Down East Sunrise Trail
Jessica Locke of Portland and Heather Steeves of Westbrook approach a steel trestle bridge along the Down East Sunrise Trail between Hancock and Ayers Junction. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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For more than 80 years, freight and passenger trains chugged through the Calais Branch Railroad Corridor, passing through forest crowded with pines, maples, and birches. Now and then the trees made way for reflective marshes, mellow fields, and small Maine towns. 

Those trains carried people and products to Calais and Eastport (including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who’d ride the train to Eastport and catch a boat to his family’s summer home on Campobello Island). On the return trip, the trains were packed up with fish and timber. 

Down East Sunrise Trail
Heather Steeves and Jessica Locke pause to enjoy the view from a bridge along the Down East Sunrise Trail. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Train service ceased in the 1980s with the drop in demand for rail freight service in the region, and that corridor didn’t see many passersby for a long while. 

But today, you can cruise along the wide gravel path through the same forests and marshes that dazzled train passengers decades ago. Only this time you’ll do it on a bike. 

The Down East Sunrise Trail extends 87 miles from Hancock to Ayers Junction. This multi-use route sees its fair share of ATVs, snowmobiles, runners, walkers, horses, cross-country skiers, snowmobiles, and the occasional dog sled. It makes for a scenic and seat-testing bike ride, too. 

Two friends and I rode the entire 87 miles over the course of a weekend in early October. Day 1 included 59 miles from Ellsworth to Machias, where we’d booked a motel room for the night. Day 2 was a mere (ha!) 28 miles to Ayers Junction, where we’d left one of our cars. We’d packed layers and water and snacks. We printed out maps, checked the weather, and brought extra tire tubes just in case. 

What we hadn’t deeply considered is that 59 miles makes a long day on a mountain bike, even if the route is fairly flat and you’re confident the miles will fly by – until you’re 15 miles and two hours in and realize you won’t be cheering beers in Machias nearly as soon as you’d thought. And also your rear end is pretty sore, despite the cycling shorts. 

It’s true the first day took longer than we’d planned: eight hours on the trail, including pit stops for snacks and to gaze at rivers and bridges and goats. But it was also pretty as all get-out, especially this time of year when fall starts coloring the foliage. 

It was splendid to cruise along under blue skies, the sunshine casting tree-shaped shadows on the well-maintained path. We encountered turkeys on the trail, moose tracks in the gravel, and painted turtles snoozing on logs in the marshes. We crossed rivers on steel trestle bridges, ate cookies while overlooking calm water and cattails, and loitered in view of Schoodic Mountain. 

There are well-placed picnic tables along the trail’s edge, where you can stop for lunch or a snack, and there are loads of places to explore off the trail, too: wildlife preserves, historic buildings, reversing falls, state parks, salmon pools, and general stores with good doughnuts.

Other perks of the Down East Sunrise Trail: It’s relatively flat and straight and it’s darn near impossible to get lost. I say “relatively” because Maine is a hilly place, and by comparison, this rail trail is flat. But we grew quickly adept at noticing the slightest of inclines. 

The terrain is packed gravel, dirt, and rocks, so it’s bumpy at times. We were all wise to bring our mountain bikes for this one (not a single flat tire among us!). We also expected to encounter lots of ATVers on the trail, and we did. But we clearly weren’t the first slower-moving fellow trail-goers they’d met; the ATVers almost always passed us slowly and with a courteously wide berth. In turn, we rode single file on the right to let them pass and pulled over entirely at times when the trail was too narrow for a comfortable pass. Coming from the opposite direction, many ATVers stopped to let us by, and we waved in thanks. 

Much of the time, though, we were on our own on the trail, save for a couple other bike riders and the occasional dog walker out for a stroll. Our pace allowed us to spot birds and chat the whole while. 

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

Down East Sunrise Trail
The Down East Sunrise Trail extends 87 miles from Hancock to Ayers Junction. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Trip planning on the Down East Sunrise Trail

Whether you opt to ride the entire 87 miles or decide to do a scenic section, trip planning is made easier with the help of the Sunrise Trail Coalition. The coalition works to promote use of the trail and continue its legacy as a fine tour of Down East Maine; its website (www.sunrisetrail.org) has printable maps, trail history, and lots of tips on things to see both on and off the trail.

For overnight accommodations, we stayed at the White Birch Inn in Ellsworth on Friday night, just a few minutes drive from Washington Junction, where we started our ride early Saturday morning. It’s a typical budget motel – nothing fancy but it worked. On Saturday night we stayed at the Machias River Inn, paying a little extra for a neat suite with river views and a full kitchen. Definitely worth it. The inn is conveniently right off the trail, and a short walk across the parking lot is Helen’s Restaurant, where we cheered beers and chowed down (and got some blueberry pie to go for breakfast). 

But the most important part of your trip planning should be giving yourself loads of time to enjoy the views and the crunching sound of tires on gravel and to gawk at the marshes, maybe spot beavers, eagles, wild turkeys, and whitetail deer, and explore every nook and cranny you darn well please. 

— Shannon Bryan