Riding Maine’s Sunrise Trail

I joined my friend and next door neighbor Andy Hazen this weekend, on one of his two-day-long training rides in his preparation for the 2,745 mile Tour Divide race starting June 8th, arguably the most challenging mountain bike time trial on the planet.

Andy, ready to fuel up on Sunrise Trail

We were riding on the Downeast Sunrise Trail, an 87 mile section of old railroad bed that had been converted to a gravel rails-to-trails corridor.  Andy completed it up-and-back twice in this past three weeks after Tour Divide guru Matthew Lee Matthew Lee (Cannondale Factory Racing) and director of the unsupported race,  phoned him and encouraged Andy to train on as much gravel as possible. Two weeks ago Andy churned out 170 miles in 18 hours, riding a fully loaded camping/ parts/ tools rig.
Yesterday ( Saturday) I completed 50 miles on my Pugsley bike, outfitted with a rear rack, a pair of  panniers and a frame bag.

Pugsley- tent and sleeping bag go on the rack

Today we started humping back to Cherryfield at 6 AM, after walking up to 27 degrees inside the tents. Ice coated everything around us- the water in the ditches, swamps, and even the road under our tires. These were full-on winter riding conditions,  even though it is April 28.  Moving at 10 miles an hour creates a windchill equivalent to 19 degrees, and that is real cold, hour after hour. The best decision I made before I left was to grab my winter riding boots and insulated mittens. My hands and feet were not painful,  only mildly uncomfortable. I had 4 layers on up top.

Yesterday’s ride headed east was mostly fun, with 15-30 MPH winds at our backs.

Approaching bridge on Trail

We saw no other bikers all weekend.  There were no real hills, due to it being a railroad bed through mostly swamps and bogs.

There aren’t that many places to camp on the sunrise Trail, and certainly no promoted sites. Not too far from Cherryfield was a large cemetery where you could stealth camp. Then,  I spotted a place past a picnic table beside the Machias River. After mile 70 there is another place for 2 tents near 2 picnic tables over by Cathance Stream. We were lucky to find an elevated head piece of land near a field by a place called Robinson’s Camps at milepost 80.

Camping au sauvage

There is no need to carry much food.  We bought lunch the first day at Helen’s restaurant in Machias. Mileposts occur every mile, with marked gravel crossroads alerting you to lodging, grocery, and cafe options.

We saw quite a bit of wildlife this weekend, including partridges, snowshoe hares, a nesting osprey, various song birds, and a close-up sighting of a moose. We also saw bear scat in the road, but no bears.

We were up riding by 6 AM on Saturday, with no wind until we hit East Machias, where we made the bend around the river and turned due west toward Machias where the cold, strong headwind made pedaling more difficult.

Between East Machias and Machias

After breakfast and warming up at Dunkin Donuts, we continued to grind out more miles, trying to maintain a 10 mph pace, where you click off a mile every 6 minutes. We advanced against the cold wind and repeatedly moved to the side for more than at least a  hundred  scattered ATV’s that were out for their Sunday rides.

I was plumb done after my 53 miles to Cherryfield, where I had my car parked.  Andy wanted to keep going, so he continued alone the last 30 into Ellsworth, where I picked him up at the start of the Trail at the Washington Junction railway yard.

I really enjoyed bike packing. It is challenging and interesting to make so many miles in one day, on your own power.  Often you hear criticism about backpackers who like to walk quickly out on the trails- “Why walk so fast that you don’t have enough time to see anything?”  Well, biking is MUCH faster and you still see plenty- actually more.  On a backpacking trip I would have covered maybe 30 miles instead of over 100.  It’s all good!

I would definitely do this again, but not in June when the mosquitoes would be insane due to the constant flowage that surrounds the corridor. I would end my next foray on the Sunrise Trail by going into Dennysville, and then down Route 1 where  I would  camp at Cobscook Bay State Park, one of my favorite camping places in Maine.

13 thoughts on “Riding Maine’s Sunrise Trail

  1. Steve Hanson

    I recently left Pembroke, after having lived there for the past five years. The Sunrise Trail is a wonderful resource, but expect ATV’s, (‘wheelers’) and snowmobiles in large numbers. Seems that everyone is Washington County owns at least one of each.

    Steve in Pittsfield


      1. Greetings, I chanced upon your blog and found your Downeast Sunrise Trail account. I edit The Ellsworth American’s Out & About publications. Would you allow me to reprint a portion of your piece and Apple pie box photo with appropriate credit. Best, Letitia Baldwin


  2. Looks like the kind of high pressure system that allows for nice stargazing. I miss seeing the stars where I am now.

    As for camping spots – perhaps a small inflatable mattress – you could float – now, that would be comfortable!


