Maine-based travel writer Hilary Nangle is the author of three Moon-series guidebooks to her home state: Moon Maine, Moon Coastal Maine, and Moon Acadia National Park. She writes regularly about Maine and other destinations for regional and national publications, and she’s the maven behind MaineTravelMaven.com.
When it comes to autumn’s annual leaf-peeper flashdance, Maine stages a foliage fantasia. In a state already renowned for stunning natural scenery, Maine’s four nationally designated scenic routes—two inland, two coastal—not only deliver the coveted mix of softwoods and hardwoods, but also tag historic, cultural and natural wonders that invite, if not demand, exploration.
These nationally lauded stars deliver a snapshot of Maine, compressing countless calendar-page and magazine-cover images into manageable drives. Sigh-worthy any time, during the first half of October, when brilliant reds, oranges and golds color forested mountains and hills, echo in lakes and rivers, and—bonus points—shimmer in island-salted coastal waters, they’re Impressionist masterpieces.
Did those island-salted coastal waters snag your attention? For foliage-painted mountains tumbling toward the sea, pair the 40-mile Acadia All-American Road with the 29-mile Schoodic National Scenic Byway, an Acadia National Park double-header that loops the rightly ballyhooed Park Roads in both the Mount Desert Island and mainland Schoodic Peninsula sections of the park.
The Acadia Road loops the eastern lobe of Mount Desert Island, taking in most of the park’s must-see natural wonders, as well as Bar Harbor. Sure, you can drive through the park in an hour or so, but don’t just do a drive-by: Hike a trail, pedal the Carriage Roads, dip toes in the waters at Sand Beach, feast on popovers at the Jordan Pond House, and catch sunrise or sunset from Cadillac Mountain’s summit. Allow time to nose around Bar Harbor, too. The downtown Abbe Museum is an excellent intro to Maine’s Native American heritage, and St. Saviour’s Church, across the street, is worth a gander for its 10 Tiffany stained-glass windows. Refresh with a walk along the historic, harbor-edging Shore Path, and then go wild at Mount Desert Island Ice Cream—I’ve yet to find anything that matches it for richness and creative flavors.
Many visitors to Acadia National Park limit explorations to Mount Desert Island. Don’t. Mosey the Schoodic Byway to the far-less-visited Schoodic section. This byway is punctuated with dreamy views across Frenchman Bay’s lobster buoy-dotted waters to the voluptuous bald peaks of Mount Desert Island, traditional fishing villages, lighthouses, inviting galleries and even a bona fide 5&10. The prize, of course, is the Schoodic Peninsula, a bony, pink granite-tipped finger studded with jack pine stands and a headland. Stop by Rockefeller Hall, a restored French Norman Revival-style mansion, with exhibits documenting Schoodic’s flora, fauna and intriguing Cold War-era history.
Inland, two traditional mountains, woods and water byways are appropriately attired for the autumn season. The 78-mile Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway dips and soars between Jackman and Solon, ebbing and flowing over color-draped mountains and by rivers, lakes and ponds. The seemingly endless panorama from Jackman’s Attean Lake Rest Area is alone worth the trip. In The Forks, Maine’s whitewater-rafting capital, detour for a hike into Moxie Falls, one of Maine’s highest cascades. After taking in the fall foliage, stop for a burger and brew at the Kennebec River Brew Pub or pick up picnic fixings at Berry’s Store to enjoy at the Wyman Lake Rest Area down the road. Between The Forks and Solon, the serpentine road parallels the free-flowing Kennebec River. In Solon, detour to the South Solon Meeting House. The solemn, traditional exterior gives no hints about its eye-candy interior: Nearly every inch of wall and ceiling is covered with frescoes, painted in the 1950s by artists from the Skowhegan School of Painting.
For a master class in eye-popping foliage, drive the 52-mile Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway, a dipsy-doodle through the state’s western mountains between Mexico and Madrid. Anglers and summer rusticators first inked the Rangeley Lakes on the map back in the late 1800s. They came for the clear air, fresh water and, especially, for the fishing, boating and hiking. Those same sporting opps still lure visitors today, but even if you’re not a sport, this route is killer. Must-stops include Height of Land and the Rangeley Scenic Overlook for staggering views over Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic Lakes; the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum, for the low-down on the region’s sporting luminaries; lunch at Bald Mountain Camps, a traditional lakefront Maine sporting camp; and Small’s Falls, a roadside series of cascades. If time allows, pan for gold in Coos Canyon, hike Bald Mountain or time-travel aboard the historic narrow-gauge Sandy River & Rangeley Railroad.
While each route can be easily driven in a day, those rewards increase when you allow time to enjoy the experiences along the way, from hiking to shopping to dining. And, although each of these nationally lauded routes stands alone, you can enhance the overall experience by pairing them with nearby Maine Scenic Byways.
- Connect the Acadia Road and Schoodic Scenic Byway with the Blackwoods Byway, which noodles through the mountain-and-lake-speckled wilderness of the Donnell Public Reserve Lands and/or add The Bold Coast Maine Scenic Byway, for a taste of rural DownEast, Maine, and views of crimson wild Maine blueberry bogs.
- Use the Route 27 Scenic Byway, another foliage showstopper, to help bridge the gap between the Old Canada Road and Rangeley Lakes byways.
Explore Maine has maps and links for Maine’s national and state scenic byways.
Maine Foliage tracks current foliage conditions statewide.
The DownEast Fisheries Trail highlights sights related to the state’s maritime heritage.
The Maine Ice Age Trail maps and explains Maine’s Ice Age-sculpted coastal landscape.