A stunning view along the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

Let’s get it right out of the way that Maine’s National Scenic Byways are gorgeous.

But it helps to be more than just a looker to get on the list.

A route might have historic importance. Unlimited recreational opportunities. A slice of local culture unavailable anywhere else.

And if you can bring it all home with a great name, well then the tourists, and the Mainers, will surely come.

“The Bold Coast was a piece of land in Cutler, Maine, that ended up being renamed the Cutler Coast,” said Fred Michaud, Maine Department of Transportation’s scenic byways coordinator, talking about one of Maine’s newly minted strips. “The (name) Bold Coast was laying there on the landscape, waiting to be used.”

He remembers pitching it to planners, trying to dissuade them from going a traditional route.

“I said, ‘You really need to have a new name. ‘Downeast’ is like having a moose on your wall at camp that’s been there for 40 years and needs to be dusted off a little bit,'” he said.

“I convinced them, reluctantly, to use the Bold Coast and it just happened to be one of those things that just resonated. It creates a mystique, it creates a charm. The boldness of the coast is matched by the bold people that live there, because they’re just as rock hard as that coast is.”

You can almost smell the sea salt and see the knobby knuckles hauling up traps from here.

Michaud offered up a quick jog through byway history and the seven unique Maine routes you ought to aim your car and camper toward this summer.

Just make sure you pack the kayaks, fat bikes, sunscreen, hiking boots and French-English dictionary.

CELEBRATING VALUES

Becoming a byway is a long, winding process requiring a lot of support: First there’s a state designation and a management plan that can cost $100,000 to take a deep inventory of the road, what it has to offer and what it needs to make the case for federal designation.

Interpretive signs? Public bathrooms? Both?

“You look also (at) what are your infrastructure needs? What are some of the capital needs? How are you going to put lipstick on this thing?” Michaud said.

A visitor walks up a fire tower on the Beech Mountain trails at Acadia National Park, home of the Acadia All-American Road. Photo courtesy National Park Service

It’s hard work, but worth it. Before the Federal Highway Administration defunded the National Scenic Byways program in 2012, Michaud estimates Maine’s three existing national byways and one All-American Road brought in about $43 million in federal funds for assorted projects.

Once here, funds require a 20% state match.

“At Height of Land (part of the Rangeley byway), we virtually moved the highway,” he said.

Rangeley alone brought in more than $7 million, the most of all the byways here.

Becoming one is “a peer-reviewed, vetted process,” Michaud said, and stakes the claim that the road embodies at least one of six “intrinsic values”: scenic, recreational, historic, cultural, archaeological or natural.

Outside of bragging rights and funds, there’s also a central argument for tourism, he said.

Getting on the national byways list says to travelers, in short, “Go here. You won’t be disappointed.”

“People try to use their time wisely, they’ve got a three-day or four-day weekend, we don’t go for the same period of time we use to,” Michaud said. “We want high-impact experiences in a short period of time, memorable experiences. When you look at a national scenic byway, you get the sense that this has been vetted, that somebody has gone through the trouble of looking at this. It does pass peer review and therefore is worth the experience to go there.”

They also spread people around, he said. Without maps and signs highlighting the routes, visitors might hug the coast or crowd the most popular parks, not realizing there’s more to explore and new favorites to find.

The big byway news last month: The U.S. Department of Transportation approved 15 new All-American Roads and 34 new National Scenic Byways nationwide for the first time since 2009, three of them in Maine.

“This was a one-chance opportunity that I don’t know if it will open up again,” Michaud said.

It’s hard to say what the future holds, funding-wise: The program’s been newly allocated $16 million, less than half the amount it used to receive, he said, but has a “good champion” in Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a ranking member of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee who co-authored a bill reopening the byway nomination process.

So what road glory awaits? Let’s start with the newcomers.

BOLD COAST SCENIC BYWAY

The St. Croix Island International Historic site along the Bold Coast Scenic Highway offers interpretive signs and a statue of Pierre Dugua, leader of the French expedition to settle l’Acadie. Photo courtesy DownEast Acadia Regional Tourism

The Cutler Coast along the Bold Coast Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy DownEast Acadia Regional Tourism

Historic designation; 147.7 miles; runs from Route 1 in Milbridge to the Route 1/International Avenue in Calais with a spur on Route 190 to Eastport.

The history here goes way back, Michaud said.

“Passamaquoddys were there. They had the Vikings, they had the Basques coming in to fish from Portugal and Spain,” he said. “And the French in 1604 actually settled in the St. Croix River (on St. Croix Island), so the historical piece of that is pretty important when you consider this was one of the major jumping-off points for the European settlement of North America.”

It’s hard to go wrong taking in 100-plus miles of Maine coast — the potential for roadside shack lobster rolls sounds limitless.

KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS SCENIC BYWAY

Whitewater rafting on the West Branch River, near the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway.

Fat tire biking near the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway. Courtesy of the Katahdin Area Trails

Recreational designation; 89 miles; starts and ends near the Baxter State Park property line near Togue Pond and Matagamon Lake, creating a loop that includes Millinocket, Medway, Stacyville, Patten and Shin Pond.

“That’s purely recreational — it is recreational written big,” said Michaud. “You’re catching some spectacular opportunities: bicycling, kayaking, canoeing, whatever you want. . . . You’ve got the East and West branch of the Penobscot River, which are just world-class rivers.”

Proof that it’s about the roads but it’s definitely not all about staying in your car.

ST. JOHN VALLEY CULTURAL/FISH RIVER NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY

An aerial view of the St. John River in Northern Maine, seen on the St. John Valley Cultural/Fish River Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy Paul Cyr

Brian Theriault during the Acadian Festival in August 2013, near the St. John Valley Cultural/Fish River Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

Cultural designation; 103 miles; from Route 161 in Allagash, hugs the Maine-Canada border to Fort Kent where it joins the Fish River Scenic byway to Portage Lake. Continuing onto Frenchville, it separates into several routes ending in Sinclair, Cyr Plantation and Hamlin.

This byway really celebrates French culture, Michaud said, and includes interpretive signs in French and English, with plenty of photographs telling the story of the region.

“Southern Maine needs to go to St. John Valley,” Michaud said. “I would suggest the third week in August. You have this landscape of green, beige and red and it’s just phenomenal.”

Also, ployes. Mm.

 

 

ACADIA ALL-AMERICAN ROAD

Two visitors catch the sunset from the top of Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service

Visitors walk down a ramp to a docked boat at Acadia National Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service

Scenic, historic, recreational and natural designations; 40 miles; following Route 3 from the Ellsworth/Trenton town line, through the middle of Acadia National Park.

It’s Acadia National Park, which, enough said.

According to Michaud, that’s exactly why a place like Acadia would earn the All-American Road designation: Mention it almost anywhere in the country and people will know what and where you’re talking about.

The route celebrates its craggy shorelines, carriage roads, hiking trails and mountains, according to the federal program website where Maine’s three senior byways and the Acadia road are mapped out and described in driver-friendly detail. (The newer ones aren’t up yet.)

2.7 million visitors in 2020 — making it the 8th most-visited national park — can’t be wrong.

OLD CANADA ROAD NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY

Moxie Falls near the Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway in fall. Photo courtesy Steve Yenco/Mainly Maine Photography

Photo courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

Scenic designation; 78.2 miles; Route 201 in Bingham all the way to the U.S. international border crossing at Sandy Bay.

Take in some beauty while whitewater rafting, anyone?

This byway celebrates the migration down into Maine from Quebec and the old Abenaki trading paths, according to the program website, while also highlighting the mountains, forests and The Forks, where the Dead and Kennebec rivers meet and many whitewater rafting trips start.

 

 

 

 

RANGELEY LAKES NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY

Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway’s popular Height of Land turnout. Photo courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

Coos Canyon along the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

Recreational designation; 35.6 miles; Route 17 beginning in Madrid and ending on Route 4 in Township E.

This byway features the Appalachian Trail, three turnouts with incredible views, good signage and two public bathrooms, Michaud said.

It’s hard to quantify just how many visitors are drawn to an area by a National Scenic Byway designation and everything that notoriety brings, he said, but this is one of those areas where you can hazard a guess.

“Height of Land before (the designation), it was like a place you pulled up on the side of the road and risked life and limb and it was a dirt shoulder,” Michaud said. “Now, we have tour buses going up there and parking and people getting out, looking at this magnificent vista and these interpretive panels. And in the fall, it’s like a motorcycle rally up there, the windy, twisty road all the way up from Mexico, and people just love that ride. People will drive from all over the state to go to Height of Land. It’s a value-added experience, it’s a memorable experience. You go there, you say, ‘I’ve been to the Height of Land, it’s awesome.'”

SCHOODIC NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY

Striking coastal cliffs near the Schoodic National Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

The ocean nearly meets the road on the Schoodic National Scenic Byway. Photo courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

Scenic and natural designations; 29 miles; runs from the Hancock-Sullivan Bridge on Route 1 to Prospect Harbor.

This byway’s described as “the ‘quiet’ side of Acadia National Park,” with lighthouses, historic buildings, beautiful cliffs and a coastline that almost meets the road.

It’s one of the reasons that Michaud hopes byways get people out to explore.

“These are experiences people remember,” he said. “They impress people that this is the real Maine.”

Two words: Road trip.


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