The automobile has always been the leaf peeper's vehicle of choice. Touring the countryside from the seat of a car allows you to explore vast amounts of terrain while at the same time letting you see the great annual foliage show up close. You can customize your itinerary as the mood strikes you, zipping off down this dirt road or that and stopping whenever you wish with the whimsy of the season. You can travel at your own pace and linger as long as you like in any particular spot. It's ideal. And just about any road can take you to where you want to go at this time of year — to see the leaves as they complete their dramatic fall finale.Maine has more scenic byways than you can count, some of which have been recognized at the state and national levels for their beauty.
Acadia and Mount Desert Island are stunning at any time of year. The park's soaring peaks and surging surf don't need gobs of color to impress — but it sure doesn't hurt. People who visit in summer but neglect the fall do themselves a disservice. Not only does Mount Desert present explorers with an autumn spectacular, but it's also much less crowded than during high season. Buy yourself a one-week pass to Acadia and get ready to rubberneck.
Take Route 3 onto the island and follow it to the left after you cross the bridge from Trenton (the picnic area on Thompson Island is a nice place for an alfresco, by the way). Follow the road toward Bar Harbor and savor the ocean vistas that begin to open up at Hulls Cove. The blue waves of the Atlantic behind the red maples along the road here are so vivid as to be almost 3D. If you're new to Acadia, the Hulls Cove Visitors Center, on your right, is a handy stop for information.
Keep heading along Route 3, and soon you'll begin to see the leafy streets of Bar Harbor. On your left as you head into town will be the College of the Atlantic. A fine institution of higher learning, the school also has a nifty museum — the George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History (207-288-5015) — which displays flora and fauna native to the island.
And then it's on into Bar Harbor. Though it quiets down after the heat and bustle of summer, this resort community doesn't go into dormancy the way it once did; its shops and restaurants and inns will be swinging right through leaf-peeping season at least. If your legs need stretching at this point, hit the sidewalks or try the Shore Path, a walkway that's a little less than a mile long and gets you up close and personal with Frenchman Bay and all sorts of impressive waterfront homes.
Hop back into the car when you're ready for the real show to begin. The "Fasten Your Seatbelts" cliché is in order here. Head out of town on Route 3 and follow signs for Acadia. Skip onto the park's famed Loop Road and begin a clockwise tour. Resplendent with the glow of autumn, the mountains and headlands conspire with the booming surf to form a backdrop that is among the finest foliage drives anywhere in the nation. There are too many highlights to mention, but be sure to make it to Jordan Pond for a glimpse of the bonbon-like Bubbles; to Sargent Drive, which cuts along Somes Sound, the only fjord on the East Coast; to Eagle Lake, which is ringed by hardwoods; and to Cadillac Mountain, from which you can survey a mosaic of reds, yellows, greens, and blues the likes of which you'll likely never see anywhere else.
Before you leave the island, be sure to allow ample time to circumnavigate Mount Desert's western "Quiet Side," the half of the island that is not home to Bar Harbor. The mountains here are just as striking, the harbors just as pretty, and the villages are just as picturesque.
Maine's Moose Alley
Route 201 wasn't designated a scenic highway for nothin'. In fact this Kennebec Valley corridor was recognized not only by the state of Maine as part of its scenic highways program, but it was also given the nod by the feds as a national scenic byway. And there's arguably no better time to see this woodsy region than in autumn, when it's all but illuminated by the glowing leaves.
An extraordinary fall loop can be made by tracking the Kennebec River to its source at Moosehead Lake. Two-lane Route 201 follows the river from Skowhegan all the way north to The Forks, where it turns right and flows into Maine's great lake (it's actually pouring out of the gigantic basin, of course, but for the purposes of our daytrip, we'll follow it north).
Get off the highway in Skowhegan, a Maine mill town if ever there was one. The city has almost more scruffy edge-of-the-woods character than it can contain and with its big Indian (the wooden one carved by famed sculptor Blackie Langlais in a parking lot beside the road) and big falls, it's a fun place to visit.
Turn north onto Route 201 and follow the Kennebec for miles, playing peekaboo with the river through the multicolored leaves. Before long you'll pass through Solon, with its meeting house and cluster of pretty old buildings downtown. Then it's on to the funky frontier towns of Bingham and Moscow, home of massive Wyman Dam and its hydroelectric turbines. Stop at Thompson's (207-672-3330) for some donuts — they're a famous treat — and then take in the prospect of Wyman Lake.