  3. beechcreekproject

    That’s a chilly start to a ride. You’ve got to really enjoy what you are doing to be mountain biking in below freezing temperatures. I do it quite a bit but there are some days I wonder “Why?”.


  4. Edward Barros


    this was a great mini journal of the experience….it looks like a great experience in riding and spending “personal time” just you, your bike and the outdoors.

    I would love to plan this ride into my 2013 schedule. I’ve started a quest to ride at least 100 miles in each of the United States. I’ve done CT, MA, RI, NY, VT, AZ, and have a long way to go.

    What time of year do you recommend doing this ride? I read the comment about avoiding the ride in June due to mosquitoes…Early April is probably still too cold, I am guessing that November-March is not appropriate for mountain biking either due to ice or snow. The process of elimination left the months of May, July, August and September.

    I live in CT.
    How difficult is the trail (gravel-wise)? is the gravel packed or do you feel like you are sinking into the gravel as if you were riding on a beach? I do a-lot of road riding on a road/race frame, but also do mountain bike and flat rail trails on my mountain bike.

    your photos show your bike with some real fat tires…..my fattest are 26 x 2.0 with slicks….would I physically abuse myself with this setup?

    You say 10mph, was that because of the gravel trail?, the wind? loaded bike load? some flat rail gravel roads around here are packed down and allow a rider to get pretty quick and up to 18 (if legs allow) other gravel roads just suck up the bike tires and the rider can’t get any quicker than 5 or 6 mph if lucky.

    thank you for sharing your experience…..it looks like you had a great time, I hope to do the same.


    1. Thanks for commenting. Like your idea of 100 miles in each state. April was when we went and it was below freezing at night, you might think of that. May and June might be too many biting mosquitoes and black flies- it is quite marshy all around. September would be awesome, August would be warmer. Third or fourth week in Sept might allow you to view the foliage change. The trail is hard packed gravel, no sinking at all. The bike I used was a Surly Pugsley, but the other fellow did fine with 2.0 tires. You would do no physical abuse to yourself at all with any bike. 10 miles per hour is a good speed if you do 50+ miles a day on a bike on this type of terrain with tent, sleeping gear, spares, cooking gear, fuel. Why push it? The wind is a factor if it is there. Let me know if I can be of any further assistance on your behalf.I would add extra mileage at the end to go into Cobscook State park,and maybe go to Eastport or Lubec. If you go, tell me about your adventure, please.


      1. Edward Barros

        Thank you for the reply, at the moment it appears to be very informative and helpful. I am penciling the ride in my calender for the last week of April or 3rd week of September….I’de love to see the foliage, I am thinking that the night temps at both those times are probably equivalent.

        Being from CT I know next to zero about Maine but will definitely read up about that area and talk to as many people about it before I head up there.
        I do not think I will be doing it solo, (unless I understood the area population). I just need to talk a few of my cycling buddies into doing it with me.
        Are the trails pretty safe….animals, trail pirates, etc……

        I only mention this because We have encountered coyotes in CT and MA. I’ve encountered Gila monsters and scorpions in Arizona and I had a close call with a few trail pirate thugs on the New Haven section of Farmington River Canal in Connecticut.

        I have full pack and gear set up as what you have described, but if I chose to not camp out on the trail is there lodging on both ends of the trail? or something mid way?
        (Not knowing anything at all about the area (yet), I’de attempt to plan the ride load free…maybe from Inn to Inn.)

        Thank you for all of your information, it was / is extremely informative.

        I currently do alot of in state riding, but I intend to do a couple out of state centuries in 2013. I am interested in this Maine trail, a trail in West Virginia, and the Over Sea ride which is a road ride on the bridge over the Atlantic / Gulf through the Florida Keys.

        Which ever I do, I will be sure to put it up on my blog. I’ve started a blog, just have not updated it in a while.



    2. Feel free to contact me if you want to talk (207-667-7131). I am a planner for the Sunrise Trail and am pretty familiar with it. It is now possible to connect through to Eastport, giving you a full 100 miles, though the section east of Ayers Junction is rougher.

      I get all kinds of comments about the gravel surface, partly because some people are expecting bumps and others are not, but also because the surface varies quite a bit. 2″ tires should be good. I don’t know about the slick part. The trail is pretty flat, but there are pockets of sand near road crossings.

      Early spring we close the trail (approximately March-April) during “mud season”. The closing is always posted at http://www.sunrisetrail.org. Black Fly and Mosquito are an issue in May and June when you stop, but not a problem while you are moving. July-September are good months, and October can be good while colder temperatures are holding off. November – February are chancy with colder weather, snow and fewer services open in nearby towns.

      Let me know if and when you decide to make the trip.


      1. Edward Barros

        Thank you…..
        I am going to print out a map of the area and will organize my ride. I’ll let you know my intended route and maybe you can give me a few more pointers….thank you for the bug warning…those type of warnings are crucial.


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