Fill up the tank and get behind the wheel. In a new book Dan Tobyne shares the best drives Maine has to offer.
Region: Aroostook County
Length: 37 miles
Roads: Route 11
Travel Time: 1 hour
End: Fort Kent
The 37-mile-long Fish River Scenic Byway (Route 11) is located in northern Aroostook County and passes through some of the most rural landscape in America. The byway, buttressed to the west by Maine’s North Woods, follows the Fish River and its chain of lakes as it flows north to the town of Fort Kent, eventually emptying into the Saint John River.
The route’s southern gateway is the town of Portage, located on the southern tip of Portage Lake. This is an outdoorsman’s town for individuals looking for backwoods adventure in its most basic form. With access to one of Maine’s deep, cold-water lakes within walking distance of the town center, the location is ideal for fishermen, and trophy fish have been caught in this sportsman’s paradise. The eight major lakes that make up the Fish River chain of lakes are Portage, Saint Froid, and Fish River lakes to the west, and Eagle, Square, Cross, Mudd, and Long lakes to the east. The predominant species is wild brook trout and they can be found in almost all of the seven thousand miles of brooks and rivers that make up this system. The gravel- bottomed, free flowing rivers, and deep, cold lakes are the perfect habitat for cold-water species of fish.
In addition to the fishing, the surrounding woods offer great opportunities to hunt deer, bear, and moose. Registered Maine Guides are available in the area, including Hunter’s Point Guide Service in Portage, and lodging is available year-round at Dean’s Motor Lodge or Portage Lakeside Cabins.
From Portage, your trip takes you north to Winterville Plantation, a small farming village with access to Saint Froid Lake. Turning left onto Quimby Road will bring you to the 2,400-acre lake.
From the village of Winterville, the byway continues north through rolling hills, open fields, and woods until it arrives at the town of Eagle Lake, a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and the gateway to the 23,000-acre Eagle Lake Preserved Land. The preserve is open to the public for a variety of outdoor activities, including wilderness camping, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking. The town is also the site of the Eagle Lake-100 Sled Dog Race. The Eagle Lake area is also a favorite among ATV riders in summer and snowmobilers in winter.
As it continues, Route 11 hugs the shore of Eagle Lake, revealing the beauty of northern Aroostook County. Its panoramic views of distant farmland and rolling acres of potato and wheat fields interspersed with forested hills blend into the contour of the countryside, creating a natural patchwork of beauty. The old farms and potato storage barns that dot the landscape bear witness to the productivity of the fertile soil of the Saint John River Valley.
Once past the town of Eagle Lake, you’ll enter Wallagrass and the area known as Soldier Pond. This small town was once home to one of three blockhouses built to defend the border during the Aroostook War. Today it’s home to acres of potato fields.
Beyond this section of Route 11 is the town of Fort Kent, the northern terminus of the Fish River Byway. Fort Kent was originally an outpost and the blockhouse built in 1839 — and still standing — was constructed to guard the disputed border between the United States and Canada. The dispute was eventually resolved diplomatically and the “bloodless” conflict known as the Aroostook War faded into history.
Route 27 exposes travelers to some of the best scenery Maine’s western mountains have to offer, as it winds its way through the historic Carrabassett Valley and along the Bigelow Range from Kingfield north to Coburn Gore on the Canadian border.
Forty-seven miles in length, the byway passes through Kingfield, Carrabassett, Bigelow, Stratton, and Eustis, and traverses an area rich in natural and American history. From Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec to the lost hamlets of Dead River and Flagstaff, from the forest products industry to the ski industry, from inventors and inventions to the quintessential beauty of Maine’s rural farming tradition, this quiet slice of Maine is a gem well worth visiting.
Your trip begins in Kingfield, which is home to the Stanley Museum, Poland Spring bottling plant, Herbert Grand Hotel, and the Ski Museum of Maine. Continuing north on Route 27 in Kingfield, you will come to a small bridge spanning the Carrabassett River. You’ll see a sign that reads Public Scenic Overlook and has an arrow pointing across the bridge to the small road on the opposite side. This is the beginning of a recently completed 1.5-mile road that leads to a scenic overlook just below the summit of Ira Mountain. The road is narrow in places, unpaved, and the turn-around at the top requires some skill, but anyone willing to make the drive will be rewarded with a magnificent view of the valley.
At mile 28 on the byway, the village of Stratton comes into view. Part of Eustis, Stratton is home to the Dead River Area Historical Society. The Society building is located at the intersection of Route 27 and Rangeley Road, and is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Dead River area, including memorializing the lost villages of Dead River and Flagstaff. It’s here at Stratton that the Arnold Trail begins, following Route 27 north to the Canadian border. In 1775 Benedict Arnold traveled up the Dead River to the Chain of Ponds on his ill-fated march to capture Quebec during the American Revolution.
