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Giant’s Stairs Trail: Walking with Giants

Ed Robinson
January 13, 2013

Harpswell has many trails worth your time and energy, but if you only walk one trail in town I recommend the Giant’s Stairs walk on the southeast tip of Bailey Island. We have walked here in all kinds of weather, in all 4 seasons, and it never disappoints. Seeing the spectacular rock formations and stunning ocean views through the eyes of first time visitors makes it clear that this is indeed a very special place. On any given day you might see rafts of sea ducks, a pod of dolphins, foraging harbor seals, or a lobster boat hauling pots below your feet.

Way back in 1910, Capt. Henry Sinnett and his wife Joanna generously donated to Harpswell a 10 foot walking right-of-way along the cliffs. This created a ¼ mile one-way trail for people approaching from Ocean Street. One hundred years later, the Town widened and improved the path.

Giant’s Stairs (Julia McLeod photo)

Another major gift opened the way for a loop trail, with access from Washington Avenue. In 1991 the estate of Adelaide H. McIntosh donated a 1 acre parcel of land to the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. Now called the McIntosh Lot, this parcel of forever wild shrub/scrub land extended public access to the south of the Giant’s Stairs and provides superb views over Casco Bay, past Jaquish Island to Halfway Rock Lighthouse and beyond.

The rock formations here are a geologist’s dream, but even a layman can appreciate the gigantic forces that shaped this piece of coastline going back 500 million years. Layers of mud formed the original sedimentary rock, along with deposits of minerals that later crystallized into quartz and garnet. Ensuing movements in the Earth’s crust pushed the rock layers upward, causing massive buckling and cracking. Gradually, hot magma from deep below the surface flowed into one large crack and formed a vertical seam of dark basalt rock, known to scientists as an “intrusive volcanic dike.” Erosion of the basalt over 200 hundred million years led to the formation of what we now call the Giant’s Stairs. Bowdoin Professor Rachel Beane led a very popular tour on the trail in July 2012 and you can find her more detailed explanation of geological history in the online archives of the Bowdoin Daily Sun (click here to read the article).

Park your car at the beautiful little Episcopal Church if no services are being held, or to the side of the street so you are not blocking passage. If you are pressed for time, you can walk this loop in 10 minutes but you’d have to wear blinders to do so! Take your camera, your binoculars, maybe a good book and plan to relax. The fresh salt air will refresh you, and mess your hair about if the winds are up. Whether the sea offers you gentle swells or crashing surf with towers of white foam, you cannot spend time on this walk without knowing the splendor that is ours thanks to the generosity of those who came before us. I have yet to experience the sunrise from these cliffs, but maybe I will see you out there soon…