Exploring Clifford Park

What do you think of when you imagine green space in the city? The first major city parks in America were basically gardens, with sculpted lawns, large paths, spots of shade, borders of flowers, and picturesque water features. But Clifford Park is nothing like that.

The forested walk is difficult at times, genuinely so, and an early July visit left me sweating, panting, mosquito-bitten, and exhausted. Afterwards, my four-year-old daughter napped soundly, falling asleep in her car seat almost immediately after I buckled her in.

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There’s something mildly miraculous about scaling rock ledges and following trail blazes in the middle of Biddeford. Clifford Park is a pocket of wild. It’s a woodland, complicated enough that it’s possible to get a little lost, tough enough that it poses a challenge, especially if you decide to traverse it on two wheels.

I didn’t see any mountain bikers but I saw their swerving caterpillar-like tracks, something that delighted my daughter Juniper. She liked picking out the different signs in the mud, the footsteps of squirrels, dogs, and people. When we arrived, there was a toddler at the playground, begging their dad to push them higher on the swing set, and a few adults playing pickleball, but the woods felt empty.

As we walked, we followed a series of panels, each one showing a single page of a picture book story about still turtles sitting on a log. It had been an unusually rainy summer, and the ground was squishy and wet. On the side of the trail, patches of moss formed impossibly green, dense clusters of stars. The insects were busier about their business than ever and the air smelled rich and thick with leaf mold and Mushrooms.

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We stopped often to marvel at some small thing or another—a single early blueberry, a thin stem with speckled white berries (the fruit of mayflower, I later learn), a cluster of ghost pipes, their stems faintly pink and juicily translucent. Juniper tried to catch fireflies, which she recognizes by their distinctive orange crowns. She let a ladybug crawl between her arms, giggling as its tiny legs tickled her skin.

We walked the loop around the park, occasionally venturing onto the interior trail network to check out particularly dramatic rock formations. Covered in lichen, they were easy enough to grip onto, but I still felt nervous watching my daughter on the granite ledges. Her broken arm, encased in a hot pink cast, served as a reminder that even small falls can cause damage. Even little disasters can derail a summer.

Towards the end of the two miles, she needed me to carry her up the final hill before we completed the excursion. It was hard going, and I was glad we chose the easiest trail, but I was also glad to hold her small, damp body. We had done something together, explored a little bit of wilderness. In the car, we had dried fruit waiting for us, and big bottles of water. Bug spray, unused. A small adventure, we left with small, itchy marks.

Words and Photos by Katy Kelleher. Katy Kelleher’s work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine. Her recently published book, the essay collection “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things,” explores human desire for rare and pretty objects. 


Did you know? 

Maine Coast Heritage Trust helped the city of Biddeford expand Clifford Park by 53 acres in 2011. MCHT lent financial support to the project with a $50,000 gift to the city and now holds a conservation easement on the land to permanently limit its development and ensure it’s always open to the public. Keith Flether, MCHT’s southern Maine project manager also helped write and submit a $110,000 grant request to the Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program, which was ultimately awarded to the project. In the years since, Keith has collaborated with organizations, including Friends of Clifford Park, to host events here and continues to lend a hand where he can. “You can’t believe you’re in a city when you’re there,” he says. “It’s really special to have this greenspace within walking distance for so many people.”