Fueled by Foliage
Five great foliage drives in Maine.
Our editors have emptied their gas tanks finding the best fall drives in Maine. Here are five loops where the foliage is so stunning that the price at the pump seems like an inexpensive ticket to the greatest show in the state.
Run for the Border
Driving Notes: From Gray take Route 26 to Norway. Then take Route 118 to Lynchville. Bear right onto Route 5 to Bethel. Follow Route 2 to Gilead. Then take Route 113 to Fryeburg, and follow Route 302 to Windham. Take Route 115 back to Gray.
Driving Time: 5 hours
Easily accessible from Greater Portland, this daylong driving tour through the scenic Oxford Hills and the White Mountains starts in the suburban town of Gray and heads
for the highlands. On Route 26, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village and Museum is the last surviving Shaker community in the world. You can take tours of six of the eighteen white clapboard buildings or shop for Shaker crafts, baked goods, and herbs. You’ll see increasing development along Route 26 all the way to Norway, but follow the signs to Paris Hill and you’ll discover a cluster of historic homes and shady streets that seem almost untouched by the twentieth century. Backtrack a bit and follow Route 118 west out of Norway into the wild; here the foliage really begins to dazzle as you follow the aptly named Crooked River through Waterford and Albany Township (stay to the right on Route 5 in Lynchville) all the way to Bethel. Famed for its skiing, Bethel is actually a place to have fun all four seasons; there are plenty of dining and lodging options, or you can push on along Route 2, a major road that parallels the Androscoggin River. In Gilead, near the New Hampshire border, turn left onto Route 113, a true mountain road that is closed in winter but drivable the rest of the year. The rugged White Mountains rise up on either side of the road, providing lots of opportunities for quick hikes to scenic lookouts. Route 113 actually enters the Granite State for a short period but, never fear, it loops back into Maine near Fryeburg. From there Route 302 passes through Maine’s lake region, a stretch of woods and farms and lakefront villages, before the expanse of Sebago Lake opens suddenly on your right. In heavily developed North Windham take Route 115 back to Gray.
From Farm, to Lakes, to Country
Driving Notes: From Farmington take Route 4 through Rangeley to Oquossoc. Then take Route 17 to Rumford. Follow Route 2 back to Farmington.
Driving Time: 4 hours
Franklin County rises from Maine’s central uplands to its western mountains and includes the Rangeley lakes and Mount Blue State Park. This daylong loop begins in the college town of Farmington, set amid rolling hills and cornfields, and travels northwest on Route 4, tunneling through deep woods and sleepy hollows past the tiny towns of Strong and Phillips. (A side trip down Route 142 to Mount Blue State Park, named for the leafy peak rising above Webb Lake in the township of Weld, is a bonus.) The Rangeley area is justifiably famed as one of the North Woods’ premier outdoor resort regions, with abundant fresh-air activities such as boating, fishing, and golfing, as well as a small number of shops, restaurants, and inns. West of Rangeley, the stretch of Route 17 that parallels the Swift River and passes through Byron and Roxbury is one of the most beautiful roads in the state at any time of year but is especially stunning in autumn, when the sunlit mountains on either side of the river radiate red, gold, and orange. In Rumford the loop turns toward Dixfield and Wilton on Route 2 before curling back to Farmington.
Make Way For Moose
Driving Notes: From Waterville take Route 201 to Skowhegan and on to Jackman. Then take Route 6 to Greenville and on to Guilford. Then take Route 150 to Skowhegan. Then take Route 201 back to Waterville.
Driving Time: 5.5 hours
This expedition through the heart of Maine’s North Woods can be done in a single day or stretched over a long weekend of leisurely sightseeing and side trips. Route 201 will get you from Waterville to Skowhegan, and the stretch of road from Skowhegan to Jackman is absolutely spectacular, with stunning ridge-top views and leisurely curves through river valleys. Heading east from Jackman, Route 6 follows the lowland along the Moose River and skirts Long Pond and Brassau Lake. Rockwood, on the west shore of Moosehead Lake, offers a splendid view of Mount Kineo, a flinty eminence rising from the deep blue waters across the lake. Restaurants and overnight lodgings are available in Rockwood and nearby Greenville. Heading south again, you leave the big woods (watch out for moose, especially in this particular stretch of road) to enter what was once the northern edge of Maine’s farming belt. Around Monson fields and orchards have grown up in colorful hardwood stands. Route 150 follows the ridgetops through Harmony and Athens, offering long views of western hills before returning you to Skowhegan and, eventually, Waterville.
