Camden Harbor, from the Mount Battie summit.
Camden Harbor, from the Mount Battie summit.

Why the Camden Hills Should Be Your Fall Foliage Getaway

Autumn brings a pastoral luster to the coastal mountains of the midcoast.

Photographed by Benjamin Williamson
Text By Brian Kevin
From our October 2022 issue

The autumn was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s favorite season — or anyway, it was the time of year that seemed to find the Camden-reared, Jazz Age poet at her most rapturous. “Oh, Autumn! Autumn!—What is the Spring to me?” she beseeched in one poem, denigrating mud season like a true Mainer. In another of her many autumn verses, she extolled the season’s stillness, which “will lie upon the spirit like that haze / touching far islands on fine autumn days.” Growing up, Millay glimpsed far islands from the wooded Camden Hills, which seemed, in the fall, to “ache and sag and all but cry with color,” as she wrote in “God’s World,” one of her best-known works. Wander Camden and its surrounding towns — arcadian hamlets like Lincolnville, Hope, Union, and Rockport — during foliage season, and it’s easy to see what left Millay so euphoric. From the harbors to the hilltops to the rolling pastures, from the vibrant hues of the early season to the rustier tones of its waning days, there is a romance to autumn in the Camden Hills that no place in New England can match.

Looking towards distant Mount Pleasant from Union’s Coggins Hill.

For the Active Leaf Peeper

STAY at the Captain Swift Inn (72 Elm St., Camden; 207-230-4028) and take advantage of the loaner bikes that innkeepers Jeff and Shelly Cramp keep on hand for guests. Hang a right just down the block, on Union Street, to pedal a four-ish–mile circuit through Rockport (a loop with Russell Avenue and Chestnut Street) that passes the leafy pastures, stone walls, and Belted Galloways at Aldermere Farm (70 Russell Ave., Rockport; 207-236-2739). Back at the inn, a gorgeously restored 1810 Colonial, bring a drink from the bar out to the side yard for lawn games, then settle by the firepit when it gets too dark for bocce.

HIKE some of the 30 miles of trails at Camden Hills State Park (280 Belfast Rd.; 207-236-0849), undoubtedly the best place in the area for sweeping foliage views. Yes, anyone with wheels can drive a mile and a half up the Mount Battie Auto Road, but you’ll appreciate the views of Camden Harbor and Penobscot Bay much more for hiking the steep, half-mile Mount Battie Trail to the overlook, from the trailhead at the end of Megunticook Street. Less crowded, equally rewarding is the view from Maiden Cliff, which takes in Megunticook Lake and, beyond, the wooded whalebacks of Bald and Ragged mountains. The shortest route is a moderately taxing mile (one way) from the trailhead on Route 52 right across from Barrett’s Cove public beach — which isn’t out of the question for a post-hike dip, if it’s warm-ish and you’re hardy. A gentler walk (or a lovely bike ride) is the stone-and-gravel Round the Mountain Trail, a wide, rolling path encircling Ragged Mountain, with views of tucked-away ponds (and possibly deer, eagles, and other wildlife) along the way. The best place to access is at the Thorndike Brook Trailhead, on Hope Street, in Hope.

PACK a picnic lunch from the Lincolnville General Store (269 Main St., Lincolnville; 207-763-4411), where the sandwiches in the cooler are prodigious (and the wine inventory is small but excellent). For all your gear needs, Maine Sport (115 Commercial St., Rockport; 207-236-7120) is the midcoast’s sprawling outdoor retailer. Rent just about anything at the flagship store, from tents to SUPs to e-bikes (retail-focused locations in downtown Camden and Rockland as well).

Fishing on the Megunticook River at Camden’s Hodson Park; the spoils of the season at Beth’s Farm Market, in Warren. Click to enlarge.

For the Leaf-Peeping Gourmand

STAY at the Hartstone Inn (41 Elm St., Camden; 207-236-4259), where even if you don’t reserve a table for one of chef Brian Granims’s elegant prix fixe dinners, the many packages and add-ons include fancy picnic lunches (to-go lobster rolls, anyone?) and wine and champagne pairings. Or book a room at 16 Bay View (16 Bay View St., Camden; 844-213-7990), right in the heart of Camden’s waterfront dining strip, with two snazzy in-house small-plates bars: the clubby Vintage Room and the View, a covered rooftop terrace with a fun craft-cocktail menu.

DINE your way across Camden, which, for a town of fewer than 5,000, hosts an outsize amount of culinary talent. Highlights include the intimate, authentic Thai dishes at Paula Palakawong and chef Bas Nakjaroen’s perennial James Beard Award nominee Long Grain (20 Washington St., Camden; 207-236-9001), and standout brasserie fare at the lovely, low-lit Franny’s Bistro (55 Chestnut St., Camden; 207-230-8199). Outside of town, 18 Central (18 Central St., Rockport; 207-466-9055) and Primo (2 Main St., Rockland; 207-596-0770) are both date-night destinations that make the most of their settings — the former a raw bar and upscale grill overlooking Rockport Harbor, the latter an Italian-influenced farm-to-table temple on its very own farm.

DRINK what’s locally brewed, vinted, or distilled in a few quintessentially Maine settings. Organic, rustic wines and ciders are on offer at Oyster River Winegrowers’ Camden tasting room (31 Elm St.), an unassuming former antique shop with the only courtyard tippling on the town’s main drag. For something stronger, try nano-distillery Luce Spirits (474 Main St., Rockland), which mixes cocktails with its house aquavit and juniper gin in a speakeasy-ish space in downtown Rockland. Or the brand-new Barren’s Distillery and Restaurant (2 Wayfarer Dr., Camden; 207-230-8422), the best barstool in town for views of both the harbor and the Camden Hills. For a truly singular happy-hour setting, several of those schooners in the harbor host BYOB sunset cruises — and the Schooner Appledore (207-593-2023) has a full bar.

