Moose and puffins, camping and swimming, first sunrises and inspiring vistas to be found in Maine’s state parks

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Undeveloped bold coastline with granite cliffs dropping off into the Atlantic Ocean. Abandoned steam locomotives strangled by overgrowth in the middle of the wilderness. Majestic eagles soaring high above 20-foot tides that sweep in with such force you can hear the water rise. These are just some of the offerings of Maine’s State Park system.

Surprised? Don’t be. With over 1 million acres in conserved land and easements overseen by the Bureau of Parks and Land (BPL), there’s a whole heck of a lot to experience.

2010 marks the 75th anniversary of the Maine State Park system, which is comprised of 48 parks and historic sites. Together, they offer excitement and contemplation, the beautiful and the unusual, the historic and the future. Whether you’re looking for a family camping getaway or a challenging hike through rough terrain, lake or ocean, peace and quiet or thrills, Maine’s park system has it.

Looking for an ethereal experience in your Maine backyard? Try heading to Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, the easternmost point of the continental U.S., where the one-mile bog trail takes you atop a boardwalk through a field of peat moss. You’ll see a spectrum of colors in the abundant plant life, including the rarely seen carnivorous pitcher plant and sundew.

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“You almost feel like you are on another planet,” says Gary Best, assistant regional manager of the Maine Department of Conservation and interpretive planner for the BPL. “It’s astounding. It’s not like you’re walking through a field anywhere else in the world.”

You’re likely to run into a critter or two at most of the parks or public lands, but depending on what you want to see, each place has its own specialty. If it’s moose, try heading up to Lily Bay State Park in Greenville. Harbor porpoises have been spotted swimming up to Fort Knox in Prospect and Fort Point in Stockton Springs recently, and whales can be seen at Quoddy Head.

If you’re a birder, eagles are prevalent in most areas, and Grafton Notch State Park and Acadia National Park have several peregrine falcons, a Maine endangered species. Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park is known for the osprey that nest there, while the parks statewide offer more than 330 species of birds, from the yellow-bellied flycatcher to Atlantic puffins.

Park experts say you’ll want to be careful at Grafton Notch State Park, north of Bethel and close to the border of New Hampshire, which features some of the most rugged terrain of the Appalachian Trail. Although there are both beginner and expert hiking trails here, one has to be prepared and take note of where they are stepping. The most common injury reported to the department is a rolled ankle.

There are plenty of places for day trips, picnics and beach outings at Maine’s state parks. Popham Beach in Phippsburg and Reid State Park in Georgetown are the two most popular parks for day visits, but other places such as Damariscotta Lake in Jefferson and Swan Lake in Swanville accommodate young families as well, park authorities say.

Maine’s newest park is near and dear to central Maine: Androscoggin Riverlands State Park. Representing the first major state park developed in more than 25 years, it involves 2,588 acres of state-owned land along the Androscoggin River, mostly in Turner. The land includes significant wildlife habitat, shoreland, scenic vistas and an existing recreational trails network.

“The parks system is here to be used,” says Will Harris Jr., director of the Maine State Department of Conservation (MDC). “It’s not just there to be thought about. It’s an experiential thing. We want people out there using these parks and lands. So, come on down.”

Sure, the system is no spring chicken per se, but the MDC is letting people know that 2010 is a year to celebrate and rejuvenate your love of the outdoors. To that end, they have created a slew of events in recognition of the anniversary, from fishing derbies to adventure races, potentially attracting even more people to Maine’s state parks than last year’s 2.3 million. Of the eight anniversary events that have been held so far, more than 4,200 visitors participated.

Initiatives to attract visitors this year feature a “parks passport,” with which patrons can collect stamps from every state park they visit, receiving a prize after each eighth stamp in a series. And for the third year, the BPL will be hosting its First-Time Campers program, in which families are chosen by lottery to camp for free in one of the state parks, with gear donated by L.L. Bean and Coleman, as well as expert guidance from rangers, and more. (For details, go to http://www.maine.gov/tools/whatsnew/index.php?topic=BPL_Cal&id=85325&v=EventListing)

“There really is something for everyone,” says Best. “Whether you’re into re-enactments and seeing the cannons go ‘boom’ or if you’re into birding. Maybe you want to learn how to ice fish or you want to pick up camping. The sky is the limit. We have the facility, we have the program.” (Go to http://www.maine.gov/doc/parks/ for more.)

