In his forthcoming book “The Stranger in the Woods,” Michael Finkel tells the story of Christopher Knight, the hermit who lived undetected in the woods near North Pond for nearly three decades. Reading the book, I was struck most by how Knight managed to disappear so completely while living only yards from the cabins that ring the pond. He was so close to others, Finkel writes, that he couldn’t even sneeze for fear of drawing attention.
The book reminded me how easy it is to separate yourself from the hustle and bustle of other people in Maine, where thick wilderness is often only yards from well-traveled roads and populated areas. I got the same reminder this week while hiking in the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham.
The 230-acre preserve, tucked between Interstate 295 and a retirement community, is a wonderful escape in a fairly developed stretch of the Midcoast.
Access is possible via two trailheads on Topsham’s Evergreen Circle, as well as a connector trail on the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s Cathance River Trail. To reach the main trailhead, enter the Highland Green development (marked by a large sign and white fencing) from Route 196 in Topsham. Follow the main road through the development for a mile and a half, passing the suburban retirement homes of the community, as well as a few holes on the nine-hole Highland Green Golf Club. Just beyond Junco Drive, you’ll see a wooden staircase and signs marking the entrance to the Cathance River Nature Preserve. Beside it are nine angled parking spaces for hikers.
The trails cover nearly six miles, winding through mixed hardwood forest alongside the Cathance River. Two longer main trails – the riverfront Cathance River Trail and upland Highland Trail – run in rough parallel for much of the length of the preserve, with a number of shorter yellow-blazed trails connecting the two. These short spurs mean that hikers can go from less than a mile to nearly six.
From the staircase alongside Evergreen Circle, it’s a short hike along a well-trod road to reach the Cathance River Education Alliance Ecology Center, the center of the preserve. Completed a decade ago, the center is described by the alliance as a “building that teaches,” with over a dozen green, sustainable features. It’s open every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m.
Turning left at the building, the development of Highland Green quickly fades away. After passing a large vernal pool just south of the ecology center, the Highland Trail slopes gently downward toward the northwest corner of the preserve. Here it meets the head of the Cathance River Trail. A sharp right puts hikers beside the Cathance River, which churns east toward the Androscoggin.
During spring runoff, there are challenging rapids for kayakers wishing to run the Cathance (and you can see these adventurers from the trail). But in this relatively dry fall, the river is but a picturesque trickle.
The trail runs alongside the river for about a mile, gently rising to scenic rock outcrops before falling back toward the riverbed. On the right, the Barnes Leap, Beaver and Rapids trails spurs connect back to the Highland Trail, giving weary hikers a chance to cut short their loop and head back toward the ecology center. Beyond the turn to the Rapids Trail, the Cathance River Trail leaves the riverside and reconnects with the Highland Trail.
From the trail junction, a right brings hikers back toward the trailhead, completing a loop. Following the white blazes to the left connects to the half-mile Ravine Trail. At the Clay Brook Bridge, the Preserve ends, though hikers can continue along a Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust trail, ending after two miles at a trailhead on Cathance Road.
In addition to this large network of trails, the Heath Trail (also part of the Cathance River Nature Preserve) circles the 30-acre Heath Sanctuary within Highland Green. The trailhead is on Evergreen Circle, opposite the hiker parking spaces.
Foliage is passing peak but vibrant colors still line the sides of the trail. Many of these colorful leaves have started to fall from the trees, so keep your eyes open for the many trail blazes – a carpet of fallen foliage can make spotting the rutted trails a challenge.
Don’t let the development at the Topsham Mall and Highland Green deceive you – there’s great fall hiking to be found nearby. With just a little effort, you can disappear into the calm and beauty of the Maine woods.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Jake, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Josh can be reached at: