Trail of the Month: December 2007
Maine's Eastern Promenade Trail
Virgile Courmont, a student at the University of Maine, challenged himself last summer to spend more time on his bicycle and less time in his car. Living at the time in Portland, Maine's largest city, he still had to drive to work, but he committed himself to two wheels for the rest of his daily chores and excursions. What he didn't expect, though, was how much he'd enjoy making the change.
"Initially, I was trying to be more environmentally conscious," he says. "I wanted to reduce my ecological footprint. But after a few weeks, I realized I was having a lot of fun doing it. That was a huge motivating factor."
Having fun pedaling around Portland, of course, doesn't take much effort. Between Maine's mild coastal summers, cool sea breezes and the city's aggressive urban trails network, Courmont quickly discovered that biking more often was no challenge at all. "Before long," he says, "it just becomes part of your daily routine. You don't even reach for your keys anymore. You just go for your helmet and take off."
From there, your trail choices in the Portland area are plentiful, with 26 open corridors and another 20 to 30 in various stages of development. Yet the centerpiece of these pathways is the 2.1-mile Eastern Promenade Trail, or "East Prom," a paved rail-trail (a portion of which is rail-with-trail; see sidebar) that follows the waterfront of Casco Bay from Old Port—Portland's famed heart of dining and nightlife—to Back Cove. The East Prom offers visitors and commuters a scenic bypass of downtown traffic, with broad views of sail-carved marinas, fall foliage and the city's sparkling waterfront.
Year-round, the East Prom is loaded with invitations to be active and frolic—yes, frolic—all around the city. The trail passes tennis courts, ball fields and playgrounds, and East End Beach, where the bold, or at least hot-blooded, can brave Maine's ice-bucket waters.
Business-minded movers can also take advantage of the trail's enormous commuting potential, either on its own or as one leg of a longer journey. "Using the East Prom, that's the hub of how you get into downtown," says Nan Cumming, executive director of Portland Trails. It hugs the shoreline like a U-shaped beltway around the busiest traffic, and at both ends serves as an impressive gateway to other tributary trails.
Under Tukey's Bridge at the northern Back Cove trailhead, the East Prom connects to the Back Cove Trail, a 3.5-mile loop marked off in quarter-mile segments, which is particularly handy for distance-conscious runners like Becky St. Laurent. She's run two half-marathons and a duathlon, and she uses the Back Cove and East Prom trails two or three times a week for training. "I love running around water," she says, "so it makes jogging more than just about the exercise. The trails are definitely one of my favorite things about Portland."
St. Laurent's enthusiasm is easy to understand. The pebbly Back Cove Trail circles a tidal basin, where sea birds and marsh reeds compete for the longest legs, and provides easy access in every direction to dozens of residential neighborhoods and local schools, including the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine School of Law, from which she graduated in May 2006.
For access in and out of the city from the south, the East Prom's Old Port trailhead connects on Commercial Street to the Casco Bay Bridge—which has a separate lane for pedestrians—into South Portland and the 5.7-mile South Portland Greenbelt Walkway. Planned links from there could lead nearly 50 miles south to Kittery, Maine, and its enticing row of outlet stores.
Within the city, too, Cumming says Portland Trails is hungrily working with other groups, including the City of Portland, to improve facilities for non-motorized transportation. It requires an integrated system of trails, bike lanes and sidewalks, after all, for pedestrians to move safely and conveniently around a community. And Portland, she says, is only a few spokes shy of a great wheel of citywide trails. Gaps between pathways are closing, and folks can already race around the city with fluid ease.
Indeed Courmont found breaking his car habit so painless largely because biking cost him very little time. When he'd leave at the same time as one of his driving friends, he'd often arrive before or at the same time as the car—especially after parking—and have his bike locked up right out front by the time his friends joined him. "Portland is really easy to get around," he says. "I was really surprised at how fast you could go on a bike."
His exploration of Portland on bike-back is a testament to how realistic car-free days can be with the right trails network. So the next time you visit Portland, try experiencing the city from one of its many trails. Starting on the East Prom, the whole of Portland is yours to enjoy, from the blue backdrop of Casco Bay, to the cobblestones of Old Port, to East End Beach and the tidal calm of Back Cove.
For more information, user reviews, pictures and descriptions of the trail, please visit TrailLink.com.