The Kennebec Highlands took a terrific lakes region of the state and made it better. In 1998, the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance (now the 7 Lakes Alliance) began a project to preserve 6,000 acres of prime undeveloped habitat. It includes the highest peaks in Kennebec County, several streams, many wetlands, and five undeveloped ponds. The area is interwoven with old logging roads, hiking paths, and multiuse trails. The bulk of the Kennebec Highlands is west of Belgrade Lakes Village on the far side of Long Lake. Two mountain trails are located on the near side, just north of town.
The prevailing habitat throughout the Kennebec Highlands is northern hardwood forest. It is relatively dry and mature. As Maine becomes more boreal farther north, wood thrushes disappear. But here, they are found in equal numbers with hermit thrushes and veeries. Common warblers include black-throated green, black-throated blue, blackburnian, northern parula, yellow-rumped, and ovenbird. Common yellowthroat, American redstart, chestnut-sided, Nashville, and yellow warblers are found around open areas. Canada warblers nest in damp, forested areas, while pine warblers inhabit large stands of white pines.
Typical flycatchers include eastern wood-pewee, great-crested, and least. Red-eyed vireos are abundant, Blue-headed are common, and warbling are occasional near water’s edge. Ruffed grouse are plentiful, as are pileated, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and northern flickers. Also expect scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks.
Most of the forested habitat is similar, but each trail has its own characteristics. PDF maps for each trail available here. Below is an abbreviated synopsis of the best trails for birding.
• The Kennebec Highlands Trail serves as the backbone of the main preserve. It runs along the ridge in front of the higher peaks and connects the access paths to the larger trail network. It is predominantly hardwood, hemlock, and white pine, and the species listed above are typical. Vienna Mountain is the tallest peak and its exposed summit can offer fair hawk-watching in September.
• The following trails are all reached via the Watson Pond Road, which runs the length of Long Pond on its western side. The road intersects Route 27 about 5 miles north of Belgrade Lakes Village.
French Mountain Trail is the first trail encountered on Watson Pond Road, less than a mile south of Route 27. The trail provides a big payoff for little effort. The short, 0.4 mile climb to the summit justifies its popularity with a splendid vista of Whittier Pond in the foreground and Long Pond beyond. The view looks over the tops of some pines that might bring you to eye level with a pine warbler. Nashville warblers also nest near the top. Broad-winged, red-shouldered, and red-tailed hawks are all possible in the valley below.
Directions: The parking area is indistinct. There is room for two to four cars on the expanded shoulder where the trail begins, on the left side of Watson Pond Road, opposite two houses, less than a mile south of the junction with Route 27.
The Sanders Hill Loop is one of the best birding trails because it crosses several habitats. The trail starts at the trailhead parking lot and proceeds up an old logging road. Before long, a spur exits to the left at a boggy area that often produces northern waterthrush and might yield a yellow-bellied flycatcher. Listen for Canada warbler, too. The trail continues southwest until intersecting the Kennebec Highlands Trail. Turn right and follow 0.7 miles, looking for the return trail on the right. The return crosses the summit of Sanders Hill, drops through a boulder field, and
eventually traverses the inflow of Watson Pond for another opportunity to encounter forested wetland species.
Directions: The trailhead parking lot is on Watson Pond Road 1.3 miles south of the Route 27 intersection.
Blueberry Hill is a pleasant picnic spot that requires only a few minutes to appreciate. A scenic overlook of Long Pond is the main attraction, but the trees surrounding the parking lot are likely to contain American redstarts. The shrubbery at the field edges is home to song sparrows, common yellowthroats, and eastern towhees. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows like these shrubs, too. This can be a good vantage point for hawks in the valley.
Directions: The entrance is on the left of Watson Pond Road 3.6 miles south of its intersection with Route 27.
Round Top Trail begins at the southern end of the preserve. The trail itself is a 3.9 mile round trip, though the hike can be extended along the Kennebec Highlands Trail. The trail is moderate, sometimes over granite ledges. The species variety is typical, with enough wet spots to provide a chance for Canada warbler, and enough deciduous trees to guarantee white-breasted nuthatch. The South Vienna Mountain Trail to the summit of Kennebec County’s highest hill, Vienna Mountain, is reached about halfway up the path.
Directions: The trailhead is located on Watson Pond Road, four miles south of its junction with Route 27. The ample parking lot is next to the entrance to Wildflower Estates. There are no facilities.
• The Mountain Trail is the first trail encountered north of Belgrade Lakes Village on Route 27. It was the initial parcel to be acquired by BRCA in 1998. The main artery of the preserve is an old logging road, which makes for easy walking and a wide view of the surrounding woods. It is short but very birdy. All of the region’s warblers may be present, with a better than average chance of scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Ruffed grouse and wood thrush particularly favor this trail. There are two scenic loops at the top, one that overlooks Long Pond to the west, and one that overlooks Great Pond to the east. The entire round trip is less than two
Directions: One mile north of the village on Route 27, turn east onto Mountain View Drive. The parking area is 0.3 miles ahead on the left.
• Mount Phillip Trail is another short trail that ends with a pleasant view. The 0.6-mile footpath proceeds almost straight up to the summit, over a moderate grade. This trail is dominated by mature oaks and pines, with one impressive stand of mature hemlocks. Blackburnian warblers dominate the treetops. Black-throated green and black-throated blue warblers are almost as common. The partial clearing at the peak offers views of Great Pond to the south and the Kennebec Highlands to the west.
Directions: The trailhead is inconspicuous. From Route 27, turn onto Route 225 and proceed 1.5 miles. Park in the wide, unpaved pullout on the left, opposite Starbird Lane. The trail begins at the far end of the pullout, about 50 yards ahead.