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Mary Ruoff

Freelance writer Mary Ruoff of Belfast wrote the "Way Down East" chapter of Fodor's "Maine Coast" travel guide and has contributed Maine content to other Fodor's guides.

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Posted: September 10, 2015

5 Maine scenic byways that are absolutely worth the drive

There’s no better time than fall to get out and explore these ribbons of roadway. On and off these roads, opportunities abound for travelers to enjoy the great outdoors and explore local culture and history.

Written by: Mary Ruoff
Bicycling is popular on the six-mile one-way road in the Schoodic Section of Acadia National Park, part of Schoodic National Scenic Byway. Cyclists can do an 11.5-mile loop on park, local and state roads or combine a bike ride with one on the free Island Explorer buses, which have bike racks. Photo courtesy of Maine Department of Transportation

Bicycling is popular on the six-mile one-way road in the Schoodic Section of Acadia National Park, part of Schoodic National Scenic Byway. Cyclists can do an 11.5-mile loop on park, local and state roads or combine a bike ride with one on the free Island Explorer buses, which have bike racks. Photo courtesy of Maine Department of Transportation

With so much natural beauty, it’s no surprise that Maine is home to four of the country’s 150 national scenic byways – more than every northeastern state except Maryland. The state has also crowned 10 other routes as Maine Scenic Byways. None of the 14 drives are in southern or midcoast Maine, but that shouldn’t be surprising either. Maine’s scenic byways are clustered in its most rural and remote regions, from the western mountains to the North Woods to Aroostook County to Down East.

On and off these roads, opportunities abound for travelers to enjoy the great outdoors and explore local culture and history. There’s no better time than fall to get out and explore these ribbons of roadway (www.exploremaine.org/byways,www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways)

We’ve profiled five byways, with a nod to geographic diversity. Left off the list because readers have likely traveled it is the Acadia All-American Road through Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. This national byway has the “All-American” moniker because, when it comes to byways, it’s a crown jewel.


RANGELEY LAKES NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY

Distance/location: 36 miles through the Rangeley area on Routes 17 and 4 (an adjoining 16 miles running north from Mexico on Route 17 has state byway status only). rlht.org/scenic-byways and www.rangeleymaine.com

Height of Land on Route 17, the byway’s literal pinnacle and one of New England’s best mountain overlooks, got a much-needed overhaul a few years ago. Detailed informational placards were installed, and it’s now much safer to stop. Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson lakes sprawl in forestland below; mountain views rumble to New Hampshire and Canada on clear days. North of here another overlook reveals Rangeley, a four-season resort town on Route 4 beside its namesake lake – one of 100-plus interconnected lakes and ponds in these parts. Tiny Oquossoc, with Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum right at the juncture of Routes 17 and 4, invites a stop. There’s great hiking all around the Rangeley region: Appalachian Trail (crosses the byway twice), Bald Mountain Public Reserved Land, Rangeley Lake State Park, Rangeley Lake Heritage Trust lands, Wilhelm Reich Museum grounds, Saddleback ski resort. South of Height of Land, as Route 17 flows through Swift River Valley, Coos Canyon rest area beckons with paths, swimming holes and falls. So does Smalls Falls rest area on Route 4 in Madrid, the byway’s eastern terminus.

OLD CANADA ROAD NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY

Distance/location: 78 miles on U.S. 201 from Solon to the Canada border (Jackman Station). oldcanadaroadscenicbyway.com and forksarea.com

This section of U.S. 201 is one of Maine’s most spectacular and historic roads, having served as an important trade and immigration route in the 1800s. For 30 miles traveling north from Solon to The Forks, the Kennebec River is often in view. Above and along Wyman Lake (formed by a man-made dam in the river), the byway hugs the Kennebec’s eastern shore for miles. As historic markers note, Benedict Arnold’s failed Quebec City expedition traveled the river in bateaus during the American Revolution. Dead River joins the Kennebec at The Forks, a white-water rafting and four-season recreation hub. Popular Moxie Falls, one of several waterfalls near the byway, is in The Forks area. From here the byway leaves the rivers for what feels like true mountain wilderness – heed moose warnings! Don’t miss Attean Overlook before Jackman. Beyond this remote townie the Moose River Valley, the road climbs into the mountains on the border approach.

ST. JOHN VALLEY CULTURAL SCENIC BYWAY

Distance/location: 104 miles on Route 161, U.S. 1, Route 162 and U.S. 1A along the St. John River Valley with spurs to Long Lake and Cyr Plantation. nps.gov/maac (National Park Service site supporting Acadian cultural attractions), visitaroostook.com

One of Maine’s newest byways (no brochure yet), this route follows the St. John River, an international boundary, in northernmost Aroostook County. French-speaking Acadians settled on both sides of the waterway a few decades after being forced to leave English-controlled Nova Scotia in 1755. The state’s only “cultural'” scenic byway has 17 “wayside exhibits” with interpretive panels. They elaborate on the distinctive Acadian and French-Canadian culture and history of the valley, where the international border was disputed until 1842. Also highlighted is the history of the area’s Native American inhabitants and of Scotch-Irish settlers in tiny Allagash at the byway’s western end. Ornate Catholic churches herald valley towns where visitors will likely hear French spoken. The most impressive architecturally, no longer an active church, houses Musée culturel du Mont-Carmel in Lille (closed for the season), one of the byway’s many local history museums.

SCHOODIC NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY

Distance/location: 29 miles from Hancock to Prospect Harbor via U.S. 1 and Route 186. schoodicbyway.org and acadia-schoodic.org

This byway includes the 6-mile one-way loop road in Acadia National Park’s Schoodic section, wending past spruce-fir forest, marshland, coves, harbors and a smattering of islands, including Mark Island, home to Winter Harbor Light. At Schoodic Point, surf pounds granite ledges sloped toward open ocean. Humped mountains on Mount Desert Island, the park’s home base, can be seen across Frenchman Bay and pop in and out of view as the byway follows U.S. 1 in Sullivan before heading down the peninsula on Route 186. There are lots of interesting granite-framed interpretive panels at a pullout here and at the byway’s Hancock-Sullivan Bridge gateway. Galleries, inns and restaurants are tucked around Schoodic Peninsula. Winter Harbor is the commercial center and neighboring Gouldsboro has several villages. The local fishing culture is best observed in Prospect Harbor. Look for its namesake lighthouse (closed to the public) across the water from the byway. Free Island Explorer buses serve the park and nearby villages through Columbus Day.

BOLD COAST SCENIC BYWAY

Distance/location: 125 miles in Washington County on U.S. 1 and peninsular and island roads. boldcoastbyway.com and downeastacadia.com

One of the state’s newest byways is also its longest. Essentially a travel guide to Washington County’s vast coastal region, it helps tourists explore towns and remote peninsulas where signage and visitor information can be harder to come by than in more-visited locales. The flip side to that? A lack of crowds and abundant natural beauty rivaling better-known Acadia. It can be found in conservancy lands, state parks and reserves, local parks and federal wildlife refuges. The Bold Coast moniker hails from the towering ocean cliffs between Lubec and Cutler, home to Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land. Down East culture is also part of Washington County’s allure. Learn about it in excellent small museums and experience it yourself: picking blueberries, spotting clam diggers, getting out on the water. The byway begins in Milbridge on U.S. 1 and ventures off the highway to several towns, including Lubec and Eastport (the byway’s northern terminus), both with fun, art-infused waterfront downtowns. Consider a side trip to Jasper Beach, on the peninsula below history-rich Machias.

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