Shannon Bryan on Monhegan
Enjoying the view from Whitehead on Monhegan Island, where a 50-minute ferry trip leads to a day of hiking along 12 miles of trails. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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You don’t have to take a 50-minute ferry ride to Monhegan Island to enjoy a day of spectacular hiking along tall cliffs and rocky coastline followed by a cold beer in the sunshine at a local brewery.

But it’d be a lot cooler if you did.

Judi Bryan walks down the ramp toward the Hardy Boat ferry
Judi Bryan boards the Hardy Boat ferry for the trip to Monhegan Island. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The boat rides to and from the island are the perfect sea-gazing bookends to a Monhegan day trip. In between, there will be miles of hiking through woods and along a rocky coast, plus plenty of gawking at gardens, a lighthouse, and an Atlantic that looks like it might go on forever. For the complete experience, I also recommend including a shipwreck, a sandwich, and a beer.

The adventure begins when you board the ferry on the mainland. There are a few to choose from, including Monhegan Boat Line out of Port Clyde and Balmy Days out of Boothbay Harbor, but I’ve always taken the Hardy Boat ferry from New Harbor, which docks at Shaw’s Fish & Wharf on Route 32.

Tickets cost $50 round trip (although you’ll need to purchase the ticket each way separately). Booking in advance is highly recommended. There’s also a parking fee at the lot up the road from the ferry (cash only $10 per day in May, June, September, and October; $20 per day in July and August). It’s a few minutes’ walk to the ticket counter and boat, so take note if you take this ferry.

The ferry ride is close to an hour, but you won’t be bored. Staring at the ocean is akin to staring at fires and freshly made babies – it’s time-flies kind of mesmerizing. It helps that the captain of the ferry does a great job pointing out things of note along the way, like a sunfish floating near the water’s surface or a northern gannet diving for lunch.

The view from Lighthouse Hill on Monhegan Island
The view from Lighthouse Hill on Monhegan Island, looking down to town and Manana Island in the distance. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Monhegan Island is home to about 70 full-time residents, but like so much of Maine’s coast and islands, those numbers swell in the summer months. Still, even on a busy summer weekend, you can find plenty of quiet here, particularly on the lesser-traveled trails.

The island is a draw for artists who visit or live on the island, and there are many studios you’re welcome to visit. Even if you have zero artistic inclination, you can’t help but be charmed by the homes, gardens, shops, and coastline.

There are 12 miles of trails on Monhegan Island through woods and past marshes and along the cliffs. And while it would be lovely to hike every path on Monhegan, you’d need more than just a day for that. If you’re just arriving for the afternoon (and you’re hoping to leave some time to get a sandwich/beer/do some shopping in town) choose a loop that doesn’t send you too far afield. Besides, it would also really stink to miss your ferry back to the mainland. (Or would it?)

For a grand sampling of the trails and the shipwreck, which will still leave you time for pit stops at the brewery or the island shops, here’s a suggested route: 

Begin with a stellar island vista. Head to Lighthouse Hill to take in the views enjoyed by Monhegan Island Lighthouse since 1824. From here you can look down toward town, the dock, and Manana Island beyond.

Monhegan Brewing Co.
Monhegan Brewing Co. is a laid-back place with outdoor tables under umbrellas. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

From there, follow the trail toward Whitehead, an eye-catching spot with dramatic cliffs and expansive views of the Atlantic. Many hikers take a long while to stand or sit here to watch seabirds and crashing waves. 

A coastal trail continues from here toward Burnt Head. The terrain on Monhegan is wonderfully wild. The trails are fairly easy to follow (most trails are noted by numbered signs) but these aren’t flat walking paths. There are roots and rocks and steep sections all along the way, the footing uneven and easy to trip on. But that’s part of the charm: the way the trees lean in over the path like they’re hiding a secret.

If all that seaside splendor starts to make you hungry, wander back toward town. The Novelty serves pizza, wraps, sandwiches, ice cream, and other desserts, plus beer and wine. There are some dine-in tables and outdoor tables, but you can’t drink beer or wine there, so consider taking your food to go and head up the road to Monhegan Brewing Co. (The road to Monhegan Brewing isn’t far from The Novelty, which makes it a logical choice.)

Monhegan Brewing is a laid-back place, offering beers and flights and outdoor tables under umbrellas and a backdrop of lobster traps. It’s a place to hang out and drink some marvelous beverages. 

Dock jumpers on Monhegan
Monhegan dock jumpers help send off ferry passengers making the return trip to the mainland. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Before you make the trek back toward the dock to catch the ferry to the mainland, check out the shipwreck at Lobster Cove, a short walk from the brewery. There you’ll find the remains of a diesel-propelled tug boat that ran aground in dense fog on Nov. 7, 1948. While the vessel didn’t survive to tug another day, all crew were brought in safely.

About now it’ll be time to return to the dock to board the ferry and say goodbye to Monhegan. If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll catch some locals jumping off the dock into the water as the ferry pulls away. 

If Monhegan really captures your attention, maybe you’ll be one of them. 

Shannon Bryan is a writer and outdoor enthusiast who lives in South Portland. Find her at shannonkbryan.com.