You don’t have to have be an expert paddler to explore many of Maine’s waterways – and you don’t have to go far to find them.
Roughly 13 percent of Maine is covered by water, and if you’ve spent much time on our lakes, rivers and wetlands, you know that the watery parts of the state are some of its most gorgeous. You don’t have to have be an expert paddler to explore most of those waterways yourself and you don’t have to go far to find them. All you need is a canoe, a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard and some knowledge about where to go. There are plenty of great places to paddle within a short drive of Portland and lots of local outfitters that will rent you everything you need. [Find a place to rent: Where to rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboard in Maine]
Here are ten of the best paddling spots in southern Maine within a couple hours drive of Portland. All of these locations feature free parking and an easy launch site for paddlers. They also are areas that, when conditions are right, offer relatively protected waters that are well-suited for kayakers of all skill levels.
Keep in mind that paddling safely on any body of water requires some essential safety gear – most importantly, a personal flotation device – and some basic knowledge of how to use your canoe, kayak or SUP effectively. None of the paddles featured here venture off Maine’s coast, because paddling on the ocean, or any large body of water, requires a seaworthy vessel, more advanced skills and greater preparation. If you’d like to find an instructor near you who can teach you to paddle effectively and safely, or hire a guide to lead a paddling trip, check with the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides.
If you time the tides just right, you’ll ride the ebb tide down this narrow, winding wetland stream to its mouth beside Higgins Beach and then let the flood tide push you back up the river to your car. It’s more likely, though, that you’ll end up paddle against the current one way, so be prepared to paddle a little harder on one leg of your trip. Spurwink River is part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s a great wetland alternative to the nearby Scarborough Marsh. Be careful as you approach the end of the stream, though, because you’ll eventually face the open ocean and on many days you’ll find waves and swift currents.
About 20 minutes from Portland. Get directions
There are lots of great spots to paddle along the length of the Presumpscot River, which flows from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay in Portland. One of the most beautiful stretches lies just north of Westbrook and can be accessed at a public boat launch a few minutes drive from downtown. Don’t head downstream, because that will lead you over raging Sacarrapa Falls. Instead, paddle north against the light current to explore the miles of calm river. Then you’ll have the current with you on the way back.
About 20 minutes from Portland. Get directions
The Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center provides the perfect starting point for a foray into the labyrinth-like waterways of the state’s largest salt marsh. You can rent a boat right there, or sign up for a guided tour. The marsh provides critical habitat for a diverse range of birds, so this is prime setting for observing egrets, herons, glossy ibis and all sorts of shorebirds and waterfowl. Be especially careful as you get closer to the open waters at the mouth of the marsh, and always be aware of how tidal currents will affect your route.
About 25 minutes from Portland. Get directions
The town landing in downtown Damariscotta serves as the launch point for a paddle through the islands, oyster farms and fishing boats scattered throughout the Damariscotta River. If you head under the bridge to the right of the boat ramp on the landing, you’ll encounter the swiftwater of a tidal falls. A safer route takes you downstream. Since the river is tidal for it’s entire flow to the ocean near Boothbay, though, you could have the current against you depending on whether its ebbing or flooding. Take the tidal currents into account as you plan your paddle, and also steer clear of bigger boats heading in and out of the harbor. Midcoast Kayak rents kayaks and SUPs right next to the landing, and the friendly folks there can also provide tips on where to paddle. One fun destination: Dodge Point Preserve, a land trust parcel with a beach and trails along the west side of the river a few miles downstream.
About 1 hour from Portland. Get directions
When you launch a boat on the beach beside the Biscay Road in Bremen, you’re entering Biscay Pond, but you’re also connecting with the entire watershed of the Pemaquid River, which provides lots of options for your route. Just a short distance to your left you’ll find an outlet that leads you into Pemaquid Pond. And if you paddle the long length of Biscay Pond you can find your way into the Pemaquid River, which flows through the village of Bristol. If you’ve got a bike, consider dropping it off on one end or the other and then biking back to your car following a one-way paddle.
About one hour and 10 minutes from Portland. Get directions
Merrymeeting Bay is a very special place for a bunch of reasons. It’s the largest freshwater estuary north of the Chesapeake Bay, it’s the largest staging ground for migratory waterfowl in the Northeast and it forms the confluence of six rivers, including the Androscoggin and the Kennebec. It’s also filled with small islands and hidden estuaries for paddlers to explore and offers some of the best wildlife-viewing in the state. Bald eagles abound. The Bay Bridge Landing boat launch near the intersection between the Androscoggin River and the bay provides a good starting point that’s just minutes from downtown Brunswick. Merrymeeting Bay is a large body of water with tidal currents that make it slightly more challenging to paddle than the average lake. If you’re venturing out onto its most open stretches, make sure you have the skills and preparation to do so safely.
About 40 minutes from Portland. Get Directions
You’re sure to see lots of Osprey soaring overhead as you paddle the tidal New Meadows River, and there’s also a Bald Eagle nest adjacent to the Sawyer Point boat launch. You can follow the river all the way to Casco Bay if you have the skills, a seaworthy vessel and a full day for paddling. A more protected and shorter route would take you a few miles downstream to the sandy beach at privately-owned Thomas Point. Just across the river from the boat launch is Seaspray Kayaking, an outfitter that rents kayaks and SUPs and has it’s own dock on the river.
45 minutes from Portland. Get directions
Highland Lake is the biggest lake within a half hour drive of Portland, making it a popular, and sometimes crowded, spot. The lake is sprawling enough, though, that even on busy days it’s fairly easy for paddlers to find quiet spots and view loons, eagles, frogs and other wildlife. Highland Lake makes an ideal destination for a quick after-work paddle for Mainers in the Greater Portland region, but you can also spend a full day exploring its entire length. The parking lot can get crowded on hot summer days, so arrive early.
30 minutes from Portland. Get directions
A boat launch right beside route 85 in Raymond provides access to the southern tip of Crescent Lake, another paddling destination a short distance from Sebago Lake. You can paddle north from the launch and explore the lake, but a more interesting route will take you down Tenny Stream, which connects Crescent Lake to Panther Pond a couple miles away. Paddle along the shoreline to your right as you leave the launch and look for the very small outlet of the stream around the bend.
40 minutes from Portland. Get directions
Sebago Lake is the best-known and biggest lake in southern Maine. You’ll find lots of places to launch a boat along its shores, but if you want to get away from the crowds and the powerboats, and find more protection from strong winds, try heading to one of the smaller ponds or lakes nearby. Trickey Pond is just north of the big lake and it’s usually much more quiet and calm.
About one hour from Portland. Get directions
Check out this map, compiled by Sebago Trails Paddling Co. in Windham, for even more paddling suggestions
View Area Launches Near Sebago Trails Paddling, Windham, Maine in a larger map