Cousins, Littlejohn islands offer year-round, drivable, Casco Bay bounty
Bring your bike. Bring a camera. And pack a lunch. This is the distillation of advice that my travel partner and I received from locals – well, basically locals – during our recent foray to Cousins Island in Casco Bay. As someone who strives to learn from his mistakes, I’ll add one more piece to the list: Bring a bathing suit.
As two or three readers might know, every summer I journey out to Casco Bay for a day of exploration, hoping to return with gems of island wisdom or, failing that, at least a few tips for intrepid readers who want to discover Maine’s coast for themselves.
I’ve visited Peaks, Chebeague and Long Island, to name a few. Last year I went on a sight-seeing tour of some Maine Island Trail spots with kayaking guide Erin Quigley. For this, my seventh summer on Casco Bay, we thought we’d bring things a little closer to home, make things a little more accessible, and keep me out of a kayak.
Cousins is a quiet, suburban island. Home to about 500 people, it’s part of the city of Yarmouth, connected to the mainland by a causeway that runs from Route 88 down the Yarmouth “neck,” where the original Yarmouth settlement was concentrated.
Without shops, restaurants or commercial attractions, the island seems to escape the barrage of tourists and day-trippers who descend on other Casco Bay destinations during the summer. (I gathered that locals and Yarmouth residents who come to recreate on Cousins are just fine with that.)
But that makes Cousins unique compared to other islands, such as Peaks and Chebeague, and it’s even more surprising given that Cousins is accessible by car and is, figuratively, a stone’s throw from the mainland.
It seemed that the most popular spot on the island was also the first one reached by visitors: the end of the causeway from the mainland. Directly as you arrive on the island you’ll find the parking area for Sandy Point Beach, the island’s main swimming spot.
Part of the beach extends underneath the raised bridge, making the causeway a prime place to jump off into the ocean. But more on that later. And directly across Cousins Street, the island’s main thoroughfare, is Camp SOCI (Scouts of Cousins Island), a small wooded piece of land with picnic space and an amphitheater used for programming by Yarmouth Community Services.
Sandy Point Beach and Camp SOCI both offer scenic, natural beauty. But it helps to have a way to get around, which brings us to the first point of advice: Sure you’ll probably drive here, but why not bring a bike?
“We bike out here all the time,” said Randy Allred, a Falmouth resident who was out on the island with his son. My friend Meghan and I met Randy as he was about to embark on a trail ride. He wasn’t the first bicyclist we’d seen — either on the causeway coming onto the island or on Cousins Street.
Randy said he’s out biking on the island “probably two times a week. We personally don’t come out here for much else.” Granted, there’s fishing, kayaking and other water sports, he said, and his family will “sit on the beach from time to time,” but like with other visitors we met, biking seemed to be the main draw for Randy.
That day, he was planning to take the West Side Trail across the island. It was the path he commonly took, he said, and one that Meghan and I had partially traversed ourselves just a few minutes before meeting him. Primarily built on the Central Maine Power Co. transmission corridor, the trail runs all the way from Route 1, near Tyler Technologies in Yarmouth, to the southern tip of Cousins, about three miles round-trip, according to Randy. The trailhead for the island portion is hard to miss, located at the Sandy Point Beach parking area. Bikes are welcome on the trail, though people also frequently hike it.
Other, shorter hiking trails also exist on the island, we learned. One runs from the end of the causeway through a stand of red oaks and pines (part of Camp SOCI) and to a steep set of stairs leading down to the ocean and a sliver of beach. This property that the trail runs through, according to the Camp SOCI web page, is recognized by birders as an important stopover point for migrating songbirds.
That said, the longest and busiest biking and hiking path on the island is the West Side Trail.
After a brief trail walk, Meghan and I decided to explore Sandy Point Beach. Along the way we met Tori Lillie of Yarmouth, visiting the island with her two children to do some swimming.
They go “every weekend if the weather cooperates,” she told us. “The ocean is the reason I live (in Maine) and this is the closest spot. So sometimes if I don’t want to fight tourist crowds, we just come here and it meets all the needs: a little sand and some swimming.” Not to mention, she added, that it’s free, “another plus.”
Tori admitted that there wasn’t much in the way of commercial attractions on the island. “On the other side of the bridge in Yarmouth is where you’ll find your restaurants and good stuff,” she said, adding that her “favorite, favorite place” is Royal River Grill House, which has “amazing lobster rolls, if you want to be touristy.” Royal River Grill House is located on Lafayette Street, just off Route 88, near the mouth of the Royal River.
Tori wasn’t the only island visitor to mention food, which brings us to the second piece of advice: Bring a lunch. Bob Stow was coming out of the ocean, walking onto Sandy Point Beach, when I met him. “I try to get up here once a month,” said the Franklin, Mass., native. His visits often include a stop at Hannaford first, he said, to pick up some lunch.
“I like to go down to the boat ramp,” he said, gesturing eastward around the bending coast of the island. “There’s a nice picnic table there and you can have a nice little lunch.” He was there that day with his daughter, Brenda Bartucca, who lives in Yarmouth, and his grandson. If they don’t do Hannaford, they said, Gather in Yarmouth is a great place to get lunch before visiting the island. Gather is located off Route 1 on Main Street.
Brenda confirmed that spending time in nature was the primary reason for most visits to Cousins Island. She likes to bring her son to walk the hiking trails and visit Sandy Point Beach, and said she hoped it would instill in her son a respect for and love of nature. In particular, she recommended that parents come in August, around dusk, when multitudes of mating starfish can be seen during low tide.