Route 201 was roughly the route of Benedict Arnold's ill-fated march to Quebec in 1775, and you'll see historic markers all along the way. The mountains begin to rise above the river here, giving the valley a pronounced V-shape. With their backs covered in brilliant hardwoods, they put on quite a show. The road continues to hug the river, curving with it this way and that until you come to Caratunk. Take a right and make the short loop through the village, all old homes and metal roofs, with a cool general store and twice-pleasant Pleasant Pond.
Then continue north to The Forks, the tiny river town where the Kennebec meets the Dead River. This is ground zero for whitewater rafting, and many outfitters continue making runs well into the fall. (Call Raft Maine at 800-723-8633 for more information.) Keep heading north until you make it to Jackman, a rugged town on Wood Pond that is the last real populated place before you hit the Quebec border. Watch out for moose.
At Jackman make a ninety-degree right turn onto Route 6 and take it through the handsome hinterlands to Rockwood, on the western shore of Moosehead Lake. Like its southerly counterpart, Greenville, Rockwood is a small outpost of a town hard by the shore of the lake, with a neat array of restaurants and shops. Across the blue expanse of water towers Mount Kineo with its 700-foot cliffs and its knob covered with resplendent flora at this time of year.
Then turn south and make your way to Greenville, a cul-de-sac of a community that wraps around the southern tip of the lake. Treat yourself to some broasted chicken at Flatlanders (207-695-3373) and consider a trip out on the steamer Katahdin (207-695-2716). And be sure to drive out toward Kokadjo along the Lily Bay Road, where the road climbs up and affords a jaw-dropping view of the lake.
Finish the journey by taking Route 6 back down through the towns of Monson and Abbott, before hopping onto Route 16 and heading to Kingsbury. From Route 16, you can reconnect with 201 in Bingham. From there you can drop back down to Skowhegan with the knowledge that you've seen a foliage display that is certified gold — and red and orange — on a national scale.
St. George River Ramble
Ah, Route 131. It's the great secret among midcoast explorers, a two-lane tarmac link between the scenic Waldo County highland towns of Montville and Searsmont and the riverine communities of Thomaston and St. George. On it you can travel from Appleton to Port Clyde in scenic splendor, and from it you can easily access the happening Penobscot Bay burgs of Belfast, Camden, or Rockland. This is a great help during the summer, when your other option, Route 1, is clogged with traffic, and it's even better in autumn, when the country road will be headspinningly beautiful.
Start your journey by taking Route 1 to Belfast, and leave yourself plenty of time to walk the city's rightly famous streets. It's one of the best architectural displays in the state. After lunch at Chase's Daily (207-338-0555), take Route 3 out to Belmont and make a left onto Route 131. Follow it down the hill into the pleasant village of Searsmont, past old Maine farmhouses, and get your first look at the St. George River (it's rather unassuming at this point). Then keep on to Appleton. The valley gets deeper here between well-known Appleton Ridge and its counterpart, Jones Hill, and the road is just high enough to offer some splendid looks at the hills and vale. Turn up on the ridge for some fantastic vistas.
The road from Searsmont to Union through Appleton is about twelve miles, and they are some of the finest miles of road you'll see at this time of year. Big expanses of meadow give way to forest that in turn gives way to wide-open panoramas of river and lake. (For an added bonus, take Route 235 south from Union a bit, as the lake views continue.) At Route 17, take a left between the dueling farm equipment dealers and go about a mile before taking a right onto Route 131 again.
The village of Thomaston is as historic-looking as they come, lined as it is with some of Maine's finest old homes, and there's even a nifty walking tour to let you in on the town's colorful history. Stop and have lunch at the Thomaston Café (207-354-8589), and you won't be disappointed. Go all the way through town and take a right at Montpelier (207-354-8062), the impressive replica of the Knox Mansion, and be on your way down the St. George peninsula. At Thomaston, the St. George expands from a narrow, fresh-water-stream to a saltwater inlet and it's something to see.
Along with Cushing on the other side of the river, this is Wyeth country. In the autumn the open fields turn tawny, like an Andrew Wyeth painting, and the leaves make their colorful transformation. As you head south, coves become visible on either side of the road, and by the time you hit Tenants Harbor the prospects of sea and islands become bigger and better. There are dozens of side roads worth exploring, from Westbrook Street to South Thomaston, Spruce Head Road to Spruce Head and Clark Island, the short lane to Martinsville and Mosquito Head and the Marshall Point road, home of Marshall Point Light, a frequently photographed lighthouse at the tip of Port Clyde Harbor. Be sure to poke around.
