5 Weekend Paddling Trips on the Maine Island Trail

The 375-mile Maine Island Trail is one of the premier water trails  in the U.S. Extending from the New Hampshire border to Canada, the trail has over 200 islands to visit and camp on——many privately owned. The ocean-front campsites are often stunning, but primitive, and you need to carry in and carry out everything, including human waste. Some islands are closed during certain periods of the year to protect nesting birds. To have access to the free camping islands, join the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA). Sign up, pay the $45 registration fee, and you will receive a guidebook listing descriptions and directions to all the islands. The following are areas along the Maine coast that stand out for overnight trips and outfitters that can rent boats and equipment and help you plan a tour or self-guided trip. They range from easy paddles to the islands off the southern part of the state to the rugged Bold Coast.  See Paddling Maine’s Bold Coast

Casco Bay Islands

There are endless kayaking trips possible in Casco Bay.  The southernmost of the big coastal Maine bays extends from Portland to the peninsulas south of Brunswick.  Jewell Island, one of Casco Bay’s outermost islands, is a popular camping destination. This large island once served as the harbor defense installation to protect Portland during WW II. Remnants of the old military battery are found along hiking trails on the island. These artifacts tell the story of the military history of Jewell Island’s fortress. A tower on the south end of the island has amazing views of the expanse of Casco Bay. There are numerous campsites with nearby privies on the island to choose from.  A western anchorage at Cocktail Cove often has many cruising boats, so sea kayakers will find quieter campsites on the south end of the island. The exposure to the Atlantic Ocean from these campsites is exhilarating but note that you can be stranded on Jewell for several days in a Nor’easter. Pay close attention to the marine forecast before you venture out or bring a good book and extra food to wait it out. For a trip that is less exposed to the open ocean, the Goslings are charming islands tucked snuggly in the inner bay. Camp on one and explore the others. Best,  you can walk across the channel at low tide. 

Don’t  Miss: On a calm day, Eagle Island is a superb day paddle from one of the Casco Bay camping islands such as Jewell or Bangs. Eagle Island,  once the summer home of Arctic explorer Robert Peary, has a museum and trails on a high bluff over the ocean. It’s a 2-3 mile paddle from Bangs or Jewell Island.  

Starting out: Sea kayak rentals are available to experienced ocean kayakers from Portland Paddle or take one of their guided Casco Bay overnight trips. From the hand-carry launch at Sandy Point Beach near Cousins Island it is about a 7-mile paddle to Jewell Island or 5 miles to the Goslings.

Cape Porpoise Islands

The Cape Porpoise Islands near Kennebunkport have three gorgeous islands for primitive camping. The Kennebunkport Conservation Trust caretakes the islands and handles on-line reservations.  Vaughn Island is nearest the shore and has a spacious campsite shaded by oaks. If the weather gets rough, you can actually walk back to the mainland at low tide. Trott Island has an easy- to-land site on the south end with space for three tents in the pine woods. The high cobbled beach is great for watching the sunset. Cape Island has a more difficult landing but has a blustery open ocean feel if you walk around the island.

Don’t miss: Be sure to take a day paddle over to Goat Island to see the lighthouse. Strolling on the 3.5-acre island is a walk through history. Wander by the old boathouse built in 1905. The lighthouse was built in 1833 and still functions. Ask the lighthouse keeper if you can tour the lighthouse. From the light tower you can see the whole expanse of coast. There is also an excellent view of Walker Point, the George Bush family compound. Goose Rocks Beach is also a fun paddle. When you are tired of playing in the surf waves in your kayak, you can stretch out for some sun on the 3-mile long soft sand beach.

Starting out: The launch site near the causeway on Pier Road is inaccessible at low tide, so make sure to put- n and take out on the top half of the tide. The nearby Pier 77 restaurant has stunning views of the harbor. The popular favorite Clam Shack in Kennebunkport serves exquisitely fresh seafood. Coastal Maine Kayak and Bike has single and tandem kayaks starting at $80 for 24 hours. It also hosts guided day tours.


Hammock camping on Trott Island, near Kennebunkport. Photo by Karen Warren

Mid Coast Islands

The large tidal rivers of the Mid Coast have protected islands snugged between peninsulas which make for wonderful paddling adventures. Wake up on a grassy knoll and watch the lobster boats work while you enjoy your morning coffee. One favorite trip is to camp on Beal Island on the Sasanoa River below Wiscasset and then cross the Sheepscot River to camp on the islands around Isle of Springs the next day.  Beal Island is owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), so you book a campsite through them.  Beal has a convenient ocean-side camp kitchen and campfire ring. Tents are set up in the spacious meadow above the beach. A privy is available. Magical trails with goat’s beard moss hanging from the trees wind through the forest around the island.   The put-in is at AMC-owned Knubble Bay. Beal Island is one mile from Knubble Bay so it’s a short paddle if you get a late start. Areas to explore around Beal are Robinhood Cove and Five Islands. A partly sunken hull of an old shipwreck in Robinhood Cove is fun to paddle through. 

