8 Scenic (and Undersung) Maine Drives That Are Worth the Detour

They’re not the state’s heralded scenic byways or well-worn tourist routes. They’re not the stuff of epic road trips — in fact, none are more than a few miles long. They’re just a few of our favorite back roads, the stretches we never get tired of traveling, where the traffic thins out and Vacationland becomes Maine.

By Will Grunewald, Jesse Ellison, Brian Kevin, Kat Englishman, Adrienne Perron, and Sarah Stebbins
From our September 2023 issue
Quill Hill Road, near Rangeley, Maine
Photo by Dave Waddell

Uphill From Here

Quill Hill | near Rangeley 4.1 miles

If anyone could appreciate a good road, it was Adrian Brochu, who kept motorcycles stashed in Florida and Nevada so he could ride in warm weather year-round. He also appreciated the Maine woods and mountain vistas. Born in Quebec, Brochu moved to western Maine as a kid, speaking only French. He quit school after the eighth grade, went to work in logging, and later got drafted into service in Vietnam. Eventually, he came to own various timber operations and timberlands, including Quill Hill, a 2,800-foot peak just north of Rangeley. Ten years ago, Brochu finished a well-graded dirt road along a ridgeline to the top, and he opened it to the public. There are picnic tables, a wood-fired barbecue (with wood provided), and panoramas of the surrounding forests, lakes, and mountains. Brochu, who passed away in 2019, at age 72,  believed his road led to “the best view in the state.” Now, his family keeps it up, and as of this summer, some 7,000 surrounding acres are permanently protected via a conservation easement. Any bills slotted into donation boxes go toward maintaining the road, which is open 24 hours a day — the stargazing is superb. From October to May, Quill Hill closes to regular traffic, but hikers, cyclists, skiers, and snowmobilers are welcome. In all seasons, c’est magnifique— Will Grunewald

Route 52 from Camden to Lincolnville, Maine
Photo by Dave Waddell

Megunticook Majesty

Route 52 | from Camden to Lincolnville 6 miles

Sure, Route 1 along the midcoast is iconic. But hang a left at the Camden Public Library, leaving Route 1 and the harbor in your rearview, to find a road as gorgeous and cruiseable as any place on Earth. In town, Route 52 is Mountain Street, lined with homes, but a couple of miles north, skirting the base of the Camden Hills, the road rises to a dramatic cut between two big cliffs. An entrepreneurial 19th-century farmer named Barrett blasted it open — an alternative to a narrow carriage road that followed the Mount Megunticook ridge — then charged three cents a head for passage (one cent for sheep and swine). On the other side, you’ll descend to Megunticook Lake, with the trailhead to breathtaking Maiden Cliff on your right and the Barrett’s Cove beach and boat launch on your left. For the next few miles — the Camden Hills rising steeply to one side, the lake just feet away on the other — you’ll want to roll your windows down and turn your radio up. At dusk, when the sun drops behind the hills on the far side of the lake, the water sparkles with light dappled through trees on the tiny Fang Islands and lush Fernald’s Neck peninsula . . . and well, it’s just magic. — Jesse Ellison

Burnett Road, Freeport, Maine
Photo by Clayton Simoncic

Delta Detour

Burnett Road | Freeport 1.4 miles

It’s only a few miles from all the shoppers buzzing around Bean-land downtown, but this dusty dirt road past the mouth of the Little River feels, by comparison, like a quiet oceanfront oasis. After hanging a left off Wolfe’s Neck Road, you’ll wend through a cow pasture, with glimpses of Casco Bay, to where the road crosses the river. Anglers often post up on the bridge — and kids cannonball off it at high tide — so take it nice and slow. Just beyond, the road threads through 640 glorious acres tended to by the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, including a saltwater farm with hundreds of years of history. The center’s livestock barns, gardens, and 3½-mile trail network are free to visit and open dawn to dusk. Stop to pet the calves, feed the goats, and spot herons, egrets, and plenty more avian life along the river-skirting trails. There’s good swimming and paddling at the center’s gorgeous coastal campground, which also rents bikes — and Burnett Road is just as fun to travel on two wheels. Past the campground is a bit more pasture before the dirt road meets paved Lower Flying Point Road, where a residential neighborhood seems to spring up out of nowhere, your Arcadian little reverie left behind. — Kat Englishman

Route 24 over Cribstone Bridge on Bailey Island
Photo by Benjamin Williamson

Land’s End

Route 24 on Bailey Island | Harpswell › 2.1 miles

Island-hopping past the straits, ponds, and coves that define ragged little Harpswell, Route 24 links the town’s three isles: Sebascodegan, Orr’s, and Bailey. It’s a scenic drive the whole way down, but its terminus on Bailey steals the show. The bridge to the island, built in 1928, is known as the Cribstone Bridge for the unique crib construction of its granite base, which allows the tide to pass through (and is easy on the eyes). Once on the island, keep your head on a swivel, as there are postcard views in every direction, including at mile 1.5, alongside the Johnson Field Preserve at Mackerel Cove, a working harbor crowded with lobsterboats. Continue on past sun-bleached, cedar-shingle cottages, adorned with weathered buoys, to Washington Avenue and the unsigned turnoff to the Giant’s Stairs Trail, at mile 1.8. The half-mile path clambers across dramatic ledges, a bit of quintessentially craggy Maine coast, with yawning views of Casco Bay. There’s a similarly ends-of-the-earth feel where the road ends at the island’s southern tip, and the pebble beach there is a great picnic spot. Grab lobster rolls to go from the other end of the island, at Cook’s Lobster & Ale House (68 Garrison Cove Rd.; 207-833-2818), a hangout with harbor view since 1955.  — K.E.

