The Valley Cove Trail is set to soon reopen for a summer Acadia hiking season for the first time in five years, following an extensive rehabilitation that gives new life to the historically important trail along Somes Sound.
Gary J. Stellpflug, foreman of the Acadia trails crew, which did the work, summed up the completion of the complex and lengthy project, which included resetting or adding more than 300 stone steps along the trail.
“Valley Cove Trail finally opened!” exclaimed Stellpflug in his annual report for “Acadia Trails Forever,” a special endowment fund for trail maintenance and restoration at Acadia National Park started in 2000 by the Friends of Acadia and the park.
The Valley Cove Trail was finished and opened on Nov. 1, but to protect nesting peregrine falcons, it closed in March, as it does each year along with several other trails, including the Precipice and Jordan Cliffs Trail. The trails usually open in early August after chicks fly.
The improvements on the Valley Cove Trail, originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, top a list of Acadia hiking trails rehabbed in 2019 and open for hikers in 2020 including Seaside Path, Bass Harbor Head Light and Kurt Diederich’s Climb.
Acadia hiking trails, totaling about 155 miles, remained open during the pandemic and use picked up after the Park Loop Road opened on June 1. More hikers hit the park trails after Maine exempted tourists from five states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, from requirements to quarantine or test negative for the virus, according to reports on the Acadia National Park Hiking Facebook group.
Pandemic delays work on Acadia hiking trails and hurts hiring
Stellpflug said he expected hiring to improve in 2020, after the federal government shutdown crimped hiring in 2019. But the coronavirus pandemic nixed those plans and forced a late start for trail work.
For the second year in a row, he was only able to hire 10 seasonal workers to complement eight permanent workers, he said.
“Because of the pandemic, we were not allowed to come back to work,” he said. “It was held off. The seasonals didn’t start work and the permanents were already on furloughs.”
Seasonal crew members were delayed in starting by four to six weeks and of those permanent workers who were put on furloughs, some were delayed in returning by six weeks, while others worked from home or returned on time, according to Stellpflug.
Despite the pandemic, major rehabilitations are occurring this year on the Long Pond Trail and the Razorback Trail and volunteers mostly are replacing bogwalk just about everywhere in the park, including on the west shore of the Jordan Pond Path, a multi-year effort, he said.
“We are moving as best we can. Things are affected by COVID,” Stellpflug said.. “We are trying to just keep one person per vehicle and that is difficult. Some people are using personal vehicles. It is limiting things like working closely together because of the 6-foot social distance. We are moving right along given those circumstances.”
Valley Cove historic steps overlooking Somes Sound among trail projects
Other projects include a rehabilitation of the Seaside Path, which began in 2017. The path, once badly eroded by water, is open for Acadia hiking and is finished, except for signs, with new drainage and pink-colored gravel surface, Stellplug said.
Despite a relatively small trails crew in 2019, Stellpflug also oversaw rehabilitation of Kurt Diederich’s Climb, a more than 100-year-old path to ascend Dorr Mountain.
Additional projects for Acadia hiking include replacement of the wooden stairway at the Bass Harbor Head Light Station; repair of a stone wall that suddenly collapsed on a switchback on the Beachcroft Path and repairs to halt serious erosion on the steep faces of the Jordan Cliffs Trail; completion of the last southern leg of the Valley Trail near Long Pond and a rehab of a short connector path to the Jordan Pond House nicknamed the “Trail of 1,000 Lights,” because it is flanked on both sides with night lights.
The trails crew planned the Valley Cove Trail work in 2017 and completed much of the work in 2018 with some finishing touches in late 2019.
Stellpflug said there was a lot of “wonderful” work on the Valley Cove Trail, which was closed in the fall of 2016 for safety reasons, with stone steps failing along the face of a ledge and a talus slope, rotting bogwalk and drainage problems.
“It was in such horrible shape and now it is in great shape,” he said.
A centerpiece of the work on the Valley Cove Trail included rebuilding a 60-foot-long staircase of about two dozen stone steps connected with iron pins to a wall on a giant ledge. The staircase ascends along the ledge to a spectacular view toward Flying Mountain and the cove on Somes Sound.
The Valley Cove Trail is “highly significant historically and structurally” and its Depression-era workers used a “unique” type of trail construction, according to the ““The Acadia Trails Treatment Plan: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Acadia National Park,” published in 2006 by the National Park Service’s Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation.
The Civilian Conservation Corps in Acadia did some of its most extensive step construction on the Valley Cove Trail, the NPS book reported. It said another example is the CCC’s 1.1-mile long Perpendicular Trail, where hikers climb 500 stone steps over 900 feet of elevation gain to Mansell Mountain, the park’s tenth highest peak.
In a recent interview after the Valley Cove Trail was substantially completed, Vincent Sproul, trails crew member and planner, said the trails crew and the Youth Conservation Corps did amazing work on the Valley Cove Trail.
Sproul said trail crew leader Chris Fabian, known as the “rock extraordinaire,” worked the stairway from top to bottom, giving it a rustic and natural appearance. “He did really remarkable work,” Sproul said.
