Jump Right In!
Summer is for exploration, and there's nothing quite like venturing inland to discover some of Maine's finest freshwater swimming. Few experiences compare with a refreshing dip in crystal-clear water with sand underfoot and blue skies overhead. Maine offers a huge variety of swimming holes, from babbling brooks with pools, to quiet ponds, large lakes, and big rivers with stunning waterfalls. Some areas are remote but accessible by car, others are isolated and require some hiking, while many are situated near main roads or are close to town. Surprisingly few of them see huge crowds, even in the height of summer.
Here are nine spectacular swimming holes situated off the beaten path. A few charge a small entrance fee and some are best visited with other people in case you should twist an ankle on the walk in, but all are worth exploring this year. [For the rest of this story, see the June 2008 issue of Down East.]Cold Stream Pond, Enfield
Easy access, clear water, sandy beach
Although many coastal attractions and sublime Atlantic views are within an hour of Bangor, a trip to Morgan Beach, on Cold Stream Pond in Enfield, is well worth the time on a hot summer day, especially if fully submerging into crystal-clear, cool water is a priority for you. This is a place you can take little kids and a picnic and stay all day without exerting much effort to get from the car onto the beach. Sunniest in the morning through early afternoon, this moderately large strand is situated on the west side of Cold Stream Pond, which offers a big lake feel spanning six miles in length and two and a half miles in width.
Cold Stream Pond is located about forty-five minutes north of Bangor. From I-95, take exit 217 in Howland and travel east on route 155 six miles to Enfield. Go left in Enfield continuing on route 155 for another two miles. Look for the Morgan Beach sign and driveway on the right. There is a small fee to enter this park.
Facilities include adequate flush toilets, a large parking area, picnic tables, and both sun and shade are available. Morgan Beach is especially good for parents who go it alone during the day and need a clean, safe, accessible freshwater beach to occupy the children and to cool off. Limited amenities are available in Howland and West Enfield on the way to Morgan beach.
Branch Lake, Ellsworth
Tall pines, rocky shores, sparkling water
One of the nicest swimming holes in Maine is Branch Lake, situated only six miles off busy U.S. Route 1 in Ellsworth. Follow the Happytown Road, off Route 1 between East Orland and Ellsworth, for four miles and turn right onto Branchview Drive. Stay right at the fork and follow the road for a mile and a half until it ends. Park on the side of the road and prepare for jaw-dropping Maine beauty.
There is a clearly marked footpath leading down to the beach area through a lush canopy of tall pines silhouetted against the bright blue summer sky. The expansive sand beach offers plenty of private space among a smattering of boulders and bushes. Swimming is fantastic with a sandy bottom, crystal-clear water, plenty of shallow area, and warm water temperatures (especially late July through August). Several large rocks emerge from the water a few feet from the shoreline, providing a great place for climbing, jumping, or sunbathing.
Sunshine hits the beach around noon, so the afternoon is an ideal time to visit, especially with small children. This beach is quiet on weekdays and is often completely vacant. An outhouse is available across the road about a quarter-mile from the footpath back in the direction you came. Plan to bring your own food and carry out all trash. There are no amenities nearby so stock up in Ellsworth.
Donnell Pond, Franklin
Secluded raw Maine beauty, rustic campsites
Donnell Pond is located within a 14,000-acre parcel of Maine Public Reserve Land east of Ellsworth. From Ellsworth, follow U.S. Route 1 north about fifteen miles through Hancock and Sullivan. Turn left on Route 183, also called Tunk Lake Road, in East Sullivan. Follow Route 183 for about four miles, cross the railroad tracks, and turn left onto Donnell Pond Road. Follow this dirt road almost two miles until it ends at the parking area for Schoodic Beach.
Enjoy the easy half-mile hike from the parking area along a marked trail through the woods to the beach. The water becomes visible as you approach the beach through a silhouette of trees. Clumps of white birch and bushes are clustered along the back edge of the beach but finally give way to sand closer to the water. Shallow clear water with sand underfoot leads out into this untouched body of freshwater.
Donnell Pond is nestled beneath Schoodic, Black, and Caribou mountains, each of which are in the one thousand-foot range. Several smaller mountains, including Fiery Mountain, Duck Pond Hill, and Otter Bog Mountain, complete the perimeter of the pond and create a natural crown around the pond. From Schoodic Beach, on the south end of the pond, the view is particularly stunning. Campsites, picnic tables, fire rings, and primitive pit toilets are all nestled within the surrounding woods. Authorized campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis with no fees or permits required. Most of the few visitors who come to Schoodic Beach arrive by boat from a launch located on the east side of the lake off Route 182 in Franklin.
