land Trust offers a history-based hike of this area every so often, which I hope to attend one day, for this walk holds many layers of history beneath its trails.
For more family hikes, see my post, Round up: Five great family hikes in Maine.