Happy Feat

In South Berwick, 250-acre Vaughan Woods State Park has a three- mile loop trail that runs along Salmon Falls River. The loop is also broken up to make it possible to take a shorter route, without backtracking.

And while ambling woodland trekkers may be wary of coming away bitten, heading to the coast can help with the bugs. Pick the right day at one of Maine's many coastal parks, and the ocean breeze takes care of the flies.

An hour north of Portland, Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park in Freeport offers a series of short, interwoven trails. And next door, the protected land around the nonprofit Wolfe's Neck Farm has a recently upgraded trail system that winds through its rolling fields.

Wolfe's Neck Farm's trails are ideal for beginner hikers, said farm program director, M.D. Mitchell.

Mitchell said few use them, but all are welcome.

"These trails are flat, pretty easy, and it's hard to get lost here. They have very good natural boundaries," Mitchell said.

With the Little River flanking the trail system on one side and Casco Bay on the other, there is moving water all around.

These are only a few suggestions, but southern Maine is rich with parks and protected lands. Find another state park trail at www.maine.gov/doc/parks/ programs/db_search/index.html. Some are well known, others practically anonymous, but there are dozens in every part of the state.

As for those elevated climbs, the natural next step for the beginner hiker: Go west.

Going Higher

Maine's western region is full of amazing mountains with difficult inclines and unparalleled views that, on a clear day, show clusters of mountain peaks, including far-off Mount Washington.

That said, try a few smaller hills first. The idea here is to get the muscles used to climbing and descending--and the mind thinking like a mountaineer!

Charlie Jacobi, the director at Acadia National Park, is amazed by the lack of preparation he notices in hiking parties.

On his side of the state, Jacobi sees it all summer long on the mole hills of Mount Desert Island.

"What we see is people out there without water, without foot gear. Street shoes really don't work except on some of the most basic, gravel kind of trails," Jacobi said. "You could easily get yourself into trouble stepping down if you don't have sturdy shoes, or went without a map, or water. Those are the three things we see most."

Even on the looping, populated short trails in Acadia National Park, new hikers get turned around all the time. Often when a hiker lacks experience, Jacobi said, they miss cues that identify a trail: the blazes, the worn path or the lack of lichen on stones.

"Most tend to look toward their feet," Jacobi said. "I've seen a lot of places people go straight when the trail turns right because they are not paying attention."

That's why it's good to build up to an ambitious climb by starting with a shorter one.

Within an hour of Portland there is 200-foot Jockey Cap in Fryeburg and 300-foot Douglas Mountain in Sebago. These are much like the rolling, short uphill climbs found on Mount Desert Island.

But both are near towns. So if the hike starts without the basic gear--a compass and water--it is convenient to turn around at the trail head and get it. That may seem unnecessary for a hike of less than a mile, but Jacobi said he sees folks get in trouble during much shorter climbs.

When the longtime park director teaches hiking seminars to beginners, he tells hikers to follow the same preparation and the same rules on every hike, regardless of distance. And the most important of these rules, he said, is the willingness to turn back.

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