Acadia trails rehabilitated to standards of Civilian Conservation Corps era
The Valley Cove Trail was rehabilitated to the historically significant period, like similar work on the Valley Trail, Seaside Path and many other historic trails in Acadia. The stone stairs on the trail blend with the environment and many hikers are unlikely to notice the improvements if they don’t know to look for them.
In building the new stone stairs on the side of the ledge, the trails crew attempted to salvage original stairs, and was able to save a few, but many were too small or too damaged. Crew members did discover the quarry used by the CCC on the trail and were able to cut rocks from the quarry and use those on the stairway, Sproul added.
In all, 384 stone steps were reset or added on the Valley Cove Trail, which goes along the west shore of Somes Sound, a deep fjord-like inlet that almost carves Mount Desert Island in half, according to Stellpflug. The work for Acadia hiking also includes 1,700 feet of new or repaired retaining wall and 200 feet of double wide bogwalk, the latter requiring some backbreaking work by the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps in carrying heavy logs and removing old ones.
Stellpflug said the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps, a summer youth employment program funded by Friends of Acadia, and volunteers, including those with the Friends of Acadia, provide critical help to the trails crew each year. Volunteers Mark Munsell and Jerry Hopcroft did almost all the carpentry work in building new steps at Bass Harbor Head Light, for example.
The Acadia Youth Conservation Corps often works side by side with the permanent and seasonal workers on the Acadia trails crew on bigger projects including Jordan Cliffs and Kurt Diederich’s Climb in 2019.
On Kurt Diederich’s, which climbs 450 feet in just 0.4 miles, crew members reset or added 145 stone steps in steep sections and repaired or set 94 feet of paving stones. More than 450 square feet of retaining wall was upgraded or added, stone culverts were opened and “bench cuts” were reestablished on eroded side slopes to improve drainage and flatten the surface.
Nicknamed “Trail of 1,000 Lights,” walkway near Jordan Pond well-lit
On the popular Jordan Cliffs Trail, which was also closed for falcon nesting, work included removal of large boulders that had slid into one section, prompting hikers to detour around the obstruction. The Jordan Cliffs Trail, which overlooks Jordan Pond, also was boosted by replacement of log crossings and rehabilitation of a lot of stonework with 97 steps reset or added and 375 feet of retaining wall rehabbed to match the historical-style of construction by the Seal Harbor Village Improvement Society.
Near the shores of Jordan Pond, the trails crew widened and raised a short path that provides access to the Jordan Pond House from the large North Lot at the pond. Before the project, the path was plagued by tripping hazards and was bare of its original gravel surface, Stellpflug wrote in his annual report.
To add to the woes, the trail’s 14 low-voltage night lights were corroded and no longer working and needed to be replaced, Stellpflug wrote. The trails crew worked with the park’s electrician to repair the lights, and dubbed it the “Trail of 1,000 Lights.”
The rehab of the 2-mile, wooded Seaside Path in Acadia was a collaborative effort among the Acadia trails crew, volunteers with the Friends of Acadia, the YCC and a contracted crew with the Appalachian Mountain Club, Christian S. Barter, trail crew supervisor, said in an FOA video for National Trails Day with Stellpflug on June 6.
“It’s such an important trail and has so much great history,” said Barter.
Seaside Path gets nod from different land owners, allowing rehabilitation
Barter said about half of Seaside Path is on park land and almost another half of the trail goes through the nonprofit Land & Garden Preserve. A couple of private land owners also allowed permission to restore portions of the trail through their property, he added.
The path, which starts near the employee dormitory for the Jordan Pond House and ends at paved Seaside Lane in Seal Harbor, once linked the original Jordan Pond House with the old Seaside Inn, which was torn down.
Barter said he and Stellpflug hatched the plan to upgrade Seaside Path about 20 years ago, as part of a mission to rehab and promote trails that connect Acadia to villages and encourage people to leave behind automobiles.
Almost every year, the trails crew repairs damage caused by an unexpected event and in 2019 that was a collapsed wall on the Beachcroft Path. The fallen rocks, which caused a safety hazard and temporary closure of the trail, were stockpiled by the crew and used in rebuilding the wall.
Stellpflug was also pleased with the “gorgeous” work in replacing the entire staircase that brings people down to the rocky shore near the Bass Harbor Head Light Station.
The project includes new secure handrails, 33 new wooden steps and three new viewing or rest platforms on the stairway. During the pandemic, the platforms provide a way to improve Acadia hiking by giving space for hikers to social distance on the stairway if necessary.
“The stairway will remain an easily accessible and highly attractive entrance to the Bass Harbor Head area for many years to come,” Stellpflug wrote in his report.
As their labor shows, the Acadia trails crew is comprised of experienced people who are talented with their hands, fastidious and skilled at trades.
Stellpflug’s report salutes Sproul and Jeff Chapin, a crew supervisor, for “an amazing innovation” in designing a “three-way cart” that connects to an ATV and is used to haul materials like heavy blown up rock, which is used for a base on gravel trails.
The cart not only dumps from the rear but also from either side, allowing workers to more easily and efficiently place material for large gravel trail projects like the Seaside Path, the Valley Trail and others, Stellpflug said.
“Incredible improvements by the guys,” wrote Stellpflug.
Hikers are likely to agree when they try out the upgraded trails this year.