If you’re looking for an incredible family trip that offers something for everyone, set your sights on The Maine Highlands. It’s easy to put together an entertaining itinerary with diverse destinations and activities that appeal to a wide range of ages. You can spend a sunny afternoon beside a mountain lake or river, hike through old-growth forests to ice caves in the summer, or explore one of the many museums. Whatever you envision for the ideal family vacation, the Maine Highlands has something for you.
When you’re ready to map out your visit to the region, begin with this list of top places to stay and things for families to do together.
Classic Area Adventures
Peaks-Kenny State Park
Hugging the quiet shores of Sebec Lake, Peaks-Kenny State Park is the perfect base camp for canoeing, kayaking, swimming, fishing, and hiking. The park’s 56-site campground gives you access to a mile of lake shoreline with a sandy beach, and a lifeguard is on duty during summer. If you’re in the mood for a hike, more than 10 miles of park trails wind through an old-growth forest. Kids love scrambling over the many glacial boulders scattered throughout the area. Another great aspect of Peaks-Kenny State Park is that it’s located near other tops recreation areas like Moosehead Lake, the peaks of the Moosehead Pinnacle Pursuit, Baxter State Park, Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, as well as the city of Bangor.
Directly across Sebec Lake, you’ll find more hiking opportunities in Borestone Mountain Audubon Sanctuary. This 1,600-acre nature preserve sits near Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness. It includes trails that traverse an ancient forest and climb to the summit of peaks that are nearly 2,000 feet high.
Lily Bay State Park
If your family loves to spend time on the water, Lily Bay State Park is an ideal location to camp and explore the outdoors. Sitting on the shores of Moosehead Lake, New England’s largest lake, the park has 90 campsites, including many that sit near the lakeshore. Plus, Moosehead Lake is a prime fishing spot teeming with smallmouth bass, Atlantic trout, and salmon. Covering 925 acres, the park also boasts hundreds of miles of shoreline, making it a great place to put in a canoe or kayak.
If you’d like to take young children on a hike, or you’re just in the mood for a relaxing stroll, follow the 2-mile trail that hugs Moosehead Lake. Traversing gentle terrain, the path makes for an easy walk with the water providing an attractive backdrop. To do more hiking, take a ferry to Mount Kineo. A couple of easy trails lead to the Kineo summit at 1,789 feet. It’s a comfortable hike for just about anyone in the family.
New England Outdoor Center
Offering a wide spectrum of activities and camping options, the New England Outdoor Center on Millinocket Lake makes it easy to pull off the perfect family trip. This outdoor resort provides easy access to top outdoor destinations like Baxter State Park, Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, and the Penobscot River. You can tailor your trip to include great winter activities, like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing. Or visit in summer for whitewater rafting, hiking, and kayaking. NEOC will help you build a tailor-made itinerary, and guides can lead outings and take care of the logistics.
Accommodations are available year round, including tent sites that can hold anywhere from one to 20 people. There are also lakeside cabins and lodges with stunning views of Mount Katahdin. The River Drivers Restaurant on the property offers an alternative to eating camp food every day.
AMC Maine Wilderness Lodges
The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) maintains three lodges in The Maine Highlands for year-round wilderness excursions. All three lodges have private cabins and a shared bunkhouse. Rates include three meals a day, including a pre-made lunch for the trail if a request is submitted the night before. You’ll spend less time worrying about cooking and more time enjoying the wilderness.
In the summer, all three lodges are accessible by car and have access to more than 70 miles of hiking trails on AMC property, with additional trails not too far away. The lodges also provide opportunities for paddling, fishing, and overnight camping trips in the summer. In the winter, the Gorman Chairback and Little Lyford lodges are only accessible by ski or dog sled. It would make for a fun journey for the family. A unique winter trip could involve a lodge-to-lodge cross-country ski adventure, where you spend the day exploring the snow-covered forests and have warm meals and a cozy bed waiting for your family at the next lodge.
Other Family Adventures
Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area Ice Caves
The Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area sits on more than 45,000 acres of wilderness preserve northwest of Millinocket. It’s known for its high concentration of remote ponds and old-growth forest, but it’s also home to a collection of ice caves that you can explore during the early summer months. From the trailhead parking area, you only have to hike about a mile to reach the caves, but you’ll traverse extremely rooted and rocky terrain. (Make sure to follow the blue trail blazes.)
You’ll access the caves via metal rungs put in place by the Nature Conservancy. The largest room is big enough to stand up in, and many smaller rooms can be explored as well. This adventure is best left to families with older kids and for people who do well in confined spaces. Traction may be needed if the floor of the caves is icy. And it’s a good idea to wear long pants, light gloves, and a hat if you’re going to be in there for a little while.
