Guest contributor: Leigh D. on her road trip to Maine’s Acadia National Park
At the end of September, I began to get antsy for a long drive. Late nights at work during the week meant that my car was being neglected, and I could practically feel an angry glare whenever I walked past it in the darkness on my way home. I had also been spending far too much time indoors under the glow of fluorescent bulbs and was beginning to get a bit shaky. This alarmed me as I knew this was the onset of a serious condition – turbo deficiency. It was imperative that I immediately hit the road lest I become insane!
The doctor’s prescription for my state was a dose of fresh air and high mileage, so I made plans with a friend from LA to drive 700 miles to Acadia National Park in Maine. We set out in early October – me to cure my affliction, he to capture the New England foliage for his photography class. Please note that the discussion that follows is meant to highlight the scenic drives through Maine. I am not suggesting that the beautiful historic towns along the way are an afterthought.
My car is a third generation Subaru Impreza WRX. While, admittedly, not the prettiest vehicle to roll out of a factory (it is considered ugly by many even for a Subaru), it’s a total hoot to drive. I find few things more cathartic than listening to its lovely rumble at a stop and the menacing growl from its twin pipes when making haste. It’s a car that begs to be driven hard and obliges my every whim without so much as a flashing light on the dash. I’m not the sort of oddball who typically ascribes human characteristics to objects, but it’s truly one of those cars where such treatment is understood. Driving one, you will see that it is much more an accomplice than simply a transportation device.
So, one chilly, pre-dawn morning in October, I packed up the car and the dog and set out for my first major stop – Portland – roughly 50 miles north of Maine’s border with New Hampshire. The drive from DC was relatively uneventful. I heeded the advice of a Maine-native and avoided I-95 where I could, just missing rush hour traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge. I meandered across Connecticut on I-84 and took I-90 through Massachusetts, then hopped on I-95 to get to Portsmouth, NH, where I had lunch with one of my Saab buddies.
Between Portsmouth and Maine is the Piscataqua River, and after a brief trip across it, I found myself in Kittery – Maine’s southern-most town. I made my way to Route 1, the primary route I would use during my trip. My recollection of Route 1 is that it’s predominantly two-lanes with speed limits that vary greatly as the road travels through both scenic countrysides and small towns. A concern for those of you possessing a lead foot is that I often wound up screaming to myself behind tourists traveling far below the speed limit. However, after taking a few breaths to relax and pondering the reason for my hurry, it became clear that the scenery more than made up for any delay, and passing zones fortunately became quite frequent.
I had several hours until my friend landed in Portland, so I vaguely followed Route 1 up the southern Maine coast to the city and found myself enthralled at the sights along the way. This is a perfect jaunt for drivers in search of dramatic ocean scenery. Although Route 1 is the main thoroughfare running nearest to the water, there are often smaller roads that hug the perimeter even more closely. Between Kittery and Portland, there are a number of gorgeous seaside towns, beautiful scenic overlooks and lighthouses which are all worth an adventure off the major roads. As a suggestion, in York, I took York Street (which became Shore Road) along the coast which allowed me a stretch of breathtaking ocean views before eventually putting me back on Route 1. I continued meandering north through Kennebunkport, where I followed Ocean Avenue along the waters of the Atlantic, gaping at the magnificent summer homes and at the seagulls darting alongside my car before diving to the beach below. I took Route 9 along the water through the resort towns of Saco and Old Orchard Beach, diverging every so often to explore a scenic point to the east. One road I took in that direction was Route 208, which branches off to East Point Sanctuary, and once back on Route 9, I looked for Route 77 which will send you to Scarborough Beach State Park and Two Lights State Park, where you can find gorgeous views of Casco Bay. I continued on Route 77 all the way to Portland.
I spent the night in Maine’s largest city, exploring the beautiful Old Port section and, of course, seizing the chance to savor one of Maine’s respected local brews and a lobster roll for dinner. The next day, we set off for the Mount Washington Auto Road. My New England travel guides made it perfectly clear that anyone who skipped a visit to New Hampshire’s White Mountains was a complete idiot. The eight mile Auto Road, located in the heart of the White Mountains, was touted as rewarding drivers with spectacular views, albeit at the end of a particularly treacherous climb. In the back of my mind was Travis Pastrana’s recent trip up the road in what must have been a screamingly fun six minutes. The photographs of his mad dash were indeed persuasive, but the horrified reviews of the road written by vertiginous drivers on various travel sites were what sealed the deal for me.
Route 302 was the route I chose to take to the Auto Road. Traffic was rather heavy for about 40 miles outside Portland, but as the road opened up and the speed limit increased, I found myself cruising gleefully in the country with a lush rainbow of trees on either side of me under under a perfectly cerulean sky. At the base of the White Mountains, I took Route 16 – a wide and fast, winding two-lane road – roaring around its bends and enjoying the spectacular foliage and the rapid grade changes. When I arrived at the Auto Road, to my chagrin, I was informed that it was closed half-way up due to wintry conditions, despite it being 65 degrees at the foot of the road. Nonetheless, I paid the fare and set off for the adventure. I came all the way out there from DC, so I decided I would make the best of it.
