I have occasionally been asked how I can enjoy returning to the same place, year after year, for vacation. The people who ask me this know I have a more adventurous streak, so I can understand their confusion. But the more deeply I get to know a place, the more details I uncover that lead to more questions … and the cycle continues.
Would this be true for any place I visit? Probably, but I know it’s true for Mount Desert Island, Maine. Every visit has its own unique flavor and adventures, and we never see the same thing twice: not under the same weather conditions, or for the same activities, with the same goals in mind, or with the same quest to learn more about a particular historic building or trail.
Lately we’ve focused on expanding our knowledge of the island by trying to locate abandoned trails. The island was literally criss-crossed with hundreds of trails, built and maintained for different purposes over time, many of which have changed course or fallen into disuse.
But surprisingly—in some cases because of the impeccable quality with which they were built, in others because they are currently used and maintained by local "trail phantoms" who wish to keep them alive in some form—many of these trails are still easy to follow and even easy to find, if you have some idea where to look.
An inkling of a mystery
Rich and I first became aware of the Goat Trail in 2012 from a very brief mention—a footnote, actually—in Tom St. Germain’s renowned hiking guide to Acadia, A Walk in the Park. On p. 68, St. Germain writes "Now abandoned, the Goat Trail runs up the western side of Pemetic."
The precipitous west face of Pemetic Mountain is a conspicuous blank spot on modern trail maps of the park, and I’d often wondered if there was a feasible way to explore it. Once I heard about the prior existence of the Goat Trail, I was completely enchanted! I knew that Rich and I had to find this trail, or whatever might be left of it.
Two invaluable resources for research into the MDI’s history are an Olmsted Center report, Pathmakers: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Mount Desert Island, and Trails of History, another book by Tom St. Germain.
Trails of History is a thorough and carefully written history of trailbuilding on the island—I typically recommend a cover-to-cover reading for anyone interested in the history of MDI and the park. But it had little to offer concerning the Goat Trail.
Pathmakers was a bit more fruitful. From it we noted the following:
- There is another Goat Trail on Norumbega Mountain (which we already knew, but it bears repeating so we’re all clear which trail we’re talking about). This is an active, currently maintained trail with no relation to the abandoned Goat Trail.
- The Olmsted Center cataloged the trails with standard numbers for ease of reference and to avoid ambiguity. The numbering system also encodes some information about the location and management of each trail. The Goat Trail was given number 444. The fact that the number is in the 400s indicates that the trail is an historic (i.e., not currently maintained) path in the Seal Harbor VIS path district.
- The lower end of the Goat Trail was a habitat for rare plants, in particular wild orchids, and a wide variety of tree specimens. (I like finding lady’s slippers and other orchids in the wild, so this was another incentive.)
- Seal Harbor Path Committee chairman Edward Lothrop Rand noted in 1907 that the popular trail was "an expense out of proportion to its utility." This was a sign that perhaps the trail lacked consistent maintenance and may have been abandoned even longer ago than we had expected.
The most recent map we could find that shows the Goat Trail is the Appalachian Mountain Club map of Mount Desert Island from 1968. We have no maps from the 1970s, and our maps from the late 1980s through the present show no sign of the trail. The trail, according to the 1968 map, began at Jordan Pond and crossed the Park Loop Road on its way east to Pemetic summit. We began referring to the area where the Goat Trail appeared to come close to Jordan Pond as the "lower section" of the Goat Trail. This area is a limited patch of woods bordered by the road, the pond, and existing trails. It seemed like a good spot to begin our search.
We were encouraged by the following photos from Acadia Trails Treatment Plan, a companion book to Pathmakers that documents the condition of current and historic trails and proposes a long-term strategy for rehabilitation and maintenance. These are relatively recent photos (late 1990s/early 2000s) that show intact stone steps and the existence of at least one rung and one handrail.
A quick search, and some assumptions
On the final day of our vacation in September 2012, we searched casually for the lower section of the Goat Trail. We were looking for anything possibly connected to the trail that might still exist in our target area between Jordan Pond and the Park Loop Road. We tripped over plenty of rocks and waded through ankle-high piles of leaf litter. I got my feet wet in the creek alongside the Jordan Pond Carry Trail Spur. But we found nothing exciting.
For some reason, we initially assumed that any stone steps that still exist would be found on the upper section of the trail between the Park Loop Road and Pemetic summit, not in the wooded section west of the road. We began to accept the possibility that perhaps the lower (western) section of the trail was gone; it easily could have been overgrown if it were simply a woodland path long ago abandoned and mostly forgotten.
More map research
As the year passed, I remained just as intrigued and continued to search for more information about the lost Goat Trail.
All of the historic path maps included in Pathmakers show the Goat Trail, but not with sufficient clarity or scale to pinpoint the location.
Old topographic maps are often good sources of information, and they are what we used to locate the abandoned Potholes Trail last year. We spent some time studying USGS’s Historical Topo Map collection. Only one series (1956, 1:62500 scale) shows the Goat Trail.
As luck would have it, the western third of the trail is in the Mount Desert quad while the eastern two-thirds is in the Bar Harbor quad. Here, I’ve pieced together the relevant portion of both maps for ease of reference. Notice that this map omits the lower section of the trail, between Jordan Pond and the Park Loop Road (labeled Jordan Pond Rd. on this map).
Thinking that the lower section of the trail might indeed be gone, in 2013 Rich and I decided to attempt the find from Pemetic summit instead. While the summit of Pemetic is an open, mostly bare expanse of pink granite, dip just below and you’re quickly deep into blueberry bushes and then at treeline. It was certainly possible that stone steps or some other indication of the trail could be found just down into the woods from the summit.