Route 128, Woolwich, Maine
Photo by Dave Waddell

Ferry Land

Route 128 | Woolwich 8.6 miles

My family is used to hearing me gasp when I spot a gorgeous old Maine house. For my kids, it signals a game in which they’ll look for others I might like. The first time we happened on the Days Ferry Historic District, a stretch of modest, exquisitely preserved Colonials, Georgians, Federals, and Greek Revivals tucked cheek by jowl above the Kennebec River, the quizzing quickly became ridiculous: “Do you love that one?” “Yes!” “That one?” “Yes!” “Do you wish we lived here?” “Yes!” Established near a ferry crossing in the mid-1900s, the district is anchored by the circa 1777 Colonial-style Jonathan Preble House at the southern end and, at the northern, the circa 1829 John Corliss House, one of the village’s five brick Capes, built for a renowned potter. The crescendo happens near the intersection with Old Stage Road, where a handful of handsome homes is clustered, including the circa 1750 five-bay, Colonial-style Samuel Harden House and an early-19th-century Federal former tavern with a hipped roof. (Detour down Old Stage Road to see the circa 1833 church and 1808 schoolhouse.) The whole drive between Route 127 and Dresden’s Indian Point Road is lovely (stop to stroll the Coffin Wildflower Reservation), but the pass through Days Ferry takes all of two minutes, not nearly enough time to absorb such a cluster of architectural beauty, so I’d loop back a few times. — Sarah Stebbins

Watson Pond Road, in  Rome, Maine
Photo by Dave Waddell

Adventure Circuit

Watson Pond Road |  Rome › 5 miles

Maine is full of roads like this quiet connector on the eastern margin of the Kennebec Highlands, crowded on either side by a mess of mixed woods, a green corridor flanked by crumbling remnants of old stone walls. But is there a forested lane as short with as many opportunities for exploration? Heading south, the first of three trailheads is for the French Mountain Trail, a loop of less than a mile that leads to cliffs overlooking Long Pond and Great Pond, the twin ventricles at the heart of the Belgrade Lakes. A half mile down the road, the Sanders Hill Trail loops nearly three miles through stands of sugar maples and shrubby wetlands and past a hulking glacial erratic called Snapper Rock. At mile 3.4, the turnoff to the Blueberry Hill Scenic Area leads to a picnic site with views of the Belgrade Lakes isthmus below — and in later summer, tart berries for the picking. Finally, at mile 3.8, the gentle Monataka mountain-biking trail begins to the left, while a network of hiking trails branches off to the right, into the roadless core of the Kennebec Highlands, including to sweeping vistas atop 1,133-foot Round Top Mountain. You could spend a whole season exploring Watson Pond Road and never get bored. — Brian Kevin

Chauncey Creek Road, Kittery, Maine
Photo by Clayton Simoncic

Up a Creek

Chauncey Creek Road to Seapoint Road | Kittery 1.7 miles

One of the best parts of a Seapoint Beach day, as we Kittery-dwellers know, is driving there. The road along Chauncey Creek curves subtly and gracefully, the sun glittering through tall, leafy trees on either side. Short as it is, the route has multiple personalities. It’s bustling near Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier (16 Chauncey Creek Rd.; 207-439-1030), the iconic 75-year-old southern Maine seafood stop, with its always-packed picnic tables overlooking the river. There’s a short residential strip, then a gorgeous bit winding through the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, with a trailhead for the Cutts Island Trail, a gentle, 1.8-mile loop through woods and salt marsh. The road ends at Seapoint, beloved by Kitterians for its quietude — and a sweet spot to have a campfire (with a permit from the town). Non-residents can park in one of a few designated spots along the road, from which the beach is about a third-of-a-mile walk. But I sometimes come just for the dreamy golden-hour drive, let the smell of the ocean and the sounds of frogs and crickets waft through my rolled-down windows, then turn around and head home. — Adrienne Perron

Route 235 from Warren to Union, past Seven Tree Pond
Photo by Benjamin Williamson

Big Views by a Small Pond

Route 235  | from Warren to Union › 3 miles

Winding like a ribbon along the western edge of Seven Tree Pond, this bucolic stretch of blacktop has my vote for Maine’s best location for filming a sports-car commercial. For starters, ooh la la, those curves: the road follows the gentle contours of the foot of Clary Hill, and even the sensiblest of sedans can’t help purring a little as it hugs those turns. Then there’s the surroundings, which offer a scenic bit of everything. Heading north, patches of woods spill down the hillside to your left, interrupted by neat lawns and a few grand old farmsteads. To the right are wide-open farm fields, hay pastures, and blueberry barrens that turn crimson in late summer, the views beyond taking in the cerulean pond and distant swells of the Camden Hills. Put a boat in the water at tiny Ayer Park, at mile 2.5, and you can enjoy the view as a panorama — it’s also a great spot for a picnic, with tables and grills right along the shore. Just ahead, on Union’s historic town common, Sterlingtown Bakehouse (30 Burkett Rd.) and Sterlingtown Public House (289 Common Rd.; 207-785-0037) are essential stops for, respectively, pastries and pints. — B.K.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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