Riding Maine’s Rugged, Winding Coast
Measured in a straight line, the entire coast of Maine from Kittery to Lubec isn’t even 230 miles long. Visit the Maine coast, however, and you realize that straight lines rarely apply. Maine has 3,478 miles of curvy, in-and-out, tidal shoreline. In the U.S., only Alaska, Florida and Louisiana have more.
Riding a motorcycle is a great way to see Maine’s winding coast, especially the rugged Down East region. There’s not really a clear-cut point where you’re suddenly Down East, but an argument can be made that you’re there by Bucksport and still there all the way to the Canadian border. It’s a beautiful region to explore, so two dozen sport-touring riders decided to meet for a long weekend Down East.
Riding east on State Route 3, we pull into a scenic lookout for a dramatic view of the cable-stayed bridge across the Penobscot Narrows. Atop the eastern tower is the tallest public bridge observatory in the world. We ride the elevator 420 feet to the top, entering via Fort Knox State Park. Established in 1844, Fort Knox was built to protect the Penobscot River Valley against naval incursions from British Canada, which had been involved in repeated border disputes with the United States since the War of 1812.
Crossing the Penobscot Narrows Bridge to Verona Island and then to Bucksport gets us closer to our weekend hub on Mount Desert Island. The big attraction here is Acadia National Park, which occupies some 47,000 acres of coastal headlands. Acadia is unusual among national parks because it wasn’t established on public property. The move to preserve the region’s beauty in a public park was an initiative of private citizens who lived or summered on Mount Desert Island and Schoodic Peninsula, and much of the land was donated by private citizens. The property became a national park in 1919 and took the name Acadia in 1929.
In the morning, we join other riders for breakfast in Bar Harbor, then head for Park Loop Road, the main circuit for motor vehicles through Acadia. With smooth tar and winding curves, it would make a fantastic speedway, but that’s not why we’re here. The scenery is stunning. We park frequently to look at the pink granite cliffs, dense forests and rocky shore that are synonymous with the park. One thing we see little of along the coast is sand. Maine has few sandy beaches, and most are hours down the coast. Acadia has one natural sand beach, aptly named Sand Beach. It’s only 290 yards long and the water rarely exceeds 55 degrees, but it’s spectacular.
We turn off the Park Loop and twist to the top of Cadillac Mountain. At 1,500 feet, it’s the highest point on the U.S. East Coast. High ground and panoramic views make Cadillac Mountain a popular spot to enjoy the sunset. For people who get up earlier than we do, it’s also a great place to see where the morning sun shines first on the U.S. But wait; the town of Lubec claims that the earliest sunrise occurs at West Quoddy Point, the easternmost point in the country. Up north in Aroostook County, Mars Hill has a higher elevation and locals there also claim the first sunrise. Turns out they’re all correct—part of the time. The seasonal variance in the sun’s angle means that Cadillac Mountain, Lubec and Mars Hill each see the sun first at certain times of the year.
With stomachs signaling midday, we stop at Acadia’s quintessential eatery, Jordan Pond House, where every meal includes a popover. These pastries manage to be crispy and moist, dense and hollow, all at once. They’re often served with jam made from Maine wild blueberries. Outside seating enables diners to enjoy their popovers with a view of two mountains known as The Bubbles, apparently so named to acknowledge with polite language that they resemble a pair of breasts on the landscape.
Riders can see much of Acadia along Park Loop Road, but some prime vistas are only accessible via the 57-mile network of carriage roads, which are off limits to motor vehicles. The carriage roads were built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., an avid horseman, so he could travel into the heart of Mount Desert Island on byways where motorized traffic was not allowed. He had the vision and financial wherewithal to make it happen, and between 1913 and 1940 he built the roads, then gifted them to the park. If your time and budget allow, a ride through Acadia in a horse-drawn carriage is a singular experience.
On the other side of Mount Desert Island is a museum dedicated to the motorized vehicles Rockefeller sought to avoid. To get there, we start our motors and ride west out of the park. In Somesville, we turn right on Pretty Marsh Road and six miles later arrive at Seal Cove Auto Museum. The collection of cars and motorcycles from the Brass Era (1895-1917) is impressive to say the least, and given the generic steel building in which they’re housed, quite unexpected.