In contrast with Arnold’s time, today there is a wide variety of excellent and well-marked hiking and camping opportunities available to outdoor enthusiasts. Of course, premier among them is the Appalachian Trail connecting some of the most popular mountains in Maine’s Bigelow Range. Hikers on this section of the A.T. are presented with breathtaking 360-degree views of the surrounding area as far as Rangeley to the west and Canada to the north. Camping is also an option along the byway, from remote locations on mountain trails to sites with varying levels of amenities, such as Cathedral Pines Campground near Flagstaff Lake.
You’ll eventually notice very tall, straight red pines along both sides of the road. They are part of the old-growth stand of trees known as Cathedral Pines. More than two hundred years old and covering more than two hundred acres, these pines are one of the largest stands of old-growth forest in Maine.
After Eustis, the landscape begins to change and civilization seems to fall away. The road becomes hillier, with more twists and turns as it passes over numerous streams and wetlands, including Shadagee and Sarampus falls, emerging finally at the body of water known as Chain of Ponds. At Natanis Pond there is a large parking lot and overlook that gives a magnificent view of the waterway and Indian Stream Mountain, as well as the campground at Natanis Point. Leaving the overlook and continuing north, it’s a short ride to Moosehorn, a small community of sporting camps, before you reach the end of the trip at Coburn Gore and the Canadian border.
Old Canada Road
Region: Kennebec & Moose River Valley
Length: 78 miles
Roads: Route 201
Travel Time: 3 hours
End: Sandy Bay Township
One of four nationally recognized byways in Maine, the 78-mile-long Old Canada Road begins in Solon and passes through the towns of Bingham, Moscow, Caratunk, and Jackman, as well as the plantation known as The Forks. Strikingly beautiful, this byway has something to offer in all seasons. Spring and summer offer a wide range of activities, including white-water rafting, antiquing, canoeing, camping, hiking, and fishing. Fall brings all the colors of foliage alive and is a favorite for leaf peepers as well as a prime destination for hunters. Winter brings skiing, snowmobiling, dogsled racing, and ice fishing.
The Old Canada Road is part of the larger Kennebec-Chaudiere Heritage Corridor, which began as a primitive path through the wilderness and developed into one of the major trade routes between southern Canada and post-colonial America.
The region has a rich history, and before leaving the town of Solon a side trip is highly recommended. At Solon’s village center, turn left onto 201A. Located on the left-hand side of the road is the Evergreen Campground and Restaurant. The Third Division of Benedict Arnold’s Expedition camped at this site during its march to Quebec. Directly across from the campsite on the western bank of the Kennebec River is a “picture rock,” known as the Embden Petroglyphs. A thirty-foot section of bedrock contains more than one hundred pictographs.
Afterwards, head north out of Solon on 201 to the towns of Bingham and Moscow. Bingham is located on the 45th parallel — halfway between the North Pole and the equator. Just north of Bingham is the town of Moscow, home of the Wyman Dam. The dam created one of the gems of the Old Canada Road Byway, the beautiful twelve-mile-long Wyman Lake. The formation of the lake flooded part of the original section of the roadway from Moscow to Caratunk.
Past Caratunk, the route begins to take on a very different feel. Until the mid-1970s, most of the area north of Caratunk seemed stuck in a different time. Traffic passing through was always headed someplace else and life revolved around the slowing lumber industry. All that changed in 1976 with the introduction of white-water rafting.
Although white-water rafting is now a big business, The Forks still maintains the look and feel of a quiet outpost alongside a wilderness roadway. The Forks is also home to Moxie Falls and Lake Moxie. Moxie Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Maine, dropping nearly one hundred unobstructed feet in one spot. It’s also home to Lake Moxie Camps, one of the oldest sporting camps in Maine.
After The Forks, the byway becomes more of a wilderness area with little or no development for large stretches. This part of Maine is largely unchanged from Native American times and remote enough to be the site of a prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers captured during World War II. Today this section is commonly called “Moose Alley” because you are more likely to see a moose next to the road than signs of civilization.
The last town on the byway before the Canadian border is Jackman. Just south of Jackman you will see the Attean View Rest Area. This is a great place to stop and stretch. On a clear day the view is vast and unobstructed, with blue sky and shimmering lakes contrasting with stretches of unbroken forest.
Jackman is located on Wood Pond and is a favorite of hunters and fishermen. This town plays host to a loyal following of outdoorsmen who return to hunt, fish, and experience that elusive feeling of timelessness.
The Grafton Notch Scenic Byway begins in Newry to the south and runs twenty-one miles to its terminus in the small northern town of Upton. Along the way, you’ll discover amazing features like Screw Auger Falls, the Appalachian Trail, and the lost town of Grafton. It offers a wealth of outdoor activities, including rock and mountain climbing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, camping, and bird-watching. It also offers less traditional activities such as prospecting and geocaching.
Before starting up the notch, consider taking a short detour to visit one of Maine’s nine covered bridges. Newry’s Sunday River Bridge is an 87-foot-long Paddleford truss bridge, and is the most painted and photographed covered bridge in Maine, earning it the nickname the Artist’s Covered Bridge.
The official starting point of the Grafton Notch Scenic Byway is in the town of Newry. Newry’s bottomland follows the Bear River’s winding path along the valley floor. The Bear River is one of twenty-two major tributaries of the Androscoggin River, fourteen of which are in Maine.
