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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 2, 2016

Don’t bother planning, the Old Canada Road will take you where you want to go

The scenic byway winds through The Forks and leads to waterfalls.

Written by: Mary Ruoff

 

Route 201 S-curves along Wyman Lake, created by a man-made dam in the Kennebec River, on the Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy of The Forks Chamber of Commerce

Route 201 S-curves along Wyman Lake, created by a man-made dam in the Kennebec River, on the Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy of The Forks Chamber of Commerce

With hillside S-curves, mountain vistas, water views and waysides meant for lingering, Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway offers a classic road-trip experience. Some of Maine’s best waterfalls, and numerous others, are off the byway.

Starting 15 miles above Skowhegan in Solon and traveling 78 miles north to the Canadian border, the mountainous drive follows Route 201. The byway’s southern half flows up the eastern side of the Kennebec River to The Forks, a whitewater rafting base and low-key, four-season outdoor recreation hub. From here the roadway climbs to Jackman, also a year-round tourist destination, in the remote Moose River Valley.

At 10 or so scenic rest areas, overlooks and small parks along the byway, informational placards in English and French detail the region’s culture and history, from its logging heyday to the road’s role as a major Canadian immigration and trade route. They explain that many Quebecois walked to a new life as Maine mill-workers during the 1800s and how Benedict Arnold came up the Kennebec during the Revolutionary War, leading a military expedition in bateaux on his way to a failed Quebec City attack.

Gateway to the byway

Though the drive’s best scenery awaits, it’s easy to spend a day or a good chunk of it exploring in and around towns at the byway’s southern end. Several miles from Solon in Bingham, a stay in one of the new bunkhouses at outfitter North Country Rivers is inexpensive at only $28 per person. There are also platform tents, tent and RV sites and cabins. (See northcountryrivers.com.)

Unveiling the mountain valley ahead, Robbins Hill on Solon’s southern outskirts is the byway’s impressive gateway overlook, with trails and picnic spots. South Solon Meeting House, built in 1842, is open 24/7 — simply walk in to check out 1950s frescos painted by artists from Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. The Old Canada Road Historical Society on Sidney Street in Bingham, open Friday and Saturday, displays topographical maps and colorized historic photos of the region.

On the 7-mile Solon-to-Bingham Rail-Trail, the Kennebec is often in sight. Cross the river on Route 16 in Bingham to visit some delightful spots on the waterway’s west side. At the 40-foot-high Houston Brook Falls, soak under the cascade and hike above the drop. Just below the falls the stream flows into Wyman Lake, formed by a dam in the Kennebec. Pack a picnic to enjoy at nearby Wyman Lake Recreation Area, with one more dip in the waters or perhaps a paddle.

In Moscow, Bingham’s northern neighbor, turn off Route 201 onto Station Road beside the town office for a view of the massive dam and its Gothic City-ish hydroelectric station, completed in the early 1930s. But before leaving Bingham to continue up the byway, consider stocking up: Jimmy’s Market on Main Street is the last supermarket until Jackman. Williams’ General Store in Bingham’s town center sells fishing, hunting and camping supplies, plus some groceries and to-go sandwiches.

To The Forks

Old Canada Road’s prettiest stretch is from Moscow to The Forks. The byway hugs the Kennebec for miles along and above Wyman Lake, where S-curves and pullouts overlook the riverine body of water. In The Forks area, traditional Maine camps, country inns and outfitters (most with lodging and dining) are scattered through a narrow, steep-walled section of the river valley. Nearby lakes and ponds offer cabin rentals and sporting camps.

A fall scene on the Kennebec River at low flow (the river has scheduled dam releases) along the Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway in western Maine. Photo courtesy of The Forks Chamber of Commerce

A fall scene on the Kennebec River at low flow (the river has scheduled dam releases) along the Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway in western Maine. Photo courtesy of The Forks Chamber of Commerce

In Caratunk, between Moscow and The Forks, a historic site marks where Benedict Arnold’s soldiers began their arduous portage to the Dead River, ascending from a tiny cove stuck like a giant’s thumb print on the severely sloped western shore. No well-planned itinerary would suggest arriving at the byway in the evening without dinner plans, but going in search of a meal under a full moon became a highlight of a recent visit and brought to mind Arnold surveying the same ridgelines illuminated well past dusk.