At Port Clyde allow time for soaking in the views from the harbor and of the Georges Islands. Buy a sandwich or pizza slice at the Port Clyde General Store (207-372-6543)— the lunch counter is very good — and sit on the dock. If you truly want a glorious autumnal escape, take the ferry across to Monhegan Island. Quiet and serene after a hectic summer, it's a trip you won't soon forget.
A Capital Day Trip
Augusta isn't usually on the itinerary of sightseers. The state's capital is rather staid, but it sits just to the east of some of Maine's finest lakes country, and within ten or fifteen miles in any direction there are some really pretty landscapes, especially in the fall. Here's one idea for a driving loop.
Begin by taking Route 202 out of the city toward Manchester and then taking a left onto Route 135, which traverses the western edge of Cobbosseecontee Lake, a long beautiful basin with some nice hills and views out across the water. The road passes through Winthrop Center, a small hamlet in the much bigger town of Winthrop, and then goes right into Monmouth, a picturesque community known for its apples and its local Shakespearean theater. The Monmouth Museum (207-933-2287) has swell exhibits about nineteenth-century Maine farm life, and it remains open on a limited schedule through the fall, so be sure to allow time for a stop. On your way out of town take the Blue Road, which becomes the Bog Road and connects with Route 106. Follow this quiet farm road to Leeds, a bucolic suburb of Lewiston that sits at the point where the Dead River hits Androscoggin Lake.
Continue on Route 106 to the north and you'll eventually cross Route 133. You can take this to the south and find the all-too-perfect lakeside community of Wayne, which straddles Androscoggin and Pocasset lakes, or go straight and make your way up to Route 17 in the under-appreciated town of Fayette. Its hills and ponds will have your head aswiveling, and then you'll make it to Kents Hill, the very pleasant home of an academy of the same name.
After that, you'll find yourself in Readfield proper (Kents Hill is a village in Readfield), a comely community on Maranacook Lake with enough hills and open space left to really show the leaves. Stop at the general store downtown to refresh and then ride the undulating countryside back down Route 17 until it connects with Route 202 for your return to Augusta.
Follow the Foothills
The Shakers knew what they were doing when they located their nineteenth-century colony on Sabbathday Lake. The New Gloucester lake is about as pretty a setting as you're going to find in Maine. This loop begins just off the Interstate in Gray. Hop off Interstate 95 and onto Route 26, following it north. This will take you past the Maine Wildlife Park (207-657-4977), a zoo of sorts run by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife where moose and bears go to recuperate before returning to the wild. From there it's only a few miles to the Shaker Village (207-926-4597) and Sabbathday Lake.
Allow yourself plenty of time to explore this unique community. Maine was once home to a handful of colonies of this Quaker offshoot, but there is only one left in the state, and the nation, these days. Known for their spare design style and simple living, the Shakers have a museum here chronicling their history. It's worth at least an hour of your time, and be sure to tour the several dwellings on the compound and walk the nature trails.
Then you're on your way north on Route 26 into Androscoggin County and the foothills of the western mountains. You could spend a lot of time looking into Maine history on this route, stopping at the Maine State Building in Poland Spring (207-998-4142) and the four-square village of Paris Hill as you drive north, or you could simply concentrate on the foliage.
You'll have ample opportunity to see the leaves — the western mountains are famous for their hardwoods. On your way north, make a quick tour of Range Ponds State Park in Poland (207-998-4104), and then continue on to the oft-overlooked twin towns of Norway and South Paris, both fine-looking communities. Then keep on to West Paris, stopping at Snow Falls Gorge, a pretty cleft that cuts thirty feet deep and is 100 yards long.
At West Paris, famous for Perham's (207-674-2342), its gem shop, cut over toward Bethel and the Sunday River (207-824-3000) ski area on Route 26. This is White Mountains country, and the peaks really begin to climb into the sky. Stop in Bethel for lunch and explore its streets of old homes and all-American town square before turning south on Route 35. The road here cuts right through the peaks, following the Crooked River all the way down to the idyllic communities of Waterford and Harrison, where lakes rule.
When you hit the funky town of Bridgton, with its cool downtown and antique shops, switch over to Route 302 for a run through the Sebago Lake area. That will take you to North Windham, where you can cut over to Gray and hit the turnpike for home, your head agog with the colors of the season. If you're like many people in Maine at this time of year, you'll already be planning your route for next fall.