There’s no better time than fall to plan a getaway or day trip to western Maine. Hardwoods abound in much of this mountainous region, especially when compared to the state’s coast, where evergreens hold sway over so much of the landscape. Come fall, gold, orange and red foliage hues glint off the myriad and often interconnected waters of an area stretching from the New Hampshire border northeast to the Forks and Jackman.
Back in the 1800s, well-to-do rusticators headed here for fresh air, outdoor recreation and a respite from the summer heat, as they also did along the coast. These days, places like Rangeley and Bethel are four-season resort towns.
With fall in mind, we’ve plotted a road map for visiting western Maine, a place that exudes remoteness, yet isn’t that far from the state’s population centers. Our pinpoints are on everything from scenic drives and parks to restaurants and lodgings. Enjoy the ride, and watch for moose!
For more information: Maine Office of Tourism, visitmaine.com (Lakes & Mountains and Kennebec Valley regions)
Be sure to take a byway
Two of Maine’s four national scenic byways (exploremaine.org/byways) are in western Maine: 36-mile Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway on Routes 17 and 4, and 78-mile Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway along Route 201 from Solon through the Forks to Jackman. Both can anchor a day – or several – of exploring. Height of Land on Route 17’s byway stretch is hands-down Maine’s best overlook. Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson lakes sprawl in a sea of forestland; mountain views rumble toward the New Hampshire border. There’s stone seating and informational placards; park here for a day hike on the nearby Appalachian Trail.
Attean Overlook outside Jackman on the Old Canada Road is also a jaw-dropper. Those mountains on the distant horizon are in Canada. The byway’s southern portion makes S-curves along the Kennebec River, following in the path of Benedict Arnold’s journey through the Maine wilderness, part of a failed Revolutionary War expedition to take Quebec City. The northern section of Route 27 Scenic Byway, from Kingfield through Stratton and Eustis to Coburn Gore, also follows a section of Arnold’s route. This serene drive passes through Carrabassett Valley and past Chain of Ponds. With nary a building in sight on the border approach, get swept back in time, as though Arnold himself could appear.
Bring your passport to venture into Canada for a loop route that takes in both “Arnold” byways, or use DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer to travel between them on back roads. The Appalachian Trail links all three byways.
Wonderful waterfalls of the west
Angel Falls between Mexico and Rangeley often tops lists of Maine’s best waterfalls, and many others in western Maine make the cut. A few miles off Route 17, Angel Falls has a 90-foot drop and a wing-like spread at high water, according to Maine Trail Finder (mainetrailfinder.com). Be careful on the approximately half-mile easy-to-moderate hike in, as you’ll have to cross streams.
Also dropping about 90 feet, Moxie Falls in the Forks area flows into a gorge a few miles off Route 201. Parking for the 1-mile easy-to-moderate trail to the falls is well marked; stairs lead to viewing platforms. A nice option for those with limited physical ability, or time, is Rumford Falls in the heart of the mill town for which the falls are named. Park at the visitor center on Route 2 and have a look, or hop on the 1.6-mile loop trail (sidewalks, gravel road). Dams break up what was a continuous cascade, but the Androscoggin River drops 176 feet and is still a sight to behold. Native Americans hunted and fished at this spot in centuries past. Maine Trail Finder has directions and information for these three falls.
Farm-to-gas station Gastronomy
Two Maine natives – veterans of the restaurant scene in Portland and at Sugarloaf – opened Coplin Dinner House (coplindinnerhouse.com) in Stratton in 2013, transforming a rundown farmhouse bought on the cheap into a thriving dinner-only restaurant several miles from the big ski resort. Business has boomed for owners Tony Rossi (chef) and Heidi Donovan (who runs the bar), partners in life and work, from the start. The menu features local ingredients as much as possible and Maine seafood. Dine in a farmhouse room with a tin ceiling or the window-lined enclosed porch. The establishment’s Tigerlily Pub has casual fare and Thursday specials.
Oxford House Inn (oxfordhouseinn.com) occupies a grand 1913 mission-style Main Street home in Fryeburg on the New Hampshire border. The first-floor restaurant is known for traditional yet contemporary dishes, some with Asian influences. From a porch room, diners can savor views across an intervale to the White Mountains. Or eat in the original dining or parlor rooms. Jonathan’s basement bistro (same menu) is another option. Opened in 1985, chef Jonathan Spak and his wife, Natalie, have owned Oxford House (four guest rooms on the second floor; stay-and-dine packages) since 2007.