The old Grange Hall, roadside stands, and wild apple trees fall away in the rearview mirror as the road begins to climb up to Grafton Notch State Park. Geologically, the notch is part of Maine’s Mahoosuc Range and is an example of intense glacial activity as well as recent erosion. You don’t need to go very far to see a wonderful example of this kind of activity. About seven miles into the journey you will come to a parking lot on the right side of the road that is part of the Nature Conservancy land at Step Falls. This set of stepped falls includes numerous pools that offer swimming and wading opportunities during lower water levels. A short walk into the woods will bring you there. Farther down the road and, not long after entering the state park, you will come to a parking lot on the left for visitors to view Screw Auger Falls.
Another mile farther up the road you will come to a small parking area for Mother Walker Falls and Moose Cave. Mother Walker Falls is a 980-foot-long flume that drops about one hundred feet as it steps down through a narrow gorge. There’s a loop trail that will take you to Moose Cave. Another loop trail that’s popular is the Table Rock Trail. Table Rock affords great views of Old Speck Mountain and the notch for those willing to make the climb.
For a challenge, try the Mahoosuc Notch Loop. The halfway point of the hike is at Speck Pond, and if you decide to hike the loop in a counterclockwise rotation, you might want to rest at the pond’s campsite because this means you’ve hiked “the toughest mile of the Appalachian Trail.”
Once over the notch, you’ll pass through the upper section of old Grafton. If you look closely, you can see a few old stone walls and parts of the former roadway, but little else remains. You are now traveling within the Cambridge River Valley and entering the town of Upton. With a population of fewer than one hundred, this sleepy town that once had its roots in the logging industry is today known for outdoor sports. Upton is bordered in the north by Umbagog Lake, one of the premier fishing destinations in New England. The town is also a hot spot for snowmobiling in winter and hiking and mountain biking in the summer. It’s also home to the Upton House, a renovated 1886 farmhouse that offers the perfect location for a country inn getaway in any season.
The Bold Coast
Region: Washington County
Length: 125 miles
Roads: Routes 1, 187, 189, 190, 191
Travel Time: 6 hours
Although people debate where Down East begins and the rest of Maine leaves off, it’s safe to say if you’re in Washington County, you are officially Down East. The Bold Coast Scenic Byway is 125 miles long and is anchored by Milbridge in the south and by Eastport and Lubec in the north.
From Milbridge the byway moves up Route 1, following the eastern shore of the Narraguagus River until reaching the town of Cherryfield. The Bold Coast and Black Woods scenic byways connect at Cherryfield, a well-preserved nineteenth-century village with more than fifty-five properties on the historic register. The Sunrise Trail (sunrisetrail.org) connects to the byway at Cherryfield. The trail is an 85-mile off-road multi-use trail that runs along the entire Down East coastal area.
Past Harrington, the byway passes through the center of the blueberry industry in Maine. A ten-mile loop drive on Station/Epping Road will afford expansive views of boldly colored barrens carpeting the landscape; green in spring, blue in summer, and red in fall.
Columbia Falls is home to the somewhat more eclectic Wild Blueberry Land. The main structure is a large blue dome known as the world’s largest blueberry. Its collection of strange accessories, all painted blue, pays homage to the wild blueberry.
After traveling to Jonesport, an active fishing village along Route 187, the byway returns to Route 1, where you’ll find Roque Bluffs State Park. The 270-acre park is located on Schoppee Point along Englishman Bay, a quiet, out-of-the-way place that is a favorite of bird-watchers. The unusual geologic formations of the park make it an official stop on Maine’s Ice Age Trail (iceagetrail.umaine.edu).
Along Route 1 you’ll pass through Machias, where the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War took place. The historic Burnham Tavern is located on a hill overlooking the river, and it was here that the plot to capture the British warship Margaretta was planned. After a short but furious engagement, colonials captured the British vessel, leading the battle to be dubbed “The Lexington of the Seas.”
Between Cutler and Lubec is the Cutler Coast Preserve, a scenic nature area consisting of a number of natural features, including peat bogs, forest, rocky cliffs, and rocky beaches. There are approximately ten miles of hiking trails and some rustic camping facilities.
Leaving Lubec, Route 189 circles Cobscook Bay on its way to Eastport. Part of the landscape here is the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge. The 7,200-acre refuge has fifty miles of trails for walking, biking, and skiing.
The road crosses a narrow strip of land between Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays, offering grand vistas on both sides. The byway ends at Eastport. The city has a thriving historic downtown with restaurants, coffee shops, and antiques stores. There is an active waterfront, with a busy state pier and international ferry service.
What better way to end the byway experience than by sitting in one of the coffee shops, staring out the window as the boats move in and out of the harbor. You may find that with this wonderful place’s proximity to Canada, your electronic devices might switch to Atlantic Standard Time.
Excerpted from Scenic Maine Road Trips by Dan Tobyne (Down East Books, Rockport, Maine; hardcover, 160 pages, $22.99)