It's a word that comes up in almost ever SAR story I read. It's attributed to dehydration, injury, exhaustion. Stories of lost hikers, written by people sitting at a computer (most likely indoors with unlimited access to fresh water), nearly always credit disorientation for why someone ends up off trail, and ends up needing to be rescued.
Reading it, from my computer and often indoors and with unlimited access to fresh water, it sounds so sudden. You slide down a bank, and in the darkness can't figure out exactly which way to go back up. You take a break, and when you stand the lack of adequate hydration hits and your head swims, and dizzy, you take a step in the wrong direction. Or even more acute, a head injury.
Disorientation reads like something that happens all at once--you're fine until you aren't.
But in the woods, walking for miles in the dark, disorientation sneaks up on you; a magician, the low energy and anxiety nothing but sleight of hand before you are fully in its trance.
Fairy Head Loop Trail, Cutler, ME
The Fairy Head loop near Cutler, Maine has been on my hiking bucket list for awhile. I've hiked to the first coastal overlook twice--once with just my kids for location scouting, and once a few weeks later with an elopement couple for their portraits. It's a fairly easy 3 mile out and back to the overlook, but to do the full loop totals around 10 miles. There are a few campsites on the loop I've wanted to see, but didn't want to try hiking out there loaded with gear before seeing what the sites looked like, and a 10 mile hike is not something my kids have stamina for "just because."
So when Shaun at The Bearded Mainer said that he was looking for a hiking buddy to do some location scouting on a day I wanted to hike anyway--I was sold. This was a route he was considering, and it was my opportunity to finally see the campsites.
The trail starts off route 191, just a few miles past the Cutler harbor. There is a spacious parking lot, and a privy that is open even in the off season, with the trailhead leaving from the north-eastern side of the parking lot.
The first .4 miles is fairly easy--the trail is well traveled, with several boardwalks over the marshy areas, and just a few areas with rocks and roots that might trip you up, and with minimal elevation gain. There were a few blowdowns when we went, but in March that isn't surprising.
At the .4 mark, the trail forks: continue southeast to the coastal trail, or turn right to start inland.
We opted to go the coastal route first.
Another mile takes you to the first overlook, which makes the trail worth it in and of itself. With views of the Bay of Fundy and New Brunswick on one side, and the Bold Coast winding infinitely on the other side, views like these are what make Maine so breathtaking. Turning around here still gives you almost 3 miles round trip, and is a great trail to do for kids or less experienced hikers if you are looking for iconic coastal Maine, without all the crowds of the Acadia region.
The next 1.4 miles are a lot of the same but that doesn't by any means make them boring. Our pace was extremely slow along this stretch, stopping to take pictures, and discussing whether there were any access points down the cliffs to the beach. We managed to get off trail twice--once I think was because I just wasn't paying close enough attention, and once because the trail was genuinely confusing. Thankfully we'd both downloaded the offline map to our phones so were able to navigate back, but it's good to note that you do have to pay attention for false trails.
Despite being early March, we encountered very little snow and mud in this stretch--we didn't even need our microspikes, which was nice. This coastal area has a few short and steep ups and downs, and overall the terrain is easy to navigate--rocks here, roots there. Our biggest issue were the continued presence of blowdowns, which I'll elaborate on more later.
At mile 2.8 you get to Black Point Cove and the Inland Connector Trail, making this the second turnaround point if you don't want to do the full 10 mile loop. Here the trail dips down to sea level, allowing plenty of space to search for tide pools and climb around on the rocks. I had read there was no fresh water available on this trail, but there is a seasonal spring that comes down at this point. It was flowing well the day we were here, but I don't know how reliable it is as a water source.
If you want, take the connector trail and it brings you to the inland trail and then back to the parking lot, for a 5.1 loop--like with the coastal overlook, this is well worth the drive and the hike to get to if it's all you have the time/ability/inclination for.
Again, we kept going. I still wanted to see the campsites, and we agreed that it was rare to have a day where we could hike without kids, and we should take advantage of it.
