The billion billion stones of Jasper Beach

I had already been reminded that morning what a billion billion looked like. I had started my day well before dawn and so had taken the opportunity to gaze skyward. With no ambient light to pollute the heavens, I could see infinity spread above me—layer upon dark transparent layer, a billion stars set in each one, stretched across the sky.

Hours later, standing at the edge of the sea, I was reminded again of a billion billion. This time, I needed only to look down rather than up: a billion billion small, smooth stones, piled like a high sand dune that stretched the entire length of the beach.

In fact, the dune is the beach—a half-mile curve that runs east-west between two cedar-topped bluffs that mark the outstretched edges Howard’s Cove. Toward the top of the ridge, the stones are bigger—fist-sized or perhaps a little larger. Closer to the high-tide mark, the stones get smaller, perhaps the size of a thumb tip. Near the low-tide mark, the stones are the size of fine gravel.

The sea has rubbed them all smooth and regular—no hard shapes, no sharp edges, no harsh cracks.

Most of the pebbles have a reddish hue, dark enough to be almost brown, and this is where the beach gets its name: Jasper Beach. Jasper is an iron-rich form of silica, and the abundance of iron gives jasper its reddish hue.

But according to the Maine Geological Survey, few of the pebbles at Jasper Beach actually consist of jasper. Instead, the geologists suggest, most of the rocks consist of a fine-grained volcanic rock called rhyolite, which, like jasper, is also dark red.

But any attempt to categorize the rocks of Jasper Beach is immediately confounded by the rocks themselves. For every rhyolite-red rock, there’s a nearly-round ball of white quartz with its characteristic flecks of black or a pebble that looks like it might have once been a brick in a younger time.

And this is where the billions become overwhelming, because you can spend hours and hours—days, weeks if you want—examining stones, turning them over in your hand, feeling their smoothness and marveling at their designs, and as you set one down and pick another up, you will never begin to wrap your mind around the vastness of their numbers.

One is crimson red with Seussian swirls of black. Another is solid algae-green and flat, perfect for skipping. Another mimics the stormy surface of Jupiter, complete with a great angry eye. A piece of orange quartz shows off chips of white and black. Another stone somehow blurs seamlessly from bluish green to milky red in the span of a few millimeters.

Every stone is different. Every stone is beautiful.

Their real beauty comes out when the stones are wet with seawater, which brings out their colorful vibrancy. They may lack luster when dry, but once wet, they look magic.

So, so many of the stones, above the water line, rest in lackluster obscurity. They’ve been piled high by the sea and forgotten. But even there, they have the chance to shine as the fog rolls in from the sea, turning the air milky white even as the ridge of stones comes alive with color.

Swatches of beach grass grow along the top of the ridge, as do a few clusters of wild roses, but beach peas are the most common plants.

Near the top of the ridge, the sea has also deposited assorted human detritus. Some is expected: a piece of chewed up lobster buoy; a couple feet of coarse, weathered rope; chunks of partially burned driftwood used in bonfires. Some is unexpected: a discarded plastic bottle of pink Powerade, an inside-out rubber work glove, the green plastic casing of a spent shotgun shell.

There are other shells, too—pieces of crabs, empty periwinkle shells, shattered muscle shells bleached to iridescent light-purple in the sun. There are clumps of dried seaweed and sheets of kelp that have come unanchored from the sea floor.

As the morning fog thickens, a lobster boat calls out with its horn. The engine chugs along, propelling the boat from buoy to buoy, cutting back for each trap tending. The boat itself remains invisible, but the sound of its engine marks its progress across the cove.

A harbor seal, thirty feet offshore, pokes its head above the waves for a look around. It finally dips back under.

About two-thirds of the way down the beach to the east, the remains of an old fishing weir jut out of the water. Once, a whole line of wooden stakes taller that phone poles, rose like skeletonal fingers from the sea in a line perpendicular to the shore. Fishermen would stretch nets between the poles, and the schools of sardines that came in close to shore at high tide would get ensnared. Now, only the pole farthest out remains standing; a lone cormorant sits on it, gargoyle-like. The stumps of two other poles, closest to shore, show only at low tide.