In addition to ideal freshwater swimming, excellent hiking trails abound. Hike Schoodic Mountain to its rocky summit for spectacular 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean and inland. The Schoodic Mountain trailhead is accessible from the parking area. Visit this area with other adults in case you slip and need help walking out, and make sure children are capable of hiking at least one mile. Bring all food and supplies and plan to carry out all trash.
Dundee Park, Windham
Old-time park, tall pines
Dundee Pond is a dammed-up portion of the Presumpscot River, which flows south and east from Sebago Lake before branching out into Casco Bay in Falmouth. Dundee Park is located off the River Road in Windham, which runs between Westbrook and North Windham. Signs for the park are posted in both directions on the River Road. Turn west onto Presumpscot Road just south of the intersection of the River Road and the Windham Center Road. Follow Presumpscot Road through a residential area until it ends at the entrance gate. Follow the park road and prepare to pay a small entrance fee ($4 for adults, $2 for children) near the parking area.
The park road outlines the edge of a quiet residential neighborhood close to a densely populated area. The park itself, however, is nestled within a grove of tall white pines. The trees tower above a shady picnic area that looks out onto the beach and pond. Carpets of pine needles cover the ground and give way to a wide sandy beach. The water is calm, clear, and inviting, with soft sand underfoot. Looking out across the water, there are no houses or cottages visible. This small, almost urban park, offers a little slice of unspoiled Maine.
The feel of an old-fashioned summer camp comes to mind while at Dundee Park. The swimming area, designated by buoys, includes a float and is staffed by a lifeguard during peak summer hours. Wooden picnic tables dot the grounds in the shade of pines, and a small outbuilding houses a changing area and rustic bathrooms. Boats, fishing equipment, horseshoes, basketballs, and volleyballs are available to borrow (boats cost a small fee). A swing set is nestled in the woods toward the back of the park. The rules are posted, but two of the most notable include no pets and no smoking.
Houston Brook Falls, Moscow
Large waterfall, deep pool
Even if Moscow might seem as far away as Russia to many Mainers, it is well worth a few hours on the road to experience pristine Houston Brook Falls. Follow Route 201 to Bingham and turn left onto Route 16 to cross the Kennebec River. Turn right immediately after crossing the bridge onto Pleasant Ridge Road and continue for about three-and-a-half miles. Look for the Pleasant Ridge Transfer Station on the right and park out of the way of the station gate. The trailhead for Houston Brook Falls, posted with a new-looking sign, is just beyond the transfer station driveway (perhaps the most scenic transfer station site in the state of Maine).
Descend along the footpath about a quarter of a mile down toward the stream. The roar of the falls is audible just a few yards into this well cleared and easy-to-navigate trail. Large old evergreens populate the woods with a few birch intermixed along the walk down to the river. Several giant cedar trees twist their way out over the water, almost pointing at the falls with their dark sinewy trunks. A thirty-foot-long waterfall spills over jagged rocks and plummets deep into the ravine of the streambed. Below the falls, there are multiple rocks on which to enter the water. The deepest and largest pool, perfect for fully submerging and swimming amid the spray, is located just below the falls. Outcrops of angular rocks provide a natural playground to explore. Many smaller and tamer pools away from the falls offer plenty of options for those who prefer calmer water.
If you're making the trip to Moscow you'll want to bring a picnic and stay all day. This site is best visited with others for safety and only with older children who can hike and comfortably navigate wet rocks. Water shoes are essential. The closest amenities are in Bingham and there is limited or no cell phone coverage.
Lake George, Canaan
State park feel, community flair
Lake George Regional Park is located off Route 2 heading east from Skowhegan. Pass Eaton Mountain Road and ski area on the right, continue about three miles and look for Lake George on the left. Turn left at the second entrance, East Lake George, and follow the dirt road for about a mile until it ends. The park is staffed by rangers and there is a minimal daily fee ($3 for adults, $1 for children). It is located on the former campus of Camp Modin for Boys, which was founded in 1922. The camp moved to Belgrade and the land was acquired by the state of Maine.
Unique to this park is a real campus feel, with groomed grassy playing fields that slope down to the beach area and a multi-use trail system. The park is open year-round and is free in the off-season. Several community events happen at the park including a fiddle festival in late summer, a mountain bike event in fall, and a winter carnival and ice-fishing derby.
The swimming area is a short walk from the parking area and offers a sand beach and clear, shallow water. This is a favorite spot for young children and there is often an abundance of brightly colored buckets and sand shovels sprinkled across the beach. Water temperatures warm up nicely by July, but are always slightly refreshing in this spring-fed lake. Shade covers the beach in the early morning and full sun soaks the sand by afternoon. Plenty of shade is available on the grass a short distance from the water. Changing facilities and clean flush toilets are situated at the far side of the parking lot near the ranger station.