Just past the turnoff is campsite #5 according to the map--though there are two fire rings, one of which has a small bench. Someone at some point even hiked in a toilet set and set it over some boards on top of a busted lobster trap to fashion a privy--not that you'd want to use it, considering how much it overflowed with waste. There is not a lot of privacy from the trail at these sites, nor a lot of flat ground to pitch a tent, but plenty of trees for hammock camping. Here we stopped for a short lunch before pressing on, agreeing that we would keep any future photography stops to a minimum, as it was already a lot later than we planned and we were not quite halfway done.
Half a mile later that went out the window when we reached Long Point Cove, and campsite #4. This site is huge. We took our time here, going down to the cove's pebble beach, and enjoying the sounds of the teal water lapping at the shore. By now it was cloudy, and even though the tide was coming in the cove it was gentle, peaceful, beautiful, and exactly the reason I love hiking to remote sites to camp.
Past Long Point, the trail stays with the shore, passing over more rocks and boulders. There are three other campsites, hidden from view and accessible via steps leading to them. We did not stop to explore them as at least two were occupied, but I would love to check out them again in the future.
And finally, just before the 5 mile mark, you hit Fairy Head. There is a lovely pond, a lighthouse across the cove, and the trail turns inland to take you back to the road.
From here on, I can't provide much of a review. We got to Fairy Head just before sunset, and walked the remaining 4 and a half miles to the car in the dark. This part of the trail was hard. If we had small complaints before about areas that weren't well marked, the inland trail was nothing but swampy sections where the boardwalks had been washed out or rotted to the point they provided little protection, and constant blowdowns. Now--we had been dealing with the blowdowns the whole time, and thanks to reviews on alltrails knew we would be faced with them. But there were far more on the inland portion than there were on the coastal side, and in several instances, they just weren't passable without going around them.
A couple miles into the inland side we passed a pond--I never actually saw it because I was distracted by the two large piles of moose scat beside the trail, but Shaun did and we just hoped it was the pond attracting the moose and not that we were walking into its territory. We saw one more pile of fresh scat, and then some that was very old, and then, thankfully, that was it.
The inland connector trail meets back up on the right, and after another half mile or so there is evidence of an old reroute to the left; there are currently signs stating this area is closed, and as it adds mileage we were not sad to take the more direct path. Finally, we reached the fork from the beginning of the trail, and turned left to head the final .4 miles to the car.
I'm complimented sometimes, on my spontaneity.
And it's often a good thing--jumping at opportunities not only means more experiences, but means I don't give myself time to overthink and let anxiety talk me out of just going for it. I didn't review as much about the trail as I normally would. I knew the first mile and a half. I knew there were campsites out there. I knew it was popular. But otherwise, all we had were comments on alltrails (...amirite?) to give an indication of current conditions. I'm still new enough to Maine that I forget how easily things can change over the course of winter, and what mud season really means outside of my homestead and the wide open trails of Bangor City Forest.
But I was caught up in the moment, excited to do a trail I've had on my list for awhile, and excited for a hiking buddy who was, in turn, excited.
Mistake number one.
The trail was covered with blowdowns, as I mentioned above. There's no one to blame for these; there was fresh sawdust on the beginning part of the trail so I know the Cobscook crews are working on it, but 10 miles is a lot of trail to cover, and there are no alternate access points to Fairy Head unless you come in by boat. But further research, and asking questions in hiking groups, may have clued us in to just how many there were, and maybe we would have cut off at the connector trail, or at least gotten an earlier start. I would have seen that online comments from fall of 2022 mentioned bog bridges being rotting or washed out entirely, and thought that maybe mud season was not the best time for this particular trail. I at least would have refilled my camelback when we stopped for lunch, instead of naively thinking if that ran dry I could just stop and take my other water bottle out further down the way.