Test your knowledge with this state park brain teaser:

1. What was Maine’s first state park?

2. What is Maine’s newest park?

3. What is the Maine park where you’re most likely to see a moose?

4. Which Maine park is considered among the most unique for both its location, lighthouse, rare coastal peat bog and both sub-arctic and arctic plants?

5. What’s the most common injury reported at Maine parks?

6. What is considered one of the most “dangerous” Maine parks? (Hint: Knowing the answer to #5 will help.)

7. What are the two most popular parks?

8. What’s the busiest state park campground?

Answers:

1. Aroostook State Park, Presque Isle

2. Androscoggin Riverlands State Park, Turner

3. Lily Bay State Park, Greenville

4. Quoddy Head State Park, Lubec

5. Rolled ankle

6. Grafton Notch State Park (because of its extreme trail terrain)

7. Popham Beach, in Phippsburg, and Reid State Park, in Georgetown (181,061 and 154,645 visits, respectively, in 2009)

8. Sebago Lake State Park (84,173 overnight stays in 2009; Camden Hills is second, well back with 23,403 visits)

Mount Blue, Bradbury Mountain among Maine’s first parks

Fueled by the Civilian Conservation Corps under President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, the state park idea began to sweep the nation. Maine jumped on the bandwagon, and in 1935 the Legislature set up the State Park Commission. Just four years later, in March of 1939, Maine’s first state park, Aroostook State Park in Presque Isle, was established with 100 acres of land purchased and donated by local businessmen. Four more parcels of land were acquired in 1940 — Lake St. George in Liberty, Sebago Lake, Mount Blue in Weld and Bradbury Mountain in Pownal — creating the nucleus of the state’s park system.

“And since then,” says Will Harris Jr., director of the Maine State Department of Conservation, “we have just kind of chugged along, and added in a batch of historic sites as well.” These include forts, historical homes and archeological sites, such as Colonial Pemaquid in Bristol, where 17th- and 18th-century colonial structures and prehistoric American Indian artifacts continue to be unearthed.

The Bureau of Parks and Land and Maine Department of Conservation have updated many of the parks and historic sites in the state using a $7.5 million bond Mainers passed in 2007.

Not only is a visit to a state park or public land an enjoyable experience, it’s a money-maker for the state. About 2.3 million people visit the state’s parks and public lands annually, 60 percent of those being Mainers. Those visits bring in roughly $3 million to the state’s General Fund, according to Maine Department of Conservation Acting Commissioner Elizabeth Townsend, and $100 million to the economy.

“Something to keep in mind is, although we charge for state parks, they’re incredibly affordable,” says Townsend. “Not everybody can afford recreation. They exist so everyone has a place to go and let their hair down and spend time with their children and families.”

Prices for admission to state parks average about $3 for adults, $1 for children 5 to 11 years of age; senior citizens 65 or older are free. Non-resident rates are slightly higher. All public lands are free to access. Price differences are based on the level of development, park authorities say. Amenities such as Wi-Fi availability, sewer and water hook-ups for RVs and corresponding facilities cost a little more than, say, the sylvan outback of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

Check back frequently to the Department of Conservation Web site for newly added events. (http://www.maine.gov/doc/parks/)

April 10: First-Time Camper Registration begins

April 25: Wolfe’s Neck Woods Birding Festival, Freeport

May 15: Teens to Trails Maine Adventure Race, Bradbury Mountain State Park, Pownal

May 29: Memorial Day Weekend Concert: Maine St. Andrew’s Pipes & Drums, Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site, New Harbor

June 12: Aroostook State Park Birding Festival, Presque Isle

June 20: Maine Day at Maine state parks and historic sites

July 10: Archaeology Discovery Workshop, Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site, New Harbor

July 23: Battle at Fort Knox, Fort Knox State Historic Site, Prospect

July 28: Small Reach Regatta 2010, Lamoine State Park, Lamoine

Aug. 21: Living History Weekend, Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site, New Harbor

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