Standard Gastropub (no website, on Facebook) serves up tasty comfort food in a gas station on Main Street in Bridgton, a town on Highland Lake that oozes Norman Rockwell charm. The fare (BBQ, burgers, Belgian fries, flash-fried Brussels sprouts, mac and cheese) is “scratch made and responsibly sourced.” There are a couple hundred craft beer choices from Maine and around the country.
Must-see mountain town
Stretched along Route 4, Rangeley has a lakefront park in the heart of town (Rangeley Lake State Park is across the water). There’s a hip bowling alley, a theater offering movies and live performances, shops with a woodsy vibe, and a nice mix of restaurants. Wilhelm Reich Museum has a hilltop observatory and exhibits about the controversial so-called orgone energy experiments of its founder, a psychoanalyst who studied charges flowing within the body in relation to certain emotions. It’s open Saturdays in September and has year-round public trails. Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc, a hamlet several miles west of the town center, is open into October. (Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce, rangeleymaine.com)
The Rangeley Inn (therangeleyinn.com) dates to around 1900. These days, eggshell blue paint shows off the porch-lined façade right along Main Street. New ownership has revitalized the historic hotel (rates $110 to $265 in recent years). There are 26 guest rooms and four suites in the main inn and 15 suites in a motel-style lodge out back on Haley Pond. Options like quiche and homemade scones step up the continental breakfast served in the elegant original dining room. A stone fireplace warms the tavern restaurant, which has rustic cuisine. (See our Maine Mini Adventure for more to do in Rangleley.)
Camp out or camp in
Cathedral Pines (gopinescamping.com) in Eustis on Flagstaff Lake has 123 campsites beneath a famous stand of old pines. Nearby mountains put on a colorful show for campers come fall at the popular, decades-old, nonprofit campground (rates $32 to $40, some sites with hookups). While the official closing date is Oct. 1, several sites are open through October (bathhouses are closed; outhouses, no staff). This isn’t on the website. Just call ahead or email, or call when you show up – there’s a note.
For a traditional sporting camp, try century-old Grant’s Kennebago Camps. Fly-fishing, for which Rangeley waters are famous, is just one of many activities there, where most of the 18 cabins are right on the namesake lake. There’s also paddling and sailing (small watercraft available through mid-September), hiking, swimming, photo excursions, moose watching, mountain biking and grouse hunting (October only). Rates ($165 to $195 nightly for adults, $60 children ages 7-12) include three meals served in a lakeside dining room with backcountry decor. Open through October.
Something in the air
Maine’s big ski resorts, Sunday River (sundayriver.com) outside Bethel and Sugarloaf (sugarloaf.com) in Carrabassett Valley near Kingfield run ziplines and scenic lift rides through the fall (Friday to Sunday until Oct. 8 at Sunday River, weekends through Oct. 8 at Sugarloaf). Acadian Seaplanes (acadianseaplanes.com) offers scenic trips over the Rangeley Lakes region through mid-October. Fly & Dine outings, which land visitors at a wilderness sporting camp for dinner, take off through the end of September.
Behold the Bethel area
Artist’s Bridge is outside Bethel a few miles from Route 2 near Sunday River ski resort. Road signs direct visitors to the beloved, often photographed covered bridge, built in 1872 and one of several in western Maine (maine.gov/mdot/historicbridges). In fall, colorful leaves offset the structure. Nearby Grafton Notch State Park (parksandlands.com) along Route 26 is a popular foliage drive with convenient waterfalls.
The rectangular green space in the heart of Bethel is classic New England, as is the town itself. Anchored by a gazebo, the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society (bethelhistorical.org, open most of the year) are on one side and the stately 1913 Bethel Inn Resort (bethelinn.com) on the other.
Last but not least …
Fryeburg Fair (fryeburgfair.org) starts and ends on a Sunday (Oct. 1-8 this year). It’s one of the nation’s most outstanding agricultural fairs and is the region’s go-to event. If you truly want to see all the best that western Maine has to offer, it might make the perfect start or end to your journey inland.