Motorcycles on display include examples from Indian, Pope, Pierce-Arrow, Thor, Flying Merkel and Fabrique Nationale. Several vehicles on display were made in my home region of western Massachusetts, including the Indian bikes and Knox autos, both from Springfield, and Stevens-Duryea autos from Chicopee Falls. Some vehicles are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. An exquisite mahogany-bodied 1913 Peugeot resembles the Chris-Craft and Ditchburn boats of the same period. Steve and I linger over displays of technical information, histories of companies and entrepreneurs, period advertising, and insights into the social changes brought about by motor vehicles.
The museum was started by collector and historian Richard C. Paine, Jr. (1928–2007), a native Mainer. His approach to collecting focused on acquiring the best example of a particular make or model, in as original condition as possible. He also had the foresight to establish a trust that now ensures the ongoing operation of the museum.
Continuing on Pretty March Road takes us to Tremont. Heading north on State Route 102 curves through the Seawall section of Acadia National Park and back to Somesville. We pick up State Route 233 and head back to Bar Harbor.
Suppertime is approaching and for this group of riders that means lobster. The delectable crustacean is part of the Maine experience, especially in summertime, and for convenience we can’t beat the roadside lobster shack directly behind our cabins. We pick from the day’s catch, and add mussels or crab legs or corn on the cob. Everything is steamed to order and we feast at picnic tables. The lobster shack also sells wood and a campfire soon begins taking the chill off a September evening.
In the morning, we set out to ride farther Down East. Our plan is to hug the coast along peninsulas all the way to Lubec. Just before Ellsworth, we turn right onto Buttermilk Road and enjoy curves down to Lamoine State Park. We have a look at the Mount Desert Narrows and encounter two types of boaters: kayakers enjoying a paddle on the calm waters and fishermen setting traps so riders can enjoy lobster again later. Heading back up the peninsula on Mud Creek Road takes us to State Route 1, which is sign-posted north and south but actually goes east and west in these parts. At State Route 185, we cut south to explore another peninsula with a view of Frenchman Bay. Finishing the loop again returns us to Route 1.
Sticking to this region’s prettiest coastal roads is made easy by following signs for Maine’s Scenic Byways. Schoodic Scenic Byway turns south off Route 1 onto State Route 186. In the town of Winter Harbor, a 10-foot tall lobster claw, carved with a chain saw out of a half-dead pine tree, waves its welcome to all who pass by. The byway continues into a remote section of Acadia that many park visitors overlook. The road closely parallels the eastern shore of Frenchman Bay, providing gorgeous views of the islands and plenty of safe places to pull over. The turnoff to Schoodic Point leads to one of the best views of Cadillac Mountain in the park.
At Gouldsboro, Route 186 ends at Route 1. We join the Bold Coast Scenic Byway and later stop for a late lunch of lobster rolls in the town of Machias, which is home to the Maine Wild Blueberry Festival. Every August, the town celebrates the state’s native wild lowbush blueberries. They’re smaller than the commercially cultivated highbush variety found in supermarkets, and their flavor profile is more intense. Wild blueberries grow naturally in two-year cycles. Each summer they tinge the barrens blue and lend their tangy flavor to pies, buckles, pancakes and preserves. They’re also great dried.
In East Machias, the Bold Coast Scenic Byway follows State Route 191 south along Holmes Bay, Little Machias Bay and Cutler Harbor. Beyond the Cutler State Lands, a right turn on Boot Cove Road winds through the day’s most rural and rugged landscape. Riding here feels a bit like traveling along B-roads through the moors of Yorkshire, England.
At Quoddy Head Road, we make a 300-degree right turn and ride a couple more miles to the easternmost point in the United States, West Quoddy Point. Though West seems wrong for the name of an easternmost point, East Quoddy Point is across the narrows on Campobello Island in Canada. Roosevelt Campobello International Park is worth a visit and is reached easily through Lubec via Route 189. Keep in mind that U.S. residents need a passport to visit Canada and return. The Bold Coast Scenic Byway continues along Cobscook Bay to Eastport, the easternmost city in the U.S.
It’s been a long day and we have dinner plans (barbecue for a change!) so we choose U.S. Route 1 for a fast route back to Bar Harbor. During the busy summer season, State Route 9 likely provides a faster route west, and an up-tempo ride on Route 9 through dense forestlands presents an alternative to slower-paced coastal roads. There are several options for returning south to the coast.
In the morning, we breakfast on blueberry pancakes and coffee while rain washes the bugs off our motorcycles. We get pelted for most of the morning, but brilliant blue skies abruptly take over at Kennebunk. As we split off for various destinations south and west, this Down East ramble goes into the history books, but those lobsters, wild blueberries and winding coastal roads are already calling us back.
(This article Down East Ramble was published in the May 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)