But the recreation available on the island isn’t relegated to the summer months. “Actually a lot of people come in winter,” Brenda said, for the hiking and snowshoeing, as well as for winter sea kayaking. “We’ve actually come out during a snowstorm,” which was absolutely beautiful, she said.
Before I moved on, Bob filled me in on two other common island activities. Come at low tide, he suggested, as the beach is much larger at that time and there appears a massive, exposed sandbar that you can walk out on toward White Cove in Yarmouth.
“Did you see the kids jumping?” he asked next, pointing up behind him toward the causeway overhead. I hadn’t. “Oh,” he assured me, “they’ll be up there again in a minute,” making their way toward the center of the bridge, from which point they’ll leap about 25 feet into the water below.
The beach is a popular spot for swimmers as well as a common launching point for boaters, kayakers and paddle boarders. Walking up the beach, paddle board under his arm, was Justin Peters. I had seen him earlier on the water, heading toward the beach from Blaney Point, the northeastern tip of Cousins Island.
Justin, who lives in North Yarmouth, comes out to the island “quite a bit” for paddle boarding. He usually launches from Sandy Point Beach and circles the island, but he cautioned that “you’ve got to be aware of the tide and the winds, because they can change pretty quickly, especially if you’re heading more out toward the ocean.”
I wanted to see if I could get a photo of the kids jumping from the causeway, so we made our way off the tight beach, past the 20 or so swimmers and sunbathers, up the trail leading to the parking area and onto the causeway. Bob was right. Coming up just behind us was a group of four kids from Yarmouth who had, from the look of it, been making a circuit – jumping into the ocean, swimming to the beach, climbing up to the causeway and jumping back in the ocean – many times that day. They moved past us and walked down the bridge, then straddled the guardrail and then, one after another, leapt into the blue-green water.
I couldn’t resist the urge. Of course I hadn’t planned to do any swimming and hadn’t brought my bathing suit (which, out of order, brings us to that final piece of advice I offered earlier). I stripped down to my undies on the causeway. My travel partner was nice enough to not only take my belongings but also grab the camera and return to the beach to get some shots of my bridge jump.
I have yet to visit an island in Casco Bay where the local kids don’t find some high point – a cliff, a bridge, a pier – from which to leap into the ocean. But this was the first time that I joined in. And though it’s not for the fainthearted, I highly recommend it. Particularly on a balmy September day with an assistant handy to carry your clothes and take photos.
After a short swim back to the island and a few minutes of air drying, Meghan and I continued our journey, heading down Cousins Street to the southern tip of the island. The road is not long and ends abruptly at what, for many, might be the most recognizable feature of Cousins Island, NextEra Energy’s oil-fired power plant. (For those who have gazed up Casco Bay from Portland or from Peaks Island, this is the prominent smokestack that you see midway up the coastline.) It seems that only authorized personnel were allowed to access the most southwesterly tip of the island and we turned the car around.
We explored Wharf Road, by which you access the ferry dock that connects Cousins and Chebeague islands, before finding Talbot Road, which links Cousins with Littlejohn Island. The bridge to Littlejohn is short and low and offers picturesque views of Casco Bay on both sides.
Though we drove onto Littlejohn, in retrospect I would suggest parking the car just before the bridge and walking onto the island, then walking the island loop (Littlejohn Road) before taking a right on Pemasong Lane, which will lead you to Littlejohn Preserve. Parking is difficult at the preserve, which is regularly at capacity, according to their website. Only four cars are allowed in the lot and there is no parking on the shoulders of the road or on the lane.
The preserve is open from sunrise to sunset and offers incredible views of Casco Bay. The 23-acre parcel occupies the northeastern chunk of Littlejohn Island and is home to eagles and owls, according to the website. A 1.3-mile loop trail circles the preserve, hugging the coast for most of its length. If you end up heeding piece of advice number one, be warned that bikes are not allowed on the loop trail. No problem: It’s a beautiful and easy walk.
That reminds me of tip number three: Bring your camera. The islands of Cousins and Littlejohn — with their proximity to the mainland and other islands, as well as their shallow, almost marshy coastlines — are two of the most photogenic places I’ve visited in Casco Bay (and it doesn’t hurt that the islands are so rustic and free of roving, tourist crowds).
Littlejohn Island Preserve makes an excellent spot from which to take photos of Casco Bay, including Chebeague, Moshier, Little Moshier and the islands dotting the bay toward Harpswell Neck. I should note that this isn’t the only preserve nearby. On Cousins Island you’ll find Tinker Preserve, a smaller but no less charming piece of protected land donated by Katherine Tinker to the Nature Conservancy in 1970. In addition to native plant and animal species, Tinker Preserve contains a small cemetery at the far end of the property.
Feeling that we had thoroughly explored Cousins and Littlejohn, Meghan and I hopped in the car and headed back to the mainland. Incidentally, we missed our turnoff to go back through Yarmouth and continued heading south on Route 88 until we hit Falmouth and, as luck would have it, arrived at the Town Landing Market, where we got an early dinner. Though not part of our plan, I’d recommend that anyone visiting Cousins from the south stop in at the Town Landing Market before their trip to stock up on picnic items.
If you’re looking for recreation, or you want to reconnect with nature, or you’re just a fan of scenic vistas, a visit to Cousins and Littlejohn islands makes an excellent half-day or day trip. And — not to belabor the point — if there’s one piece of advice to consider above the rest offered here, it’s: Bring a bathing suit. Diving from the causeway was certainly worth the embarrassment, but the walk across the public beach in my skivvies wasn’t comfortable for anyone involved.