Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Cobscook Bay State Park in Downeast Maine

From almost anywhere you are in Maine, if you drive east without stopping (or southeast from the northern parts of the state), you are going to end up either in Canada or the Atlantic Ocean.  But before you do, you are likely to pass by Cobscook Bay State Park on Route 1 in Edmunds Township, Maine.  And unless you have pressing business in Calais, an up-to-date passport, or an amphibious vehicle, you might want to consider stopping there.  Even if you do have those things, Cobscook Bay is a 888-acre jewel tucked away in deep Downeast Maine that you really should check out.

View from the overlook at Cobscook

Cobscook Bay has its roots in the nearby Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1937 with revenue from the federal Duck Stamp program.  Moosehorn had an early champion in President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spent most of his summers at nearby Campobello Island.  In 1964, Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge offered a free, long-term lease to the state of Maine on a large recreational area it had created on some of its land near Whiting Bay.  The state legislature voted to accept the lease, management of the parcel was taken over by the state, and Cobscook Bay State Park officially came into being.

I first visited Cobscook Bay State Park in the summer of 2011 and have returned at least once, and usually more than that, each year since then.  One thing I wanted while on a day trip Downeast was to find a quiet place by the sea where I could relax and maybe do some reading.  Cobscook fit the bill perfectly.  It’s large, it’s quiet, and the coastline there has so many inlets and peninsulas that you are almost never more than a stone’s throw from the water.  The day-use area occupies the end of a large peninsula and has numerous private areas with covered picnic tables and grills, as well as two open areas for larger gatherings.  One of those areas for larger gatherings has a good-sized shelter.  The day-use area is also home to the large- and small-group camping sites, which are set apart from other areas, have beautiful water views, shelters, and have nearby water and toilets.  While visiting that more wooded side of the park, I have seen quite a lot of wildlife, including sea birds, bald eagles, and deer.  Birds are everywhere in the park, and a birdwatcher would be in their element there.

It is worth mentioning that Cobscook Bay is not really a true oceanside park.  The bay itself is an estuary with a narrow opening to the Atlantic Ocean.  There are plenty of fishing boats motoring past, and the water is definitely salty and tidal, but if you want to see constantly crashing waves and cruise ships on the horizons, this is not the place.  Don’t let that deter you however.  Cobscook Bay is still very coastal Maine.

There are several areas that make up the campground at Cobscook Bay State Park.  You would be hard pressed to find a bad site.  Almost all of them are set apart from each other and private, and the majority have water views.  A number of them are walk-in sites for tenters only, however, and like most state park campgrounds, there are no electrical or water hookups on the sites.  Cobscook has well over 100 campsites, and I have never seen them all filled in the 12+ times I have stayed there.  Nonetheless, reservations are a good idea, and easy to make online.  

The view from one of the campsites I have had at Cobscook.

If big-time hiking or mountain biking are your things, Cobscook might not be your first choice of destination, though the casual enthusiast such as myself would be quite satisfied.  There are several very nice, well-marked trails for hiking, though none of them are very long or would be considered challenging.  My favorite hike is a short one up the hill across from the park entrance to an abandoned fire tower.  There is also a short but steep hike to a mountain outlook, which is probably the most difficult hike in the park.  Both of these have beautiful views through the trees of the surrounding land.  The overlook trail is part of a longer nature trail in the park, and there is also a “beach trail” that takes you through the forest to a nearby boat launch and back.  The hiking trails are not suited to mountain biking, but I have found that the park roads are perfectly suited for a more casual biker like me.  

The fire tower from far away...

...and an extreme close-up.

The massively fluctuating tides, which are among the highest in the world, are one of Cobscook Bay State Park’s unique features.  They can change by as much as 24 to 28 feet.  At low tide, when regulations allow, park visitors are allowed to dig a bushel of clams for themselves each day.  I personally have never done it, but it is a very popular activity with many visitors.  You will likely get mud in places you have never had mud before, so be warned.

Low tide at Cobscook

High tide at Cobscook (same spot)

Another popular activity at Cobscook is kayaking.  The nooks and crannies of the shoreline make it a great place to explore by kayak, and you can put your boat in directly from your campsite in many cases.  I am not a kayaker, but every season I’ve been to Cobscook Bay it seems like more and more of the visitors are in kayakers.  I would imagine that the rapidly changing and very steep tides would provide a challenge certain times, so do your research before putting out in the water at Cobscook.

While all my visits have been during the warm weather months, Cobscook Bay State Park is open all year.  I can see how it would be a great place to do some cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.  They do allow winter camping too if you are into that kind of thing.  I love to camp, but in the winter?  No thank you.

Cobscook sheep

Cobscook Bay has some quirks that make it stand out.  One is the herd of sheep that works keeping the grass trimmed in a large field in the park.  They must have a good union, because they seem to take a lot of coffee breaks, but they do seem to get the job done.  Another is the very little cemetery on the far side of the sheep field, along the side of the South Edmunds Road, which runs past the park.  There is only one grave, that of a military veteran from the Civil War.  I suspect that it might have been a small family cemetery,which was fairly common in Maine in olden days, but only the one gravestone has survived.  Local veterans groups continue to see that a fresh American flag flies at the grave every year.

Gravestone at Cobscook

There are several places near Cobscook Bay State Park that are fun day trips.  My favorite is the town of Lubec, which is about a 20 minute drive away and the easternmost point in the United States.  A working fishing village with a budding artistic community, I always find something interesting and new ever time I visit Lubec.  If you are lucky, you might see seals bobbing in the channel just off the downtown area.  I wrote a blog post extolling the virtues of Lubec a few years back, and you can find it here.  Roque Bluffs State Park is about 45 minutes away.  If you want a “beach fix”, this is the place.  Roque Bluffs has a long, gorgeous beach that is rarely busy, even at the peak of summer.  There is also a freshwater pond for fishing and canoeing, and a number of very nice hiking trails.  You have to pass through the historic town of Machias to get to Roque Bluffs, one of the area’s retail and service hubs.  Machias is home to Fort O’Brien, site of the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War.  It is also home to Helen’s Restaurant, site of excellent pie, among other delicious things.  About 30 minutes in the other direction from Cobscook Bay State Park is the city of Calais, the area’s other retail and service hub, and Eastport, which is another fishing town with a thriving artistic community.

A scene from downtown Lubec, Maine

West Quoddy Head, Lubec, Maine

The only negative I can offer about Cobscook Bay State Park is that it can be quite buggy, especially in May and June.  (I wrote a two-part blog post about that, here and here.)  Blackflies in the spring and mosquitoes in the summer into early fall are going to find you.  Some areas of the park are worse than others, with the more wooded areas having the most, but you would be wise to bring insect repellant or other anti-bug measures regardless of when you visit during the warm weather months.

Don’t let the bugs stop you however.  Cobscook Bay State Park is probably my favorite of all Maine’s state parks, and is responsible for turning me on to the pastime of tent camping, which has transformed my summers.  For more information, visit their website here.

All photographs in this post were taken by me.  All rights reserved, etc, etc.

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