$23 got me admission to the road, a CD tour (which we immediately forgot about), one of those ubiquitous “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper stickers, and a long list of warnings for the driver. Among other things, I was advised to keep the car in 1st gear and, on my decent, to pull over at the various spots along the road to cool down my brakes lest I plunge off the side of the mountain to a fiery death.
I started off in 1st, then put it in 2nd while scoffing at the warning as the road, though narrow, seemed treacherous in the least with its leisurely climb. But as I progressed, the road quickly changed from a merry lark in the woods to a Sir Edmund Hillary adventure with the grills of oncoming Yukons and Siennas materializing terrifyingly around impossibly tight bends surely built for a single lane of traffic. My hood scoop was now the first thing I saw as the nose of my car rose precariously toward the dark clouds in the sky, and from the corner of my eye, I watched the temperature display drop slowly, digit by digit, like a countdown to certain doom. The trees quickly vanished and my surroundings became rock faces and scattered bushes tormented by the howling wind which lashed out with such vigor at my car that all 3,200 lbs of it swayed uneasily. Huge drops of water started pelting my windshield – hard. At the various pullover points along the way, cars that had been ahead of me were stopped, I imagine in fright, as I could see the passengers huddled inside, peering wide-eyed from the windows. No one was taking photos.
I got as far up as four miles before being ordered to turn back. I pulled into a parking area. My friend grabbed his camera and dashed out of the car for the nearby overlook. I took a deep breath, jumped from the Subaru, and was immediately blinded by my own hair whipped into my eyes. Giant, cold drops of rain drowned my shoulders. I fruitlessly pulled my hood over my head and scrambled to the cliff. The magnificent view of the mountains and the colorful foliage below, layered with fog, was absolutely worth the mad sprint. But I could only withstand the painful weather for a few minutes before stumbling back to the car.
The descent was not quite as hair-raising as the climb, but still terrifyingly entertaining. On the way down, we encountered a small traffic jam resulting from a moose.
Had we more time, we would have made our way to Route 112, the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, which is just south of the Auto Road in the White Mountains. It runs 26.5 miles with Lincoln and Conway in New Hampshire on either end. It was also suggested by my guides as a must-see road for foliage visitors.
We wanted to get back onto Route 302 and eventually find our way to Freeport, ME, just north of Portland on Route 1. But we encountered a good deal of unexpected road construction and subsequent detours, and wound up far from where we had anticipated. By this time, it was getting dark and we had a hotel reservation about 120 miles away in Bar Harbor, so I found my way onto I-95. What appeared to be a first generation Subaru WRX STi – sold only in Japan – toyed with me for a short time, but I soon ended up driving in total darkness with few other cars on the road. We eventually made it to Bar Harbor, where we would spend the next day touring the area.
Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are located on Mount Desert Island. Bar Harbor is a picturesque town full of touristy shops of the type that sell pastel colored t-shirts and fudge. Luckily for us, it also has quite a few terrific seafood restaurants. Be forewarned, on Columbus Day weekend in October, it was absolutely packed and street parking took several attempts.
I’ve wanted to visit Acadia for years and was absolutely thrilled that I had arrived there at the peak of foliage season, and I have to say, the park exceeded my expectations. I had anticipated stunning views and delightful drives but not quite of the caliber I encountered. We entered the park on Route 3 and followed Park Loop Road as it snaked along the mountain bends. I followed a side route to Sand Beach and found myself on a gorgeous narrow strip with jaw-dropping views of the mountains and the colorful trees on either side of me. Even though it was quite chilly, I had the windows open as the air was just so clean and sweet that it needed to be experienced. There were plenty of opportunities to park and hike, but even if you visit just to drive, you will not leave unfulfilled. You won’t be able to scream down the roads, but if you want to drive to enjoy the grade changes and the scenery, this is the place for it.
I got back onto Route 3 and drove it all along the coast line, then ventured off to the southwest island in search of Bass Harbor Head Light. I took Route 102 as far south as possible, then took Route 102A around the southern tip, and drove out on Lighthouse Road to the lighthouse to experience its splendid views of the ocean. We got back onto Route 102 and then Route 3 to complete the trip. The journey down Route 102 runs through several small towns and makes for a decent, leisurely drive, but if you’re nearing the end of the day, note that it does take a bit of time (longer than I had expected).