Darkness and Trees
Shaun texts his partner, just a heads up that we are still 4 miles from the parking lot and it's dark, and his phone is about to die. I ask if his family will worry about him and he says yes, and I laugh, and say that I will wait to text Billy when we get back to the truck, because he will also worry, so I'll let him just assume that we are on our way home until we aren't, and then he'll know I'm running late, but am safe and sound.
A couple hours later I text him, fingers cold and shaking, that we are still on the trail but should be off in half an hour. We are now past the time we thought we would be home, and I am imaging how I would feel if the roles were reversed and I hadn't heard anything since watching him hop into a friend's truck earlier that morning.
I ask Shaun for a sip of his water, because I don't think I have the stamina to dig my extra water bottle out of my pack. I sip slowly, hoping I can head off some of the nausea that comes with dehydration, without drinking so fast that I throw up anyway.
My legs feel like lead with every step. Each blowdown is harder to navigate than the last, until we are no longer trying to climb over them, but we take off our packs and just crawl under them. In a few places the brush is too thick even for this, and we have to try and find our way around, praying we wouldn't lose the trail. I think of the stories I read about hikers getting lost, and disoriented, and I think, "THIS is what that means." It's not a sudden head injury, or stopping to take a break and not knowing where to go. It's not a poorly marked trail, and it's not overconfidence. It's literally tripping over your own feet, and being so exhausted that when you right yourself you can't remember which direction you had been facing.
(So maybe it is a little bit of overconfidence. Just less in the moment, and more in the planning. Or lack thereof.)
I finally ask at one point if Shaun is okay if I turn on music.
Hiking is probably the only area of my life where I don't want constant background music. I want to hear the trail. I want to hear what is happening around me, for both safety and the peace of it, and I want the freedom to let thoughts come and go as they please.
When I hiked the Camino de Santiago, on particularly long days when my body was sore and my thoughts wouldn't stop tripping over themselves, I sang musicals to myself. I spent an entire day once going through AIDA on repeat, singing it in my head if others were near, or out loud if I was by myself.
This trip, it's Come From Away. Except, there are too many blowdowns, too many bogs with washed out bridges, to get past the first song, and all I seem to be able to concentrate on is how much harder its becoming to put one foot in front of the other. So I ask, and Shaun says he would love to have music as a distraction, and I don't bother turning the volume down on my phone because the only other signs of life we have seen so far is moose scat, two miles behind us.
Out of the darkness. Darkness and trees. Shaun laughs about the darkness and trees we are walking through. We agree the people in the show did have a little more to complain about that we do.
But the music still helps.
Overall Family-Friendly Rating:
Well...... it's kind of hard to say.
The coastal overlook section gets a 4/5. It's 3 miles which may be tough for little legs, and the overlook is pure Maine. Sheer drop-offs and lots of rocks. But it's gorgeous, and the trail is exciting enough that younger hikers will remain engaged.
Beyond that, I want to optimistically give it a 2/5. It's hard. Even if you take the inland connector, and cut the distance in half, it's still hard, with a lot of blowdowns and bogs. The trail is not well marked in several places. And just past Long Point Cove, the trash that has washed in from the ocean is pretty terrible, and I personally find hiking polluted trails difficult with kids because of that line between "we should always pack out all trash we find even if it's not ours" and "there are literal lobster buoys here and we don't have the manpower or resources to get these over 5 miles back to the car." (But then, I have the kid who was handing me broken glass at two years old because "it trash, mama!" Maybe at my kids current ages it would inspire them to learn more about ocean currents, and figure out exactly who is responsible when buoys from Stonington wash ashore in Cutler?)
I definitely want to come back and to this trail again, with my family. Just not all in one day. Long Point Cove was just so beautiful, and I can't imagine not wanting to share that with the people I love the most. But I would definitely need to split it up, so my final verdict on doing this trail with kids is dependent on whether you plant to camp. Otherwise stick to the overlook trail, and save the full loop for when the kids are older, or when you can escape for the day with an adult who will joke and laugh and keep you from losing your mind--and politely look the other way when you dry heave outside their truck because of how badly this trail kicked your ass.