The view from Rockport’s Mount Pleasant, including Grassy Pond and the ledges of Ragged Mountain, the Eastern Seaboard’s fourth-highest peak; the 26-foot stone tower atop Mount Battie was built in 1921 to honor veterans of the Great War. Click to enlarge.

For Those With Little Leaf Peepers

STAY at the Camden Maine Riverhouse Hotel (11 Tannery Ln., Camden; 207-236-0500) or the Country Inn at Camden Rockport (8 Country Inn Way, Rockport; 207-236-2725). The former is in the heart of downtown Camden, the latter a few minutes’ drive, but both have the rarest of Camden amenities: an indoor pool. Through September, there’s an ice-cream stand across a footbridge from the Riverhouse and a mini-golf course next door to the Country Inn — alas, they’re both closed come October and peak leaf-peeping season.

TREAT yourself to some absurdly decadent and photogenic cupcakes at Laugh Loud Smile Big (38 Main St., Camden; 207-230-7001), the confectioner that dares to ask, what if a whoopie pie were a cupcake? (It’d have marshmallow-fluff buttercream between two cakey chocolate halves.) The only more attractive bakery case on the midcoast is at Ruckus Donuts (377 Main St., Rockland; 207-975-4388), where the smart money is the maple cream — buttermilk brioche pastry filled with Italian buttercream and topped with a maple glaze made from Maine’s Frontier Sugarworks organic syrup.

WANDER the 10-acre corn maze at Beth’s Farm Market (1986 Western Rd., Warren; 207-273-3695), where you can stock up on apples and pumpkin treats and other seasonal bounty while the kids are lost in the stalks or atop the straw-bale pyramid or enjoying a hayride. The wooded 1.4-mile trail at the Erickson Fields Preserve (164 West St., Rockport) is not only gentle enough for any age, it’s marked here and there by kiosks with pages from a storybook by Maine children’s author Liza Gardner Walsh, so little hikers can read about the fall fairy gathering as they roam the woods.

RIDE the triple chairlift up and down Ragged Mountain at Camden Snow Bowl (20 Barnestown Rd., Camden; 207-236-3438) on Sundays in October for some of the finest foliage views — and Penobscot Bay overlooks — you can get without breaking a sweat.

The long ridge of 1,385-foot Mount Megunticook looms behind Camden Snow Bowl, where chairlift riders enjoy some of the area’s best foliage views.

For the Cultured Leaf Peeper

STAY at boutique-y Whitehall (52 High St., Camden; 207-236-3391), where poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once entertained guests with verse — she’s honored with a portrait and display amid the lobby’s mod and splashy furnishings. Contemporary Maine artists fill the walls there and at 250 Main (250 Main St., Rockland; 207-594-5994), which has a similarly chic vibe and industrial-whimsical décor. Whitehall has a wraparound porch; 250 Maine has a rooftop patio overlooking Penobscot Bay — choose wisely.

DINE at Sterlingtown Public House (289 Common Rd., Union; 207-785-0037) on Union’s historic common, surrounded by landmarks from the earliest days of Union, née Sterlingtown, immortalized in Ben Ames Williams’s 1940 historical novel Come Spring. The gastropub’s huge patio is one of the prettiest spots on the midcoast to eat al fresco (and enjoy an impressive list of Maine beers), with tableside firepits under twinkle lights and a backyard view sloping down to the wooded bank of the St. George River. Ames Williams’s pioneer protagonists never ate or drank so well, but their family homestead is just down the street, now home to the Union Historical Society (343 Common Rd., Union; 207-785-5444 ), which has some fascinating displays about the settlement era.

VIEW some of Maine’s most significant contributions to the art world at the Farnsworth Art Museum (16 Museum St., Rockland; 207-596-6457). Down the block, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (21 Winter St., Rockland; 207-701-5005) displays Alison Hildreth‘s giant astronomical paintings, inspired by images from NASA’s Webb telescope. Between the two, Dowling Walsh Gallery (365 Main St., Rockland; 207-596-0084) features, among others, the work of Portland artist Will Sears, known for his colorful, geometric sign art and murals.

The squat lighthouse on Curtis Island welcomes mariners to Camden Harbor and can be admired from an overlook on Bay View Street; the Lincolnville General Store anchors Lincolnville Center. Click to enlarge.

For the Leaf Peeper Who Has Everything

STAY at the Camden Harbour Inn (83 Bay View St., Camden; 207-236-4200), an oh-so-stylish luxury property steps from the waterfront, with a fine view of the hills and all the perks money can buy, including top-notch fine dining at Natalie’s (207-236-7008) and a world-class spa. In Rockport, the Samoset Resort (220 Warrenton St., Rockport; 207-594-2511) dates to 1889 but has a fresh seaside-swank motif after a top-down renovation a few years back — also, a lauded, 18-hole waterfront golf course.

CRUISE up and down the midcoast on a multi-day windjammer foliage cruise. Rockland’s Schooner Stephen Taber (207-594-4723) and Camden’s Windjammer Angelique (800-282-9989) are among the tall ships offering three- and four-day fall-color trips, with simple but well-appointed cabins and surprisingly lavish meals. When you’re not ogling the trees inland, watch for seals and porpoises, ospreys and eagles, and the occasional whale.

FLY aboard a Penobscot Island Air (21 Terminal Ln., Owls Head; 207-596-7500) Cessna for a perspective like no other of greater Camden in its autumn splendor. From the air, the entire region is an unfurling tapestry of reds and greens and golds, with the sapphire of the bay right beside. Even Edna St. Vincent Millay might have been at a loss for words.

The paddocks and pastures of Horses with Hope Equine Rescue, at Broadview Farm.

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