St. John Valley, Aroostook County in 48 Hours
The County is a winter playground for ice-fishing, snowmobiling, and dogsledding, but Maine’s largest territory also has much to offer post-thaw.
The long drive north
Start your trip with a full tank of gas, a meticulously curated Spotify playlist, cold-brew coffee, and a selection of road snacks to keep you in good spirits during the (in our case 330-mile) drive north to the St. John Valley. The sprawling County has no shortage of interesting check-points, so plan some stops along the way.
Eventually you’ll find where the 1,908 miles of I-95 comes to an end, in the Canadian border-town of Houlton. Enjoy a scenic walk through Houlton Riverfront Park, where the picturesque Gateway Crossing footbridge leads you over the water toward a variety of restaurants and shops.
If it’s early enough, follow the scent of fresh-baked doughnuts to Sadie’s Bakery, a local favorite. Grab a molasses doughnut and take a walk down Main Street toward the market square. Pop your head into shops like The County Co-Op and Farm Store for more treats and handmade products. Country North Gifts is densely packed with rustic home goods and artisanal crafts, and you can spend a good amount of time exploring the narrow aisles and shelves of curios. For a little local culture, stop in to see a movie at Temple Cinema, one of the oldest operating theaters in Maine. The large marquee is hard to miss.
Back on the road, keep an eye out for the Maine Solar System Model, a scale replica of the planets that lines Route 1 from Houlton to Presque Isle. Feeling hungry? Northern Maine Brewing Company in Caribou can fix that. A popular brewpub with a variety of delicious microbrews (try the Windrower Wheat, a refreshing, light, and slightly spiced ale) as well as a menu of elevated pub fare. If you’re eager to get on with your drive and are looking for somewhere a little more casual, Burger Boy in Caribou is your spot. This retro drive-in is a popular seasonal stop in the County that slings burgers, fried seafood, and sundaes with the option to order from the drive-thru or to sit inside and admire the interior’s colorful murals.
Finally, check in at the Inn of Acadia in Madawaska, the perfect home base for your Acadian adventures. The large rooms are comfortable and tastefully decorated, with views of the St. John River and Canada beyond. Be sure to set up a reservation at the inn’s Voyager Lounge restaurant, or unwind after the long drive with a cocktail at the bar. The staff is knowledgeable about the area and eager to point you in the right direction for great trails, restaurants, and other activities.
Ployes, parks, and poutine
Begin your morning with a visit to Misty Meadows Organic Farm, which is easy to spot: there’s a giant strawberry out front. This restaurant serves up farm-to-table fare from their own backyard, and the interior is decked out with local handmade crafts and gifts that you can purchase in the attached shop. If there’s a long wait for a table, take the opportunity to explore the gardens, feed the animals, or drool over the bakery case filled with home-made treats.
If you overindulged at breakfast, find the Four Seasons Trail Association just up the hill from the hotel. Built and maintained for the community almost entirely by volunteers, the impressive trail system runs over 250 acres and is multiuse depending on the season—Nordic skiing and snowshoeing in the winter and trail running, hiking, and mountain biking in the warmer months. Forgot your gear at home? The lodge has everything you need available for rent, as well as hot coffee, a warm fireplace, and plenty of tables where you can sit and enjoy the view of the mountains and woods beyond.
Another local favorite, Dolly’s Restaurant, sits just outside of Madawaska in the neighboring town of Frenchville—and much of the chatter you’ll overhear there will indeed be in French. The bustling diner serves up hearty Acadian classics like chicken stew with dumplings, generous stacks of buttered ployes, and poutine (pronounced poo-TSIN). On your way over, make sure to stop at the Madawaska Four Corners Park. This northeastern-most park is a destination for motorcyclists who have challenged themselves to visit the four corners of the United States. Rich in history, this unique park is worth a visit.
Located about half an hour down Route 1 from Madawaska, Fort Kent is a bustling little town of interest. Take the time to check out roadside attractions like the Blockhouse, a monument commemorating the Aroostook War, a bloodless dispute between the United States and the United Kingdom over the border between Canada and the USA. The replica fort is now a small museum open in the summer, where you can learn about the history of Acadian culture in the States. Fort Kent is also home to America’s First Mile, from which US Route 1 can be followed all the way to Key West, Florida. Nearby, check out the appropriately named First Mile Brewing Company for a variety of microbrews crafted on-site. Feeling peckish? Walk across the street to Swamp Buck Restaurant and Lounge, open seven days a week with a great surf and turf menu, from filet mignon to fried clams.
Jump back into the car and tune the radio to one of the various French Canadian broadcasts. Even if you can’t sing along, enjoy the opportunity to listen to some French-language tunes as you make the drive out of Fort Kent up to Fish River Falls Trail. The out-and-back hiking trail is an invigorating walk through the woods and across a grass airstrip to the Fish River, a Class IV rapid. The trail can be followed up and down the river, with many spots to stop and admire the view, but be sure to mind the slippery rocks near the riverbank.
Next, take the winding drive up Route 161 to Stockholm. The route will take you through sprawling potato fields under a wide stretch of sky unlike any other in Maine. As you leave the fields and enter the forested section of road, pay attention to the signs warning of moose in your path. In Stockholm, check out Anderson’s Store for grab-and-go pastries and sandwiches. If you remembered to call ahead for a reservation, stop in at Eureka Hall Restaurant for dinner and live music. The walls are adorned with merch, notes, and memorabilia from bands that have performed there, including some familiar names such as the Ghost of Paul Revere and Muddy Ruckus.
Au revoir, Aroostook
If you’re driving back to Portland or anywhere further down the coast, it’s best to plan for an early start. The Inn of Acadia serves breakfast every day, so head up to the lounge and grab a hot cup of coffee and a made-to-order breakfast ploye, rolled up with your choice of apple, blue-berry, or strawberry filling. If you need a little more caffeine to make it home, just around the corner you’ll find a Tim Hortons, the border-land’s favored coffee shop.
On your way out of the St. John Valley, say goodbye to the Maine Tribute Moose in Van Buren, right by the border crossing. Take a close look—the life-size bronze sculpture is adorned with a variety of Maine symbols, including a bronze can of Moxie by the moose’s hooves.
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