Your Sixteen County Summer Bucket List
Summer in Maine is as close to perfect as you can get. For those of us living here year-round, it’s a reward for the winter months we spent hunkering down inside, waking up extra early on dark mornings to shovel out, and come spring, trudging through a mix of melted snow and mud. But that’s finally over, and you made it! Now it’s time to squeeze everything you can out of the next few months. That’s where we come in: in this guide, you’ll find ways to explore as much of Maine as possible during these perfect summer months, with one excursion for each county. We tried to choose experiences that could be day trips (depending on where you’re based) and are a bit off the beaten path—because we didn’t wait all year to stand on top of a crowded mountain. Summer is short, and there is a lot of ground to cover. Start exploring.
View the Rebirth of a Mill
For more than a century, the Androscoggin River, snaking between Lewiston and Auburn, provided an economic base for the twin cities, powering manufacturing mills that employed thousands. But by the middle of the twentieth century, the textiles mills began to close, and the cities’ economic fortunes faded. Today, the rehabilitated Bates Mill Complex in Lewiston and other nearby mills are once again filled with industry. Baxter Brewing Company, one of the pioneers of Maine’s craft-beer boom, recently opened a pub next to its Bates Mill brewery. Last year Thrillest named Lewiston as the Most Underrated City in Maine, due in part to local businesses in the former mill buildings, including hand-sewn shoemaker Quoddy. The revitalization of Lewiston and Auburn’s mills may still be underway, but this summer a perfect time to see a success story as it’s being written.
Visit a Border Town
One of the most under-visited and underappreciated regions of Maine, Saint John Valley is home to stunning, open landscapes and residents proud of their Acadian heritage. Madawaska, bordering Edmundston in Canada, is home to the annual Acadian Festival, which celebrates the unique history and culture of this region. The majority of Madawaska residents speak French, and its economy is integrally connected to its Canadian neighbor on the other side of the Edmundston-Madawaska Bridge. This year’s Acadian Festival is scheduled for August 15 through 18, but no matter when you visit, don’t forget to try ployes: traditional Acadian buckwheat pancakes. If you want to center your trip around filling up on ployes, nearby Fort Kent hosts the annual Ploye Festival and Fort Kent International Muskie Derby the weekend before, on August 9 through 11.
Visit a Casco Bay Island (Other Than Peaks)
Don’t get us wrong—we love Peaks. The most populated of the Casco Bay islands is the perfect place to spend a summer day, from exploring the eerie Battery Steele to enjoying a drink on the patio of Cockeyed Gull or at the Inn on Peaks. But for an even more low-key island experience, spend a summer day on one of the other islands. Besides Peaks Island, Casco Bay Lines provides service to Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long, Chebeague, and Cliff Islands. The last stop on the ferry run, Cliff Island has only one store and is the least touristy. It is helpful if you have a bike to explore the unpaved roads, but there are also walking trails on conserved land. Long Island is known for its quiet island beaches; Andrews Beach, on the south side of the island, is a state park and open to the public. If you want to escape to an uninhabited island and have access to a boat or sea kayak, the Goslings is a favorite among boaters and is managed by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Drive the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway
The Rangeley Lakes region doesn’t get the same recognition as some of Maine’s other natural gems because it doesn’t have a singular attraction, such as Cadillac Mountain in Acadia. But make no mistake: the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway is one of the most beautiful drives in Maine (or anywhere else). The Height of Land, which overlooks miles of shimmering lakes and waves of mountain ranges from Route 17, may be the best roadside vista in the state, and is one of the strongest arguments for Maine’s real beauty being found inland. There are numerous lodging options in the area if you want more than a day trip, from in-town bed and breakfasts to private cabins to wilderness campsites.
Discover the Schoodic Side of Acadia
If you’ve never been to Acadia National Park and don’t mind crowds, feel free to ignore this advice. There’s a good reason for the line of cars winding up Cadillac Mountain and the swarms of onlookers huddling around Thunder Hole. However, the Schoodic Peninsula has similar geographical beauty and fewer people. A six-mile loop road has views of the rocky coastline, forested islands, and access to several hiking trails. One of the best sites along the loop is Ravens Nest, where a few cliffs jutting out from the west side of the peninsula provide a stunning view, especially at sunset, of Mount Desert Island.
Explore the Belgrade Lakes by Water
The Belgrade Lakes region is made up of seven connected lakes and ponds that are popular among anglers and boaters, and offer a handful of public boat launches. Multiple restaurants allow boaters to tie up to their docks while eating, and there several marinas that offer boat rentals and other services. The hub of the region is Belgrade Village and, more specifically, Day’s Store, which will get you outfitted for anything you may encounter during a lakeside getaway.
Sail on a Windjammer
Penobscot Bay is home to world-famous sailing grounds, and for the majority of us who don’t have our own sailboats, chartered schooner trips are the best way to experience this magical region. You can board schooners from Rockland, Rockport, and Camden for a variety of trips, including two-hour day sails, sunset cruises, and culinary trips featuring chef- prepared meals. The Windjammer fleet offers multiday cruises around Penobscot Bay’s islands for those looking for an extended experience on the water.
See the Blooms at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has more than doubled in size since its opening in 2007. Now the largest botanical garden in New England, encompassing 295 acres, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens features flowers and plants native to Maine and similar regions, miles of walking trails through gardens and forests, ponds and streams, sculptures, and nearly a mile of tidal shore frontage. There is also a children’s garden, a rhododendron garden, a fairy house village, a butterfly house, and a landing dock for visitors arriving by boat. The Gardens recently completed a new, expanded visitor center and plans to continue adding new facilities, including a conservatory. You can find what will be blooming during your visit on the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’s website.
