Nearly 150 years after Castine merchant and explorer George H. Witherle designed a park of carriage roads through birch stands and evergreens, with scenic vistas around nearly every bend, the forest oasis is enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. The haven is nestled on one tip of the Blue Hill Peninsula.
Witherle Woods — which also offers a touch of backwoods hiking — has grown to 183 acres of woodlands with a 3.7-mile trail network, owned and managed by Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
The preserve’s natural beauty and scenic views of the Penobscot River are matched by its rich history dating back to the 17th century. Then, British and French troops fought for control of Castine, where the Penobscot River made it a major port of trade. Later, the area was defended against Colonial ships from Massachusetts by British forces during the War of 1812.
A short walk up the Battle Avenue entrance, turn right at the kiosk (and grab a map) to begin a loop that leads to gorgeous overlooks along with historical markers.
“At one time, there were more defensive points built here than anywhere in the U.S.,” said Patrick Callaway, who teaches history at the University of Maine at Orono.
The British envisioned the promontory and village beyond “as the southern border of the British empire,” Callaway said, and the back-and-forth struggle between Union and British troops included the failed Penobscot Expedition of 1779. Then, Union ships sailed from Massachusetts, landing on the shore between Dyce Head and Blockhouse Point, and soldiers climbed up the cliffs to fight the Brits. A walk down the Indian Trail provides a glimpse of Trask Rock through the trees. The site is named for Israel Trask, a 14-year-old fifer from Massachusetts who found shelter from British gunfire behind this large white rock.
The British left in 1784 after peace was declared, but returned to occupy Castine during the War of 1812, building more defensive structures to try to re-establish the Penobscot River border. These can still be found today while strolling the carriage trails of Witherle Woods.
The British military structure at Blockhouse Point Lookout no longer stands. Gazing out at the Penobscot River, it is hard to imagine these calm waters filled with 19th century warships flying colonist and loyalist flags. Nearby, on either side of Blockhouse Point, find the remains of two earthwork batteries, marked Firieuse 1 and Firieuse 2, built to defend approaching troops in Wadsworth Cove and Hatch Cove.
After Maine was declared a free state in 1820, what is now Witherle Woods was used primarily for agriculture and sheep grazing, before George Witherle purchased the property and laid out his model carriage roads as Witherle Park in the early 1880s.
As a 21st century preserve, Witherle Woods remains true to the spirit of Witherle’s vision. While carriages may no longer roll along the paths, people of all ages, and often their dogs, meander daily along the roads. Under its stewartship, Maine Coast Heritage Trust has expanded its protection through land gifts to nearly all of the historic Witherle Park.
Ospreys, eagles and seals can be seen from the trails and overlooks, and 195 plant species fill the forests and open areas. A 2007 microburst storm leveled about 50 acres, mostly near Dyce Head and the Witherle Hill summit, but the regeneration has brought a more diverse landscape. And, when MCHT completed a bird survey in 2009, it found 48 species, with abundant “edge” species such as white-throated sparrow, northern parula, black-throated green warbler and winter wren.
“The irony is, it looks more like it did in 1779 or 1814 than it did 100 years ago,” Callaway noted.
Witherle Woods was MCHT’s first preserve, regional land steward Caleb Jackson said.
“This isn’t a park, it’s a preserve,” he noted. “It’s come together in a series of steps and every piece has history.”
Finding Witherle Woods
In Castine, at routes 166 and 166A’s convergence, follow Route 166 south 0.9 mile to the top of a hill. Continue right at a sharp bend in the road and drive 0.8 miles along Battle Avenue to the preserve on the right. Parking is available along the fence line (please do not block the gate). For more info, call 244-5100, email [email protected] and visit https://www.mcht.org/preserve/witherle-woods/.