The stone ridge slopes more gently to the sea down at this far end of Jasper Beach. The stones, too, are much smaller—gravel-sized, but still smooth and crunchy underfoot.

All the way at the beach’s very eastern edge, just before the bedrock cliffs that jump skyward, a freshwater inlet drains from an inland salt marsh into the sea. The water in the inlet teems with rock crabs that move about with the slow-motion deliberateness of astronauts on the moon. Small caves and craggy rock formations, all covered in seaweed, all cut from the side of the bedrock cliff, make up the far border of the inlet.

But back near the parking area and beyond it to the beach’s western end, the ridge of stones rises steep, almost wall-like, from the water. The wall of stones has several terraces, though, visible at low tide. The steppes, called storm berms, are created by the fluctuating water levels that come with rough weather. Low tide also reveals not a smoothly curved shoreline but a series of indentations—called cusps—that give the waterline’s profile a scalloped look.

The waves rush in to shore and climb the slope. Then, as the water retreats back through the stones, the beach hisses. Sometimes it sounds like something sizzling in a frying pan; others, it sounds like a kindly librarian gently shushing a talker. Regardless of the intensity, the hiss comes from the stones themselves and often reveals much about the beach’s mood.

Located just south of Machiasport, Maine, which runs the beach as a local park, Jasper Beach remains one of the state’s best-kept secrets. Even the old severe weather warning station, situated atop the cliff the runs along Jasper Beach’s western edge, now sits deserted, no longer telling anyone about severe weather and certainly not telling anyone about the beach of a billion billion stones.

Who would believe such a tale, anyway? A billion billion is far too big for anyone’s mind to envision, too big even to imagine.

Yet Jasper Beach is one place in the world where a visitor can remain well-grounded and, in doing so, still get lost in the vastness of billions.

37 replies »

  1. I’ve been to Maine exactly once, as a kid, and I don’t remember a ton of it. While I don’t recall seeing a beach like that, it reminds me of what many of the beaches north of San Francisco look like, but without the tidepools.

    Thanks for dredging up that fond memory, Chris.

  2. My family was up to Jasper beach August 10, 2010. Your description of a billion billion is right on. I was fascinated by the quantity of beautiful stones there. I brought home a handful to keep on my desk so that the beautiful stone beach will never be far away….

  3. We visited Jasper Beach late last summer (2011) and were amazed by the beauty and variety of the stones. Until we stayed in Machiasport at Micmac Farms we had never heard of the beach. I am so glad we had the opportunity to see it.

  4. Hi there..Can anyone tell me about how long it would take to drive from Bar Harbor to Jasper Beach? I am an artist and I would love to see those stones! The colors look awesome!!
    Thank U! Lynn

    • From Bar Harbor, figure about 25 minutes or so to get up to Ellsworth (depending on time of year and traffic); from Ellsworth, figure a little under an hour to get out to Machias; from there, another 15 minutes or so south to Buck’s Harbor.

  5. I spent my childhood on this beach. Haven’t been back for many years. Thanks for this, it brings back LOTS of memories.

  6. Me and Jeannette have spent a lot of lazy ,hazy days with our grandchildren on that beach a beautiful place to spend aleast a day

  7. I live not very far from Jasper Beach, my husband and I married on this beach, Mother Nature our decorator. I was born and raised here in this small fishing town, and those memories of running along Jasper Beach just at the waters edge, I will forever hold dear to my heart. I have had the opportunity to pass those memories on to my children all the while running along beside them on that same waters edge. It is truly a beautiful place. Thank You for sharing. Heather

  8. This is a truly amazing sight….anyone who wants to see all rocks that are smooth and extremely different should go here…there are so many piles of them to walk over just to get to the waters edge. I would highly recommend this beach as a major tourist attraction but it is so well hidden to everyone that few ever get to see it….By all means if you can go see it. It is really amazing..

  9. Your description was absolutely beautiful. Jasper Beach was one of the areas in which I found solace after we moved to Machias from MA shortly before my senior year of High School. To this day I visit Jasper Beach every time I go back. Thank you for a warm and comforting memory.