Indian Pond, Big Moose TWP near Greenville
Secluded jewel of the Kennebec, fantastic sunsets
Isolated Indian Pond is situated at the top end of the Kennebec River, which runs from Moosehead Lake through Skowhegan, Waterville, Augusta, and Bath out to the Atlantic Ocean. Heading north from Greenville toward Rockwood on Routes 15 and 6, continue through Greenville Junction for six miles and pass the entrance to Big Squaw Mountain Resort on the left. Turn left onto the Burnham Pond Road two miles past the ski area entrance. Look for Plum Creek signs posted at the entrance of the Burnham Pond Road stating ATV laws. Follow this dirt road for four miles through the pointed firs until it ends at the Indian Pond boat launch and parking area.
Make sure to wear a pair of water shoes in the clear water of Indian Pond and have a towel nearby to ward off the chill of wind-on-wet-body. Small rocks underfoot keep the water crystal-clear but necessitate footwear. An open grassy area leads down to the water's edge where the winds can be strong due to the size of the lake and openness of the site. Indian Pond is more than seven miles long and one mile wide at the boat launch. Fantastic sunsets cap off a day on Indian Pond looking westward across the water.
This quiet and remote site offers a superb combination of swimming, camping, and boating with the convenience of automobile access to the site. There are a half-dozen campsites with firepits and picnic tables, as well as a portable toilet and outhouse. The property is owned by Plum Creek Timber Company and camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is currently little sign of any development, with only a few boats possibly trolling the water. Harris Dam, where many rafting companies begin river trips, is located at the southwest end of the lake, approximately seven miles by water from Indian Pond site. Rafting traffic uses access roads to Indian Pond from The Forks side of the lake.
Bull Branch, Newry
Quiet rocky stream, countless hiking opportunities
This quiet and remote site is stunningly beautiful and yet accessible by car off Route 2 in Newry. Follow the Sunday River Road and veer right following signs for the Sunday River Covered Bridge. Stay to the right at the next fork and continue past the Outward Bound Center. Go another two miles and cross two small bridges where the road sharply bends. Turn right onto the dirt road, marked by a sign for Wright Trail Parking, immediately after the bridges and continue for three quarters of a mile.
The stream runs along the right hand side of the road, which is shaded by a canopy of mixed trees. The road and water merge into close proximity upon arriving at the site, which is marked by a row of large rocks in a clearing, several picnic tables, and a parking area on the opposite side of the road. There are many cooling-off opportunities in pools and along the rocky edge of the stream. On the lower end of the site, a small waterfall drops about fifteen feet into an inviting pool of cold, foaming water. Whether you prefer to submerge in the frigid moving water or sit along the rocks and dangle a foot into the stream, you will feel refreshed and cool in this quiet Maine wilderness surrounded by the calming rush of flowing water.
Part of the Mahoosuc Management Unit, Bull Branch is nestled in the shadows of several large peaks including Goose Eye Mountain, Mount Carlo, Lary Brook Mountain, and Sunday River Whitecap. The area offers endless places to explore along surrounding waterways, including Goose Eye Brook, Sunday River, and Miles Notch Brook. An outhouse is available in the parking area, but no other amenities are nearby.
Lake Pennesseewassee, Norway
Child-friendly beach and playground, close to town
Head west on Route 117 from downtown Norway along the southern shore of Lake Pennesseewassee, locally referred to as Norway Lake. Western mountains rise above the lake providing a scenic backdrop along the road. Continue following the lake after Route 117 turns left toward Harrison and Bridgton. Pass the Norway Lake store and look for a large wooden sign less than a half mile farther on the right marking the entrance for Lake Pennesseewassee Park. Parking is plentiful and free. Two well-equipped modern playground areas are nestled in the woods along the footpath to the beach.
The beach can be busy during peak summer weeks, especially during local swim lessons that are held in July.
Kid-friendly sand covers the beach and shallow, clear water gradually deepens toward the outer buoy-marked swim area. The beach is nestled among trees and bushes and there is plenty of space to spread out in the sun or shade. This beach is an ideal stop for cooling off and letting the kids play on the shaded playgrounds. Expect some boat traffic on the lake and road noise from Routes 117 and 118, which are nearby.
Perhaps the best features of Norway Lake are the semi-private swim areas hidden among tall pines along the shoreline path toward the boat ramp. Each has a picnic table and a small swimming area. They are sunny in the morning, shady in the afternoon, and offer lots of privacy. Other amenities include a changing area, portable toilets, boat launch, and trailer parking. Ice cream, gas, coffee, and stores are all within three