Can the Desert of Maine, Once a Roadside Curiosity, Become a Destination?

Its ambitious owners are gradually transforming the onetime tourist trap into a smart and stylish family getaway.

Camel at the Desert of Maine
Photo courtesy of the Desert of Maine
By Becca Abramson
From our May 2023 issue

Let’s just get out of the way that the Desert of Maine is not technically a desert — too much rainfall for that. It is, however, an uncanny 40-acre stretch of sand in the middle of the woods, created millions of years ago by a silt-dragging glacier and then, in subsequent centuries, covered by topsoil and vegetation. At the turn of the 19th century, a farming family named Tuttle came onto the land, overgrazing it with sheep and neglecting to rotate their crops, and pretty soon the topsoil was receding, exposing all that silt. By the 1920s, the Tuttles’ former farm was a tiny Sahara, useless for farming and a draw for tourists, as it has remained for nearly a century. When Doug and Mela Heestand bought the place, in 2018, the Desert of Maine was a tired, if charming, roadside attraction.

But the Heestands have been hard at work transforming the place, adding playful, family-friendly elements — a mini-golf course, a fossil dig — and dialing up the interpretive aspect, with thoughtful new displays and structures exploring the area’s human and natural history. The Heestands relocated and restored an 1800s farmhouse, turning it into a museum of old-school farm life. They found and uncovered an original spring house, hidden below 40 feet of sand, using ground-penetrating radar and a massive excavator. The original water-spout’s intricate stonework was still intact, and it’ll open this summer as a wishing well.

Photos courtesy of the Desert of Maine

“We fell in love with the place and wanted to preserve it,” says Doug, an IT entrepreneur before he bought the desert. “In its heyday, it was incredible. We’re just trying to bring that magic back.”

Bringing the magic back involved redesigning an existing campground, turning 54 wooded campsites into 27 larger, renovated sites. (“It’s amazingly serene back there,” Doug says, “but it was really old and needed a lot of updating.”) The Heestands also put up several stylish A-frames and glamping tents with queen beds and electricity. New this summer are shed-style cabins with full baths and kitchenettes. Also new: a train ride around the dunes — great for kids, as well as those who have mobility issues walking on sand. Come 2024, the Heestands plan to host concerts in the Tuttle family’s stunning original barn, which they’re currently restoring, with the help of a master timber framer. 

For the Heestands, the hope is that the Desert of Maine can be more than just a curiosity — that it can strike a balance between education, play, and wonder. They’ve brought on a staff ecologist, and Mela, a writer and former college professor, is executive director of the Desert of Maine Center for Arts and Ecology, the facility’s nonprofit arm, dedicated to nature-based programming for school groups, camps, and others. “You can learn about the depletion of topsoil, about how we farm and use land — the story of this place encapsulates a lot of lessons that are really pressing today,” Doug says. “It’s also just beautiful, a place where you get out of your car with your family and you’re just sort of transported away.”