Find a Swimming Hole
There are few things more satisfying on a muggy summer day than jumping into a stream-fed pool, and western Maine is home to some of the state’s best. At Frenchman’s Hole, located near Newry on Bull Branch Stream, you can jump into a swimming hole fom the ledge of a ten-foot waterfall or wade into the deep pool from the surrounding rocks. From Route 2 in Bethel, turn onto Sunday River Road and follow it (which turns to dirt halfway there) for about 7.5 miles before turning left and crossing two old bridges. Turn immediately right onto Bull Branch Road, and you’ll find a parking area about a half-mile in on the right. Another nearby swimming hole, or more accurately, a series of swimming holes, is Coos Canyon. From a rest area parking lot on Route 17 in Byron, a trail leads down to this geological marvel. There are pools for swimming directly below the parking lot, but you can spend a day following the Swift River over smooth rocks and through clear pools before eventually climbing back upstream to your car.
Watch a Concert on the Penobscot
Bangor has been hosting waterfront concerts at an outdoor amphitheater on the Penobscot River since 2010. The Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion usually books a handful of notable rock and country acts each summer, and this year Phish, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Chris Stapleton, and Bryan Adams will all be playing shows, as well as comedian Trevor Noah. The Queen City’s Waterfront Park also includes a paved walking trail along the river and public docks for visiting by boat.
Summit a Baxter Peak Besides Katahdin
The largest state park in Maine, Baxter State Park is home to more than 40 mountain peaks and ridges, but Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine at 5,267 feet, dominates the landscape. The views from Katahdin’s summit and the trails along the way are breathtaking—the mountain should be on the bucket list of every Maine hiker who hasn’t yet climbed it. But if you’ve already checked it off your list or if you’re looking for fewer crowds on your hike, Baxter has dozens of other trails worth discovering. Doubletop Mountain, which has two peaks at 3,489 and 3,455 feet, has views of the park that rival those from Katahdin.
Explore a Seaside Fort
Stretching three miles from the mouth of the Kennebec River to the mouth of the Morse River, Popham Beach is one Maine’s most beautiful beaches. A sandbar, which leads out to a nearby island at low tide, and tidal pools allow for hours of exploring, while the wide stretch of sandy beach provides enough space to find a quiet section for relaxing. Popham’s most unique aspect is two historic forts on the Kennebec River side: Fort Popham, a semi-circular granite fort that was constructed for the Civil War but never finished, and Fort Baldwin, a fort built in the early 1900s that features an observation tower. Both historic sites are open to the public year-round.
Go Whitewater Rafting in the Forks
The Dead and Kennebec Rivers are known to have some of the best whitewater rafting in the country, and the Forks is the hub of it all. There are several outfitters that provide guided whitewater rafting trips, ranging from family-friendly trips to adrenaline pumping, someone-is-definitely-falling-out, Class V rapids. Some companies offer all-inclusive packages with lodging, but there are a variety of options in the area. For most people, whitewater rafting is one of the easiest ways try an extreme sport—although solo kayakers rolling their crafts through whitewater around you will make you question whether you’re really living life to the fullest. Paddling through rapids is the reason to go rafting, but the calm parts of the trips are also memorable, with opportunities to see wildlife and Maine’s beautiful, undisturbed wilderness from a unique vantage point.
Take a Ferry to Islesboro
The closest of the Penobscot Bay islands reached by ferry, Islesboro is an accessible day trip for those in the midcoast. The less-than-a-half-hour ferry ride on the Margaret Chase Smith leaves from a terminal near Lincolnville Beach and arrives on the southern end of the island. Near the Islesboro ferry terminal is the Grindle Point Sailor’s Museum and Lighthouse, a square, stout lighthouse that is open to the public from July 1 through Labor Day. There are only a few stores on the island, so plan to pack a lunch. There are several trails managed by the Islesboro Islands Trust for exploring on foot. If you have your own boat, head over to Warren Island State Park for an even more secluded trip. The 70-acre island, about half a mile off of Islesboro Island, was the first state park developed exclusively for boaters.
See the Easternmost Lighthouse
One of Maine’s most iconic lighthouses, West Quoddy Head Light is near the easternmost point of the contiguous United States. The red-and-white-striped lighthouse, built in 1858, overlooks Quoddy Narrows, the channel between Lubec and Campobello Island, and features views of Canada’s Grand Manan Island. The visitor center in the keeper’s house is open Memorial Day through mid-October. Besides the lighthouse, the 541-acre Quoddy Head State Park features picnic areas, restrooms, a rocky beach, and about five miles of walking trails, including a bog boardwalk and coastal paths near cliffs.
Walk (or Paddle) through a Wildlife Refuge
Made up of nearly a dozen parcels along 50 miles of coastline between Kittery and Cape Elizabeth, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge offers walking trails and opportunities to see wildlife in a variety of coastal settings. Named after Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, author, and environmentalist, the refuge was established in 1966 to protect coastal marshes and estuaries for migratory birds. It includes forests, barrier dunes, coastal meadows, tidal salt marshes, and rocky shorelines. The refuge and adjacent lands provide habitat for more than 250 species of birds and other wildlife. The Carson Trail, the most popular, is a one-mile loop from the refuge headquarters in Wells. The wide trail passes through lush forests and by serene rivers that wind through the salt marshes. You can put in kayaks and canoes at three launch sites in the refuge: Chauncey Creek between Cutts Island and Seapoint Roads in Kittery, Little River at the end of Granite Point Road in Biddeford, and the Spurwink River Division by Route 77 in Scarborough.