When my family started traveling to Maine state parks and historic sites with passport in hand – the Maine State Parks Passport, that is – I half-joked to my husband that we’d have the book filled by the time our 12-year-old son graduates from high school. That was a few years ago. Now I’m cautiously optimistic we can do it sooner than that.
Sure, my family loves the idea of making it to every state park and historic site and getting the requisite stamps. But just visiting most would be pretty epic (as my son and his friends, some of whom have joined us on our quest, would say).
“It takes a long time, but it’s worth it,” said Dima, our only child, who has visited a dozen parks and historic sites so far. He hustles to the passport station – a brown padlocked box with an ink stamper inside – as soon as we arrive at one of the 48 participating locales (all 36 state parks except privately managed Scarborough Beach State Park and most of the historic sites; also excluded is Baxter State Park, which is run by its own authority, not the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands).
Family members can share a passport or have one for each person or child. Earn enough stamps (in a single passport) and you’ll be rewarded with more than just memories of leisurely beach walks or vigorous mountain hikes. Eight stamps net a sticker, 16 a patch, 24 a water bottle, 32 a day-use pass and 40 two nights of camping. Get all 48 for the grand prize: a state parks vehicle pass, good for a year and valued at $70.
Altogether the prizes are worth more than $100. Park officials hope park users keep that in mind when paying the $1 fee (charged once, for acquiring a passport) instituted last year. The blue booklets (the first batch was green) are sold at most of the participating parks and historic sites, which “operate” the passport stations from mid-May through September.
The conveniently located stations are easy to find, though we usually ask a park employee (some historic sites and a few parks don’t have full-time staff) to point us in the right direction. You’ll need the “secret” code – the year a park or historic site was founded – to open the padlock. Not to worry: it’s at the top of each locale’s passport page. At the bottom is a spot for the stamp and a few blank lines to record memories of your visit.
Business sponsorships covered the program’s cost in the past, but the bureau started charging for the booklets to make it more sustainable. “It’s really been a successful program,” said Gary Best, acting regional manager for Maine State Parks and Historic Sites, Southern Region. “We hope that the $1 (fee) per passport doesn’t slow things down. We want to keep this program going for the long term.”
Started in 2010 to celebrate the park system’s 75th anniversary, the program was born after a park official learned about the U.S. Lighthouse Society Passport Program and had a “lightbulb moment.” Passports were to expire after the anniversary year, but the bureau quickly decided to make the program permanent. An estimated 150,000 passports are in circulation.
“When we launched it we thought it would be well received, but, boy, it exceeded our expectations. It continues to be a great success,” said Best. “It gives anyone who does it a real sense of pride in Maine. You get to see so many resources: beaches (lake and ocean), the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (a 92-mile corridor of rivers, streams, lakes and ponds in Northern Maine; the less well-known Androscoggin Riverlands is also a waterway park), the Mahoosuc mountains (hike them at Grafton Notch State Park near Bethel).”
Yes, we’ve earned a few stamps by revisiting parks near our hometown of Belfast, but our passport has also led us off the beaten path. We relished a chance to return to Roque Bluffs State Park outside Machias. Here, a half-mile-long sandy ocean beach and a freshwater swimming pond sit on opposite sides of the peninsular road. One of my favorite excursions was a first-time trip to Holbrook Island Sanctuary (mostly on the mainland despite its name) at the bottom of the Blue Hill Peninsula on sleepy Cape Rosier. There isn’t a playground at this nontraditional state park, but with lots of kid-friendly short hikes to choose from and a shaded picnic area perched above a small beach, we didn’t mind.
The passport program has brought more people to Penobscot Bay’s Warren Island State Park and Casco Bay’s Eagle Island State Historic Site, both only accessible by water. “It’s really allowed people to discover or rediscover their state parks,” said Best. “There are a lot of state parks and historic sites that people didn’t know about or haven’t been to since they were a kid.”