Family Canoe Trip
For an unforgettable family adventure, take a guided canoeing trip down the Penobscot River, stopping at wilderness campsites along the way. During the journey, your family can take time to hike and fish with views of Mount Katahdin. There’s a good chance you’ll see plenty of wildlife, including moose and eagles. There are several local guide services that can take you on journeys that lasts anywhere from two to 10 days. You can find guides listed on the websites for the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, Destination Moosehead, Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, and Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce.
For a shorter excursion, check out the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town. It offers canoe and kayak rentals (be sure to reserve them ahead of time) and provides life jackets. Bring lunches so your family can enjoy a picnic along the banks of the refuge. And don’t forget to bring your binoculars for birdwatching.
Explore a B-52 Crash Site and Wreckage
In January 1963, a U.S.A.F. Boeing B-52C Stratofortress crashed on the side of Elephant Mountain on a brutally cold winter day. Seven of the nine crew members were killed. The other two miraculously survived the night in temperatures around -29 degrees Fahrenheit. The crash site has been preserved as a memorial and is open to the public. Large pieces of debris are scattered in the pine and birch forest, both on the ground and in the trees.
To reach the crash site, head north on Lily Bay Road to Beaver Cove. Make a slight right onto Prong Pond Road and follow this for nine miles, following signs for the crash site. Once you’ve reached the parking lot, just follow the signs. The first piece of debris is not too far into the woods. The path is clear and leads to a slate memorial beside the plane’s fuselage. Please treat the memorial with respect and leave everything where you found it.
Patten Lumbermen’s Museum
The Patten Lumbermen’s Museum in Patten, Maine, chronicles the history of the state’s logging operations and shows what life was like for those working in the logging camps. Logs would be harvested by teams and then driven down the Penobscot River to Patten in massive log drives. Between 1832 and 1888, about 8.7 billion cubic feet of lumber was shipped out of Bangor. This made it the largest shipping port for lumber in the world. The Lumbermen’s Museum includes replicas of logging camps from the 1820s and the early 20th century. It also has a Lombard Longhauler and other fascinating artifacts and tools that shaped the lives of Maine lumberjacks.
Ten minutes from Bangor, New Hermon Mountain is a small, family-owned ski resort with trails that can accommodate novice as well as experienced skiers. Lessons are also available for beginners or those who just need a refresher. Tired of skiing or just looking for a fun family-friendly activity? Take a trip down the 600-foot snow-tubing hill. Just $15 will get you a three-hour session of tubing.
In the Greenville area, be sure to check out the skiing at Big Squaw Ski Resort. It offers affordable skiing and snowboarding lessons for beginners, making it a great place for a family to pick up a new sport.
About 60 miles north of Bangor in the town of Lee you can also hit the slopes at the Mt. Jefferson Ski Area. Nestled in the mountains, this family-oriented ski area has 10 runs, including terrain for all ability levels. Just be aware that the ski are does not rely in snowmaking, so it’s only open when the weather permits. Be sure you should call ahead of time: (207) 738-2377.
Catch a Show in Bangor
As the cultural center of The Maine Highlands, Bangor offers a rich array of concerts and theater productions. Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion is an open-air amphitheater that sits in a beautiful location along the Penobscot River and offers concerts throughout the warm summer months and into the fall. It attracts national touring acts, such as Phish, Kenny Chesney, and Imagine Dragons, making for a memorable evening the entire family can enjoy.
One of the most iconic shows in Bangor is the annual performance of The Nutcracker which is held at the Collins Center for the Arts and features the Robinson Ballet, a local performance company. This classic Christmas production is perfect for a family outing during a winter visit to The Maine Highlands. It might even become a new annual tradition for your family.
Bangor is also home to the Penobscot Theatre Company, which hosts performances for all ages, including popular kid-friendly productions like “Elf the Musical.” While it’s unusual for a small town to have a theatre that’s open all year long, the Penobscot has a full calendar of musicals, plays, and concerts that take place in the historic Bangor Opera House.
It’s not always easy to put together a vacation that pleases everyone, but The Maine Highlands holds a great variety of activities. From concerts to outdoor adventures, you’ll have no problem entertaining grownups as well as kids. It’s also a challenge to handle the logistics if you want your family to experience something new and different together. But, Maine’s guide services, outfitters, and networks of lodges make it a snap to pull off something amazing, like dog sledding or river rafting. Whatever type of trip your dreaming of for your family, you’ll find it in The Maine Highlands.
Written by Erik Johnson for Matcha in partnership with The Maine Highlands.
Featured image provided by The Maine Highlands/Facing Waves