Don’t miss: Five Islands, a quintessential Maine village with a working lobster pound restaurant, is a must-visit destination. Be mindful of the currents in Goose Rock Passage on your paddle there. If you paddle on an ebbing tide, you’ll have an easy ride into the Sheepscot River. At a picnic table on Five Islands, nosh on a lobster roll while you admire the picture perfect harbor and lighthouses in the distance. 

Cross over the Sheepscot River to find many camping islands surrounding the Isle of Springs. Camping is limited on some until July 1 because of nesting ospreys. The Spectacle Islands are a twin dose of beauty to explore. A camping area with picnic table and campfire ring is on the south island. Don’t miss the gorgeous beach roses along the spit joining the two islands at low tide. 

Starting out: The outfitter Seaspray Kayaking has boat rentals they will deliver all over mid-coast Maine ($50 a day), including Knubble Bay, and also has deck compasses, VHF  and weather radios and fishing gear.  They can also arrange for guided or self-guided island to island tours and even inn-to-inn kayak expeditions.

Muscongus Bay

Muscongus Bay is the next significant bay after the great tidal rivers and is the doorstep to well-known Monhegan Island with its thriving artist community. Add a day to your vacation to take the ferry from New Harbor or Port Clyde to Monhegan. You can browse art galleries and walk the beautiful trails to some of the highest cliff overlooks on the Maine coast. 

Muscongus is from the Abenaki word for “fishing place”. The plethora of lobster trap buoys in the bay attests to its exceptional lobster fishing. The bay has distinct ridges of islands radiating out from the mainland. You can poke around in tiny island coves and channels with emerald-green and blue water like the Caribbean. 

A perfect 3-day trip starts at the Hatchet Cove launch in Friendship. Paddle 4 miles to Crow Island on the west side of the bay to camp. Crow is in the shadow of National Audubon Society owned Hog island. A quick paddle over to hike the wildlife refuge there is a lovely day trip from Crow.

Don’t miss: Spend the next night on Black Island, a sweet spot amid the ridge of islands mid bay. Hang a hammock in the wooded campsite on the northwest point to enjoy ocean breezes and views as you relax and unplug. Although you’ll never want to leave in the morning, the paddle back to Hatchet Cove is a protected 3.5 miles.

Starting out: Midcoast Kayak rents single and tandem sea kayaks to paddlers with rescue experience or does three-day all-inclusive guided camping trips  (kayak and camping gear included) for $475 per person. They also have recreational kayaks and standup paddleboards for people who want to explore closer to shore.

Deer Isle Islands

The beautiful archipelago of islands off Deer Isle near Stonington is a paddler’s paradise. Merchant Row between Stonington and Isle Au Haut has 65 islands, many open to exploring and camping.

The summertime is extremely busy around Stonington with parking scarce and boat traffic weaving in and out between islands. It’s such a gorgeous place to kayak that it’s worth the bustle, just know that you won’t find isolation amid the islands.

A recommended trip is to put in at the Colwell Boat Ramp in Stonington and head out to one of the many camping islands. Hell’s Half Acre is a tiny gem for camping in the thick of Merchant’s Row. From the breezy tent platforms, you can watch the historic two masted schooners sail by. The schooners’ crews use many of the small islands to host their lobster bakes on shore. If you are lucky enough to be on an island they are using, you may be invited to join the feast.

The jewel of Merchant Row is Isle Au Haut, a part of Acadia National Park, with its 18 miles of spectacular hiking trails. If you camp on Harbor or Wheat Island you will be staged perfectly to visit Isle Au Haut on a day paddle. With advance reservations, you can also camp at the national park campground at Duck Harbor.

Don’t miss: The pink granite that forms these islands was used in 19th century public buildings in cities up and down the Eastern seaboard and you can still see the remnants of the old quarries in many places. At Green Island, there’s even a refreshing quarry you can plunge into.

Starting out: Stonington Paddle has kayak rentals for those who are at least intermediate paddlers and also guided and self-guided trips as well. 

Karen Warren

Karen Warren has spent over 45 years teaching outdoor education and leading wilderness trips in higher education. Karen documents her outdoor adventures on her website outdooradventuresampler.com

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