One excursion I suggest is to visit the tip of Cadillac Mountain, the first place in the US where one can witness the sunrise. We promised ourselves that we would catch the sunrise but, honestly, we couldn’t get up in time, though we did manage to see the amazingly beautiful sunset. There are two parking areas at the peak – one on the north side, one on the south. I suggest parking on the north side for the spectacular panoramic views of Bar Harbor and Frenchman’s Bay. Then drive over to the southwest side for views of Blue Hill and Penobscot Bay. Try to find a parking spot to wait from until sunset as it gets quite crowded. I thanked myself for bringing along my winter parka as it was terrifically cold and the wind on the mountain was relentless and brutal. The temperature was 35 degrees at the top of the mountain, but the wind made it feel far colder and my lips became completely chapped in about five minutes. As sunset approached, I saw about 100 tripods propped up along the overlook, balancing cameras and lenses of every size imaginable, their anoraked owners leaning on them to keep the equipment steady in the wind. While the breathtaking sunset elapsed, the only sounds to be heard were the camera shutters closing in unison and the howl of the wind. As the sun sunk behind the mountains, the sky became every shade of blue, purple, red and pink. The experience was worth braving the utter cold.
One thing that struck me in particular about Mount Desert Island was that from my car, with just the naked eye, I could see thousands upon thousands of stars. I could easily point out the Milky Way, which I’ve never been able to do before. If it hadn’t been so bone-chillingly cold, I could have gazed at the legions of stars for the entire night.
The next day, we set off back to Portland, but we wanted to take the scenic route and visit the towns we had missed when we took I-95 to Bar Harbor. If we had more time instead, we would have gone back to Route 1 and continued north past Bar Harbor for about 110 miles, from the Schoodic Peninsula and its Schoodic Scenic Byway to Lubec, near the border of Canada. One of my guidebooks described that area as the “Big Sur” of Maine and recommended the drive thoroughly.
Heading west, we took Route 1 to Route 15 down to Deer Isle, a peninsula between the East Penobscot Bay and the Blue Hill Bay. The drive down to Deer Isle had been touted in various guides as a must. I found it enjoyable but I think it would be more scenic in the spring or summertime.
On our way back north to Route 1, we took Route 15 to Route 175 north, then Route 199 to Route 166A to the coastal town of Castine. Castine is surrounded on three sides by water and is the home of the Maine Maritime Academy. Although very small, the architecture of the town is gorgeous. We ventured off to the Dyce’s Head Light (I’ve seen it spelled both Dice and Dyce) which took a little effort to find since no one in the town seemed to know what I was talking about. It’s off to the west of the town, on a narrow road skirting the coastline with many spectacular summer homes along the way. At the end of the road was a home, clearly inhabited, with the small lighthouse attached. We parked and found that we were permitted to go into the back yard and take photos of the lighthouse, as well as venture down a narrow path leading to the ocean, “at your own risk.” The lighthouse looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland, rising out of a beautifully kept flower garden, with tumultuous water crashing at the foot of the steep wooden stairs behind it.
We took Route 166 to Route 175, back to Route 1 and continued west, through the beautiful towns of Belfast and Camden. Since these towns are more popular with tourists, we came across a fair share of traffic, but the stunning views from Route 1 of Penobscot Bay were worth the wait. Soon after, we visited Boothbay Harbor, yet another place not to be missed. The drive down to the harbor on Route 27 was quite scenic. Boothbay Harbor is a gorgeous town full of galleries and restaurants, but my favorite part of the area was the spirited drive all the way south on winding Route 27 to the tip of Southport Island where we watched the gorgeous sunset over the water. Once back on Route 1, I drove in darkness back to Portland.
On my way home from the Portland Airport at four in the morning, I stopped at a gas station right off I-95. I was the only patron there, and when filling up, I noticed the attendant, a big, burly man, was staring at me, grinning in a way that made me a little uneasy. He then decided to walk over, stopping only a foot or so away from me, and continued to smile at me in silence for about two minutes, during which I admit I surreptitiously checked to see if my doors were unlocked in case a quick getaway was needed. But then he broke his silence. He asked, “Is that a WRX?”
Having expected much worse, I almost laughed in surprise at his question. I gave my confirmation and he immediately started rattling off a litany of its features, clearly quite familiar with the model, and ending with the ultimate compliment: “That’s a damn fine car.” He then asked, “When you leave, can you gun it for me? I want to listen to it go.” So naturally, I obliged him, managing a wave out the window as I shifted late for maximum volume, sailing onto the interstate at full speed.
There are many who enjoy cars, but not all enthusiasts love driving. If you count yourself a driver, without a doubt, you need to take this trip to the Mt. Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire and through Maine to Acadia National Park. Nothing clears the mental cache quite like exploring new locations on beautiful, unfamiliar roads, and the routes I took were clearly made to satiate our inner Magellans, providing drivers and passengers alike the thrills of steep hills and sharp bends, soaring mountains above and the mystery of the ocean ahead.
I left Maine a much happier person – my turbo deficiency 100% cured.
Words and images: Leigh D.
Leigh D. is a regular contributor to RideLust.com.