Cruising the Coast
Driving Notes: From Damariscotta take Route 130 to New Harbor. Then follow Route 32 to Waldoboro, and take Route 1 to Route 235. Follow Route 235 to Lincolnville, and take Route 173 to Lincolnville Beach. Then take Route 1 back to Damariscotta.
Driving Time: 4 hours
In late September, Maine’s busy coastal roads begin to open up as the summer visitors depart, and long leisurely drives become a pleasure once again. This four-hour loop offers a bit of everything the midcoast has to offer: lots of scenic foliage, gentle hills, and mountaintop vistas of Penobscot Bay and offshore islands. It begins in the lovely riverfront town of Damariscotta and travels on Route 130 down the Bristol peninsula where falling leaves drift from stands of hardwoods. New Harbor, at the peninsula’s tip, is one of the prettiest working fishing villages in the state. (Consider also taking a short detour down to Pemaquid Light, where surf crashes against the rocks beneath one of Maine’s most-photographed lighthouses.) Route 32 travels back along the east side of this pastoral peninsula, skirting Muscongus Bay, to Waldoboro. Just east of town, Route 235 heads inland into the rolling, pond-dotted countryside of Union, Hope, and Lincolnville before hitting the shore again at tiny Lincolnville Beach. From there follow Route 1 south again to Camden Hills State Park and drive (or better yet, hike — see page T15) to the top of Mount Battie for one of the state’s most jaw-dropping views. With its indented harbor, tumbling waterfall, and pleasant old homes, Camden is a great spot to grab lunch or spend an hour or two shopping. Route 1 also threads through the newly reenergized brick downtown of Rockland — now known as much for its cultural attractions, including the Farnsworth Art Museum, as for its commercial fishing fleet. Another half hour or so on Route 1 brings you back to Damariscotta.
A Day Down East
Driving Notes: From Ellsworth take Route 1 to Gouldsboro. Then take Route 186 to Schoodic Point and back to Route 1. Then take Route 1 to Cherryfield. Then take Route 182 to Hancock and finally rejoin Route 1 to Ellsworth.
Driving Time: 3.5 hours
Eastern Maine doesn’t attract the foliage fans the way the state’s western mountains do, but the land east of Ellsworth has its own bold beauty in autumn. This loop, which can be done in a morning or an afternoon, only hints at the magnificent scenery to be found farther Down East. Route 1 east of Ellsworth affords some of the best views of Mount Desert Island; for miles the road literally curls along the top of Frenchman’s Bay with vista after stunning vista and plenty of roadside pull-overs. From Gouldsboro, Route 186 travels to the “other” half of Acadia National Park, Schoodic Point, where the waves crash against the shore with a fury you don’t see many places in Maine. In eastern Hancock and Washington counties, pines and spruce are the predominant trees, making the scattered hardwoods all the brighter, and fields of blueberries blaze with a redness no maple can touch. Milbridge is a picture-perfect village of white clapboard houses and certainly worth a stop and a stroll, as is the charming community of Cherryfield [Down East, July 2008]. Returning to Ellsworth via Route 182 takes you inland along one of the state’s designated scenic highways — a stretch of North Woods beauty only miles from the shore.
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, this loop can be expanded by several hours or several days by adding Mount Desert Island to your itinerary. After arriving back in Ellsworth, head southeast on Route 3 toward Trenton. Cross the causeway onto the island and immediately bear left, toward Bar Harbor. After stopping for your almost obligatory ice cream cone, head south of town and follow the Park Loop Road to take in such sights as Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Otter Cliffs. After Otter Creek you can either head home past Jordan Pond and back through Bar Harbor, or else continue onward through Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor, eventually heading back along the east side of Somes Sound to Ellsworth via Route 198.