  10. Very proud to call Jasper Beach my backyard. It is very unique and peaceful. At low tide you can explore the caves-but be careful not to get tide nipped!! This is our towns 250th anniversary. Check out what else this area has to offer @ http://www.machiasport.org.

  11. This is beautifully written! Like Heather who commented above I too live in Bucks Harbor and this beautiful beach is part of my soul…

  12. We come to our tiny cabin in Mllbridge a few times a year, and seldom miss getting to Jasper Beach when we’re up. Two high points – taking the dogs and letting them run and explore the eastern end near the cliffs; and bicycle-riding there from Machias (killer ride, but beautiful!). There’s no place like it.

  13. Jasper Beach is my favorite beach in Maine. Thanks for the chance to remember it’s serene beauty. I can’t wait to take my kids there (you know, when they stop trying to swallow rocks whole).

  14. The radar was intended to detect an attack on the US from the North. It wasn’t intended to monitor weather. 🙂

  15. I have lived in Maine my whole life and only heard about Jasper Beach a few years ago. This summer we made the 3 hour journey…I didn’t want to leave! It is like time stood still…my husband and two sons also felt the magic. We plan on staying a week next summer…if it were up to me I would stay all summer! Pure Magic!

  16. I remember Jasper beach well.The first time I swam(waded) in the ocean was at Jasper beach.I am a native Minnesotan and was stationed at Bucks Harbor AFS for about 1 year.I love the area my wife and I took our motorcycles fro Minneapolis to Acadia park in 2005.I regret not having enough time to go there.And wish i would have kept some stones.

  17. My husband and I were there at the beginning of October. I love rocks.
    This beautiful beach was a lifetime highlight for me. I could have spent days looking at the glory of it all. I will return again. I have a few here in Texas with me and they make me smile. Yes Billions and Billions…….

  18. My family and I visited Jasper Beach for the first time today! So lovely. Couldn’t believe all the variety of rocks. The author sums it up perfectly in saying, “They may lack luster when dry, but once wet, they look magic.” The wet rocks looked like they went through a tumbler. Our visit was part of my son’s third grade homeschool lesson in attempting to identify rocks and minerals. Any suggestions on how to identify the rocks of Jasper Beach by their features would be very much appreciated. A very well-written and enjoyable article! Thank you.

    • Primarily Rhyolite and Quartz. The ingredients of our coast. There may be granite, too. The speckled stones in particular.

    • My grand children and I have enjoyed this beautiful Beach several times. So much fun to go at low tide and check out the caves! We collected some of the unique stones and I sprayed them with clear paint to keep their luster.

  19. I first visited Jasper Beach in the mid-1980’s, while staying at Mic Mac Farm. I have returned many times, bringing my nearest and most treasured friends. Now I live far from Maine, and I sadly miss my two favorite places in Maine, Pemaquid Light and Jasper Beach. Thank you for reminding me…

    • I hope taking some stones is not verboten. I love different kinds of stones and was fascinated by all the shapes and colors. Although there are more of a slate gray (greenish when wet) stones, there are some white ones and some more copper-tones ones. I like to take a few stones whenever we travel and have a couple from most of our destinations in the USA and elsewhere. Each stone brings a happy memory and each has it’s own individual type of beauty. I still can’t understand why there is a huge, smooth pile of a variety of sizes of stones where the stones are surrounded by “ordinary” sand beach…I thought at first a truck must have hauled them in and dumped them but then realized that it was not a real possibility. What a treat to see the stones. The next time I am in the northern edge of Maine, I want to visit again.

    • Lynda West yes picking is ok. There are no signs. I know in Arcadia has a place with rocks and a sign say you will be fine if you take rocks. No one owns the ocean or the things on the edges of and ocean. Just like Sea Glass beach in California they have a sign saying you will be fine. This one they really can’t because the glass was discarded in the ocean as trash, there is no law in the world that you can’t collect trash from the ocean. They only put the signs up hoping to curb the picking but they have no legal rights. If you do get a fine take it to court because a judge will laugh it out of his court. I have heard they pass out warnings, and again this is to curb people from taking things from the beach. Happy Picking.

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