Pick up the Appalachian Trail in Caratunk to hike up Pleasant Pond Mountain. To climb Bald Mountain, access the AT from Troutdale Road several miles from The Forks. Both peaks have sweeping views. Don’t miss Moxie Falls, a couple miles off the byway in The Forks area. Flowing into a gorge, the 92-foot drop is one of Maine’s highest. The family-friendly hike in, partly on stairs, takes about 15 minutes. The Dead River’s wide and spectacular Grand Falls is approximately 15 miles from Route 201, but the drive from West Forks on the dirt Lower Enchanted Road is around 40 minutes (with a short hike to falls).

In centuries past, log drives were big happenings on the Kennebec and Dead rivers, which converge in The Forks. Today, because of dam-controlled releases, the area is the Northeast’s premier whitewater rafting destination. The season runs from May to mid-October, with daily “mild-to-wild” trips through Kennebec River Gorge. The challenging Dead River (limited release days, the last two on Sept. 17 and Oct. 1) has the Northeast’s longest continuous whitewater at 16 miles.

Outfitters in these rugged parts equip, guide and offer packages for a host of activities, from tubing and stand-up paddle boarding to moose safaris and snowmobile tours to guided waterfall hikes and fishing trips. Overlooking the Kennebec in The Forks, Inn by the River, part of Three Rivers outfitters, has rooms and riverside cabins ($89 to $129, depending on the season and day of the week, www.threeriverswhitewater.com). A fireplace warms the restaurant for evening fine dining (most entrees, $21 to $25); order from the pub menu at lunch or dinner. Breakfast is also served, and Sunday brunch is the busiest meal.

There’s a great collection of old logging photos in the pub at The Forks’ down-home Marshall’s Inn (slow-cooked meat sandwiches, $9 to $12; winter menu entrees, about $18, www.marshallsinntheforks.me). The establishment lodged river drivers years ago and still offers no-frills rooms (just $25 per person, some shared and half baths).

Suites at Hawk’s Nest Lodge in West Forks, where the byway follows Dead River for a bit, have rustic touches like quilts and log headboards (most are $120 to $130 depending on the day of the week, www.hawksnestlodge.com). The gleaming “open timber” restaurant/pub is decorated with life-sized animal carvings, while the hum of water running in the not-so-dead river lulls diners on the big deck (entrees, $15–$20).

On the border

Heald Stream Falls is a few miles east of Route 201 via a dirt logging road above Jackman. Photo by Mary Ruoff

Heald Stream Falls is a few miles east of Route 201 via a dirt logging road above Jackman. Photo by Mary Ruoff

On its northern half, the byway skirts Parlin Pond en route to Attean Overlook. Canadian mountains sprawl on the horizon; mounts and lake-size ponds dot the foreground of the vista, one of Maine’s best. A few miles up the road in wide-open Jackman, Moose River flows into Big Wood Pond, which has a waterfront park. Several lodgings and restaurants front the byway in town. The deli at Bishop’s Store has a good reputation, especially for pizza; groceries, sporting goods and souvenirs are also sold.

Jackman Air’s float plane trips (starting at $60 per person, www.jackmanair.com) provide a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding forestland, mostly accessible via private logging roads open for public recreation. Beyond Jackman, where ATV riding and snowmobiling are big and folks come to fish, hunt, paddle and hike, Old Canada Road climbs into the mountains for a final crescendo. The Falls, a roadside scenic area, provides a convenient waterfall near the byway’s end at Jackman Station border crossing. Bike a nearby logging road to Heald Stream Falls, where Mother Nature’s rock wall resembles a patio wall that Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed.

Foliage usually peaks along the byway in late September and early October. Fantastic fall drives link Old Canada Road with nearby scenic byways. Moosehead Lake Scenic Byway on Route 15, a “Moose Alley,” joins Route 201 in Jackman. It’s 20 miles from Solon to Kingfield, the start of Maine High Peaks Scenic Byway (formerly State Route 27 Scenic Byway), which runs to the Coburn Gore border crossing and also follows part of Benedict Arnold’s route. For a loop trip on both byways, travel through Canada (bring your passport or passport card) via the resort town Lac-Megantic, site of 2013’s deadly oil tank explosion.

For more information: www.oldcanadaroadscenicbyway.com; www.exploremaine.org/byways; The Forks Area Chamber of Commerce, www.forksarea.com; Jackman-Moose River Region Chamber of Commerce, www.jackmanmaine.org

Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast.

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