Dramatic clouds hover over a shoreline scene on Great Wass Island
Dramatic clouds hover over a shoreline scene on Great Wass Island. © Ian Patterson

Places We Protect

Great Wass Island Preserve

Maine

Enjoy this spectacular gem of Downeast Maine.

Acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 1978, Great Wass Island Preserve is a natural gem of Downeast Maine. A 4.5-mile hiking trail will take you through the preserve’s unique forests and wetlands. On the shore, exposed granite bedrock drops steeply into the sea, giving evidence of the “Fundian Fault,” a long crack in the Earth’s crust that extends from the Bay of Fundy to the coast of New Hampshire. The island projects farther out to sea than any other land mass in eastern Maine, and exposure to the marine climate shapes the vegetation of the preserve. The waters of the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy meet here and mix to produce a cool, humid oceanic climate that is ideal for rare plants and natural communities. Sitting on the granite shore and watching harbor seals haul themselves out of the waves after gorging at sea is testament to the productivity of this marine ecosystem.

Several rare plants grow on the island’s exposed headlands. Beach head iris (Iris hookeri), marsh felwort (Lomatagonium rotatum) and bird’s-eye primrose (Primula laurentiana) are tolerant of extreme conditions: constant wind, salt spray and a cool summer growing season. Further inland, the island supports one of Maine’s largest stands of coastal jack pine (Pinus banksiana) on soil so thin that few other species besides these twisted and stunted trees can survive. Curiously, unlike their fire-dependent cousins to the north that rely on heat to open their cones and release their seeds, this particular community of jack pine successfully reproduces in the absence of fire.

To add to this wealth of natural diversity, the bogs (or heaths) of Great Wass are also unique to this part of the state. They are maritime slope bogs that formed on top of coastal bedrock where the rare baked-apple berry (Rubus chamaemorus) grows, and raised bogs that formed thousands of years ago as sphagnum moss accumulated in the scoured basins left by retreating glaciers. The acidic, peat soil supports carnivorous plants such as sundew and pitcher plant and shrubs that can stand the extreme nutrient-poor environment.

Trail System

Download a map of the Great Wass Island Preserve's trails

The Little Cape Point trailhead is located at the eastern edge of the parking lot; the Mudhole Trail branches to the east 100 yards south of the trailhead. The two trails intersect at the south end of the island. Due to the extent of exposed bedrock and uneven terrain, the trails may be difficult or even dangerous in bad weather. Hikers should be particularly careful when hiking in dense fog – a frequent feature of the preserve. Please come well prepared for any kind of weather and be sure to wear sturdy shoes suitable for a long hike through all kinds of terrain. Due to the terrain, your hike will take you longer than you think – you should allow yourself six hours to complete the full 4.5-mile loop.

Little Cape Point Trail (2.2 miles): The Little Cape Trail leads to the shore at Cape Cove and Little Cape Point. It winds through deep moss-floored spruce and fir forests interspersed with open ledges of jack pine woodland. After about a mile, these ledges offer beautiful views of a coastal raised bog. Further on, a boardwalk allows the visitor to walk through a sedge-shrub marsh without harming the vegetation. After the trail reaches the shore, it is just a short walk northeast along the shore to Little Cape Point (3-hour round trip).

Mud Hole Trail (2.3 miles): The left fork 100 feet east of the parking lot leads to the edge of a long, narrow, fjord-like tidal cove known as the Mud Hole. From there the trail winds east to Mud Hole Point, where there are spectacular views of the islands of Eastern Bay, and along the pink granite cliffs that are exposed to the waters of the Gulf of Maine. Just northwest of Little Cape Point, the trail takes you along a cobble beach formed by the force of the ocean. The Mud Hole Trail intersects the Little Cape Trail on Little Cape Point (4-hour round trip).
 

Visiting Guidelines

To learn more about the logic behind these rules, please read our complete list of preserve use policies.

  • Day use only, no camping
  • No fires
  • Carry out all trash, leave no trace
  • Bikes and motorized vehicles prohibited
  • No pets
  • Please stay on the trail