We took careful measurements on the 1956 topo map and used the UTM coordinate system to estimate a few points along the trail.
On the day of our attempt, we drove to Jordan Pond House, where we found parking in the main lot. Our initial plans were altered slightly by the fact that both the Bubble Pond and Bubble Rock parking areas were closed to all traffic; they were being modified, we assume, to accommodate the expanding Island Explorer bus system. We hiked the Pond Trail up to the Pemetic Mountain South Ridge Trail and followed it toward the summit. We began at our estimated coordinates and searched in all directions for any sign of the Goat Trail. Again, despite our efforts, we had absolutely no luck.
Contact with an expert
Two failures meant it was time to learn whether the trail was still findable from the top or bottom, from somewhere in between, or not at all. It was time to consult a local expert.
The expert, of course, is Tom St. Germain—an obvious authority on the island’s history and trails. He is reasonably accessible, too, as the owner of Jack Russell’s Steakhouse & Brewery in Bar Harbor. Was this cheating? We don’t think so. Finding these trails completely on our own is a major thrill, but at the same time, part of the reason we love looking for abandoned trails is that it brings us closer to the history of the island, and sometimes there’s no more enriching way to do that than to speak with those who know it best.
The scene at Jack Russell’s was typical brewpub: fun, relaxed, loud. The food was good and the beer was better, and Tom was most gracious in answering our questions about the Goat Trail. (In fact, he said, what was with all this sudden interest in the Goat Trail? He had just taken another couple to see the trail a few days before.) I assume it was just a coincidence, but it was a lucky one for us: because he had just been in the area, Tom knew that for some reason, the intersection of the Goat Trail with the Jordan Pond Shore Trail was now indicated with orange flagging tape tied onto two trees. He had never seen it flagged before. He urged us to check it out soon, while the flagging tape was still in place. We did, and this time … we found it!
Rich’s note to our friend Dave tells the story well:
You might be interested in knowing that Zhanna and I hiked at least one short section of the long-abandoned Goat Trail in A.N.P. Using information shared with us by Tom St. Germain at his Jack Russell’s Pub on Saturday afternoon [September 14], we easily were able to locate the trailhead right off the Jordan Pond Shore Trail. We followed a series of original stone staircases up to the Park Loop Road. Directly across the road we found evidence of the iron rungs which once provided access to the upper section of the steep west face trail leading up to the summit of Pemetic Mountain. Most had been sawed off by the Park Service years ago, but a few still remain intact.
We took the Island Explorer bus to the parking pull-off just south of the Bubble Rock parking area. It’s not an official stop, but if you let the driver know, they’ll typically let you off just about anywhere. We thought a good first step would be to follow the faint connector trail from the Park Loop Road down to the Jordan Pond Shore Trail and hike south, looking for the orange flagging tape that Tom mentioned.
The first thing that caught our attention were the possible faint remnants of yet another trail, which we later discovered might have been the original route of the western end of the Jordan Pond Carry Trail. This trail had no flagging tape and nothing else to indicate that it was the Goat Trail.
Continuing a bit further south from where we had initially searched, we found the flagging tape easily and then discovered that the entire route was flagged! At least ten trees were flagged, many more than the two that Tom had mentioned. It’s so wild. This entire part of the Goat Trail is basically one long stone staircase heading up to the Park Loop road and it’s almost impossible not to see it—I guess as long as you know it’s there. (This is why Tom wants to call his forthcoming book "Hidden in Plain Sight.")
Part of the problem might be that we typically hike the shore trail east to west and the Goat Trail is much easier to notice if you’re hiking in the opposite direction, but still—it’s there plain for all to see, and now even more easily since it’s so obviously flagged. Tom first noticed the flagging on Friday and we are pretty sure it wasn’t there on Wednesday, when Rich and I hiked the Jordan Pond Shore Trail with my parents. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts.
Finally on course, we followed the flagged route to the top of the staircase and used the very obvious handrail to pull ourselves up the last, steepest part to emerge on the Park Loop Road! Directly across the road we saw where a whole series of rungs had been set in the cliff face on a diagonal. As Rich described, all but two of the rungs (that we’ve found so far) have been sawed off to discourage people from climbing up, but even so, they are obvious when you know where to look.
We decided to leave the second part of the trail for next year, when we can begin at the loop road and climb to the summit of Pemetic, and then take the opposite route down that we took heading up the mountain this year.
Now, the question is, how best to access the upper portion of the trail? And which abandoned trail will be our next target?!
Goat Trail discovery images
GPS tracklog and waypoints
Barter, Christian S., Brown, Margaret C., Stakely, J.T., Stellpflug, Gary J., & the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. Acadia Trails Treatment Plan: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Acadia National Park, Maine. Boston, MA: National Park Service, 2006.
Read on Internet Archive: http://archive.org/stream/acadiatrailstrea00bart
Brown, Margaret C. & the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. Pathmakers: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Mount Desert Island: Acadia National Park, Maine; History, Existing Conditions, & Analysis. Boston, MA: National Park Service, 2006.
Read on Internet Archive: http://archive.org/stream/pathmakerscultur00brow
St. Germain, Tom. A Walk in the Park (10th ed.). Bar Harbor, ME: Parkman Publications, 2008.
St. Germain, Tom & Saunders, Jay. Trails of History: The story of Mount Desert Island’s Paths from Norumbega to Acadia. Bar Harbor, ME: Parkman Publications, 1993.
U. S. Geological Survey. Mount Desert, Maine [map]. 1:62,500. Available from the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection: Mount Desert, Maine
U. S. Geological Survey. Bar Harbor, Maine [map]. 1:62,500. Available from the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection: Bar Harbor, Maine