For many, Maine is a place that conjures up visions of sleepy seaside villages, postcard-worthy lighthouses, and juicy lobster meat dripping with butter. It’s easy to imagine hermitting away in a cottage with nothing but a rotating collection of flannel shirts, mugs of coffee, and a bottomless chest of paperback books.
Beyond these romanticized stereotypes and far from the crowds that congregate on the coast, there resides an altogether different side of Maine. A place where wilderness reigns supreme. Nestled within the heavily forested heart of The Pine Tree State is The Maine Highlands. Here over 200 waterfalls come spilling down mountainous ridges; whitewater rivers rage and sprawling lakes glitter. City hubs like Bangor tie it all together with amazing food, drink, and cultural happenings. This is a place where visitors seeking something off-the-beaten-path can experience one of the East Coast’s most breathtaking natural areas.
In technical terms, The Maine Highlands is comprised of two of Maine’s largest counties: Penobscot and Piscataquis. Within its whopping 8,000-square miles—roughly the size of the entire state of New Jersey—visitors can expect to find Maine’s highest peak, its largest lake, one of its longest rivers, and a truly one-of-a-kind outdoors scene that, quite frankly, not enough people have the joy of experiencing. And this is a real shame, because, though the phrase may be bandied about a bit too much these days, The Maine Highlands really is one of those places where you could “spend a lifetime and still never see it all”.
Here’s a brief breakdown of what makes The Maine Highlands such a mystical, magical, and entirely special place.
Put simply, The Maine Highlands is huge… and wild! Each corner offers something a little different. Wherever you turn, you’re guaranteed to find an outdoor playground to suit your recreational passion—hiking, biking, backpacking, fishing, canoeing, rafting, skiing, ATVing, snowmobiling, you name it.
Home to four state parks, the vast and rarely-explored Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the famed Appalachian Trail, the notorious Hundred-Mile-Wilderness, and the iconic summit of Mt. Katahdin, the amount of on-land adventure in The Maine Highlands is almost unfair.
Moosehead Lake has its share of visit-worthy state parks with Lily Bay and Mount Kineo bordering its intensely blue waters. (There’s even a hiking challenge known as the Moosehead Pinnacle Pursuit, which encourages ambitious hikers to tackle six mountain summits surrounding the lake.) But it’s arguably Baxter State Park that represents the shining beacon of Maine’s state park system. Its most prominent, defining feature—Mt. Katahdin—is downright legendary, and framing its crowning summit on all sides is over 200,000 acres of sweet-smelling pine forests, over 200 miles of hiking trails, and over 330 campsites.
Bordering Baxter State Park to the south is the beautiful, but unforgiving Hundred-Mile-Wilderness—a place known not only for its spectacular scenery, but also for being home to the wildest, most remote section of the entire Appalachian Trail. It’s the place that intrepid backpackers love to hate. They can escape for five to 10 days and be completely off the grid—at the mercy of the mountains, the rain, the mud, the blackflies, and mosquitoes—and be totally content with each and every humbling challenge.
With over 200 waterfalls, one of the longest rivers in Maine, and the largest lake in Maine, not to mention hundreds of other scenic bodies of water, The Maine Highlands is a veritable epicenter for water-based recreation.
The Penobscot River is an arterial lifeblood of recreation. At 109 miles, it’s one of the longest rivers in Maine. It’s regarded as one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the nation. Its West Branch is also home to a 14-mile stretch of whitewater that offers up some of the most exhilarating and bucket-list worthy whitewater rafting in the United States.
As the largest lake in Maine—not to mention the largest mountain lake in the eastern United States—Moosehead Lake is a true gem. Dotted with roughly 80 islands, surrounded by the rolling Longfellow Mountains, and stretched out over 120 square miles, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more idyllic destination to go boating or paddling.
The Maine Highlands is truly a land defined by its waters. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is a 92-mile ribbon of interconnected lakes, ponds, and rivers. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a 740-mile paddler’s paradise stretching from New York to northern Maine, and the mythical Gulf Hagas—dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East”— hides some of the state’s most picturesque waterfalls and swimming holes.
You’d be forgiven for thinking a region with such an extensive outdoors scene might be lacking cultural offerings. That’s far from the case in The Maine Highlands. With vibrant towns sprinkled throughout the region—from AT Trail Towns to tiny outposts with unique logging histories and frontier traditions—there are plenty of places to find underrated charm.
But the true cultural and entertainment hub of the region is Bangor. As Maine’s third largest city, “The Queen City”, as it’s affectionately known, delivers all of the things you’d expect from an urban center. Here you’ll find art galleries, concerts, events, museums, a thriving food and craft beverage scene, and so much more.
It wouldn’t be at all overstated to suggest Bangor has one of the most impressive music scenes in the Northeast. Not only is it home to the Bangor Symphony Orchestra—one of the oldest continually performing orchestras in the United States, having been around since 1896—but its contemporary offerings are also off the charts. For folk music lovers, it doesn’t get better than the American Folk Festival—a three day event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the Bangor area every year. There’s also the Bangor Waterfront Concert Series, which draws notable acts every summer, including big names like Dave Matthews Band, Imagine Dragons, and even Kesha in years past.
Food & Drink
It’s no secret the craft brewery boom positively exploded throughout the state of Maine, and it’s no different in The Maine Highlands. In the Bangor area alone, there are over a dozen craft breweries in operation, and even in the pint-sized town of Milo, there’s an award-winning brewery opened by a pair of brothers.
In terms of food, the region delivers a mouthwatering array of restaurants. These establishments specialize in local fare (Atlantic salmon, Poutine, and more) as well as more globally-inspired dishes. Many restaurants source ingredients from local farms in Maine. There are a number of restaurants that have kicked their sourcing up a notch by using ingredients grown in their own greenhouses!
In addition to music festivals, The Maine Highlands also plays host to a unique collection of other events throughout the year. There’s Millinocket’s Trails End Festival in September and the Millinocket Marathon in December. Don’t miss one-of-a-kind events like Dover-Foxcroft’s Whoopie Pie Festival, Lincoln’s Loon Festival, and Bangor’s Wheels on the Waterfront. There are also beer festivals, maple syrup festivals, and artisans markets.
How to Access The Maine Highlands
Bangor is the obvious hub for all your Maine Highlands adventures. With the Bangor International Airport serving major East Coast fly markets (like Atlanta, New York City, Washington D.C., and more), as well as easy access to Interstate 95, Route 15, Route 9, and other major roadways in the state, Bangor is the ideal place to use as a jump-off point. From here, renting a car and exploring the region by road is the best bet. This will unlock some of the more rural and tougher-to-reach destinations within the region. The important thing to note though is that no matter where you end up in The Maine Highlands, you’re guaranteed to develop a taste for Maine that will stay with you for a lifetime… or at least until your next visit!
Written by Ry Glover for RootsRated Media in partnership with Maine Highlands.
Featured image provided by The Maine Highlands