Playing in the dirt to mine for Maine gems is what makes Mt. Apatite such a fun place to visit. Grab a backpack, a hammer and get your treasure-hunting self to Auburn. On your way back to Portland, take a trip down the scenic Route 100 and stop at Fat Guys for burgers and fries and its next door neighbor, Hodgman’s, for some frozen custard.
DESTINATION: Mount Apatite in Auburn (45-minute drive from Portland), then food stops in New Gloucester (which is on the return trip south if you came from the Portland area).
HOW MUCH: There’s no charge to rock hound at Mount Apatite, but you will need to bring your own supplies. Keep $15 handy for burgers, fries, custard, and anything else you decide to eat.
WHO: Anyone. No special skills required, other than the ability to walk a trail and hammer the dickens out of some rock.
WHEN: Rock hound any day of the week from dawn to dusk when the weather’s good. The burger joint and custard shop are open Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. respectively.
Mount Apatite is managed by the city of Auburn and is open to the public. According to the Maine Geographical Survey, visitors can “use hand tools to explore for mineral and gem specimens to a depth of two feet.” There are several mining sites in Maine, but very few are open to the public for self-guided exploring. So be kind to the land and be respectful when digging for your treasures.
Although the mountain was named after a deep purple crystal (apatite is a phosphate mineral), the most common minerals my family has found in the quarries around the mountain are feldspar, quartz and the sparkling, flaky mica. We bring along a hammer that has a claw (great for not only splitting open rocks with the hammer but also digging with the claw), a chisel to split the rocks, a pair of work gloves and a gallon-size plastic bag (freezer quality) for carrying our bounty back home. Occasionally we have found trace amounts of garnet as well as green and watermelon-colored tourmaline. But once you get going, you’ll discover all sorts of interesting rocks with a mix of different colors that will keep you interested in digging for more.
It’s a short hike to the quarries from the trailhead but you have to walk through the Army National Guard post to get to the public trails. There are a bunch of warning signs (no trespassing and keep out) but it’s OK. Just walk through the opening in the gate until you get to the public lands (about 1/4 mile from the trail head) and stay on the marked trails.
You’ll want to stay on that main trail (it’s uphill but not too steep) until you see a small stone bridge at a fork in the trail. Take a left and follow that narrow trail to the quarries. There are no signs to identify the quarry but the piles of rocks everywhere will confirm you’ve arrived.
There are several quarries to explore but it can be easy to get turned around in this area so make note of the trail blazes to get yourself back to the main trail.
As for what to do with your newly found treasures? My daughters and I split the pieces into sizes we can work with to make “signature piece” necklaces (a single stone setting). We use wire from the craft store to wrap the rock and a cord or chain to finish the necklace. Sometimes we simply keep the stone in its original state because it’s just cool to look at on our bookshelf.
If you’re looking for an introduction to mineral collecting in Maine, the state has a handy online guide you can download at www.maine.gov
The Mt. Apatite trailhead is at the Army National Guard station, Mt. Apatite Road, Auburn | Open dawn to dusk | No entry fee (but don’t forget to bring your own tools!) | www.maine.gov/dacf/mgs/explore/minerals
I prefer to avoid the $2.25 Turnpike toll between Portland and Auburn and found Route 100 is scenic ride south that offers a quick lunch stop. The food truck is parked next to Hodgman’s Frozen Custard so it’s super convenient to get lunch and dessert in one spot. Fat Guys serve burgers, hot dogs, steak and cheese and friend seafood. They provide all the condiments in a sheltered picnic area, which is a great place to get out of the sun to eat your grub. What was most notable to my daughter and I about this stop was the French fries. They were crisp on the outside but bite into them and they melted in your mouth. The onion rings ordered by a patron sitting near us got equally high marks when I asked her if those rings were as good as they looked. She enthusiastically agreed. (Prices are budget friendly: $3.50 for a burger and $3.50 for a small French fry)
Fat Guys Concessions | 1108 Lewiston Road, New Gloucester | Open Wednesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., seasonally | www.facebook.com/FAT-GUYS-Concessions
Despite many friends raving about Hodgman’s, I had never actually stopped to try it, until now. The flavor options were limited to vanilla, chocolate and a flavor of the day. But there are many ways beyond a simple cone to enjoy this frozen custard. The menu options included a float, frappe, banana boats, sundaes, “thunderstorms,” “strawana” and more offerings you’ll have to ask your server to explain. My daughter and I stuck to a simple dish of chocolate. It was more the consistency of a soft serve but richier and creamier. Not only does this place share an address with Fat Guys, they also have similar hours. A large custard (in a dish or cone) is $3.50.
Hodgman’s Frozen Custard | 1108 Lewiston Road, New Gloucester | Open Wednesday to Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., seasonally | www.facebook.com/Hodgmans-Frozen-Custard
Get out of dodge (at least for a little while) with a mini adventure. These excursions can be done in a day – sometimes an afternoon – and will hopefully lead you to places you’ve never been. This is Maine, after all, and we all need some adventuring.