Distance: 1/2 to 2 miles, depending on trails chosen
Ages: All ages
Tucked away off busy Route 3 in Ellsworth, past the car wash and right before China Hill, is a little slice of fairyland. The Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary, also just known as Birdsacre, is part wildlife rehab, part nature park, and part straight-up magic. While I remember a field trip or two to visit the animals at Birdsacre when I was a kid, it wasn’t until last summer that I discovered the trails. Itching for a leg stretch after work, but tired of my usual routes, I decided to follow-up on a vague recollection of a trail system in the sanctuary. What I found was miles of interconnected trails, deep woods, wetlands, and birds and wildflowers everywhere. “Oh my goodness,” I thought. “The kids would love this!”
To get to Birdsacre, take Routes 1, 3, or 1A into Ellsworth and onto High St. Stay on Route 3, headed towards Mount Desert Island. Right after it turns into a one way, look for the Birdsacre driveway on the right-hand side. If you get to China Hill Restaurant, you’ve gone too far.
The sanctuary is named after Cordelia Stanwood, who lived here in the family home in the early 1900s and became a respected ornithologist and wildlife photographer. The homestead suffered a fire in 2014 and I believe is still closed to the public, but the outside grounds are well-kept and home to a number of permanent avian guests you will want to visit on your way in or out. These are all birds that are too injured to survive on their own in the wild: a great horned owl, a saw-whet owl, and a red-shouldered hawk among others. Before you head out, make sure you sign-in at the registration shed and grab a hand-drawn map. The trails start towards the back of the sanctuary, by the nature center (which was closed when we stopped in).
Here’s where I make a confession: I have gotten myself lost every time I go here. There are lots of interconnecting trails and because of the thick woods, I always seem to get turned around. Luckily, it doesn’t matter too much. The markings are good and there are helpful “Home” directional signs scattered throughout the system, so as long as you stay on a trail, you will find your way out eventually.
There are three main trails that essentially make gradually larger loops: the red trail (1/2 mile), the blue trail (no distance given beyond “medium”) and the white trail (2 miles around the perimeter of the sanctuary). However, because there are so many smaller paths connecting the main trails, you can make your hike as long or short as you’d like. The map is also dotted with intriguingly named points of interest, like Queen’s Throne, the Kettle Crater, and Martinland. There are lots of special touches, like thoughtful quotes on wooden signs, memorial plaques, and beautiful native garden areas that give this a very special feel. Birdsacre is less a traditional conservation area and more like stumbling into a children’s book.
We started by looping the boardwalk behind the nature center, which is fully accessible and is a great option for folks with strollers, mobility issues, or toddlers. Lots of benches along the way provide spots to rest, listen to the birds, and look at the wildflowers. When we were there, the ladyslippers were in bloom.
After we completed the boardwalk (“That was the longest boardwalk ever!” — my son), we took the left-hand trail (as you face the nature center) with the vague idea of working our way towards the Queen’s Throne. After we passed the stone paths and tucked-away statues of the garden area, we found ourselves in a pine woods. Needles carpeted the path, pines soared overhead, and the smell was fantastic. Somewhere along the way, the kids picked up on the magic. Our son started claiming that the great horned owl had touched him, and now he could see all the ogres we couldn’t. Apparently ogres live in the tops of pine trees, in case you were not aware.
We passed the turn for the red trail and stayed on the blue until we reached the Queen’s Throne, which turned out to be an truly enormous pine, one section of which had grown downward and into a large rock.
It was more throne-like from the other side, but the plaque and light were on this one. No ogres either side.
After visiting the queen, we swung around towards Martinland, which turned out to be a wooden boardwalk through an amazingly green marshy area. We meant to connect to the larger clockwise loop of the red trail from the Martinland path but, as I mentioned, I get lost at Birdsacre. We instead turned counterclockwise and tracked back to the trail we started on, passing the Big Chief’s Fireplace and an exceedingly bouncy fallen tree that needed to be explored. As the mosquitoes were beginning to get pretty thick at this point in the evening, we decided to head out. We visited the owls again, who were starting to wake up by this point, and then took a turn around the duck and geese pond before heading out.
As you head back towards the parking area, it’s almost a surprise to hear the rush of traffic again, so deep is the peace in this place. The caretakers have done a wonderful job of keeping this resource open and welcoming. We will definitely be back. And I was right. The kids loved it.
Kid rating: Two out of two thumbs up
Kid review: “I really liked the great horned owl, the saw-whet owl, the red-shouldered hawk, the Canadian geese, that weird duck…oh, and the boardwalk was fun, too.” “I liked the great horned owl, the little owl, the red-shouldered hawk, that blue jay that we saw…and the ladyslippers.”