One of the best ways to experience Maine’s natural beauty and rich history is by journeying along its roads. Though this New England state is crisscrossed by scenic byways and historically significant thoroughfares, perhaps the most culturally rich passage is the Kennebec-Chaudiere Heritage Corridor.
This 230-mile route stretches from the stunning state park at Popham Beach — near Bath in Maine’s Mid-Coast region — to Quebec City in Canada. The corridor also extends for 16 miles on either side of Maine’s Route 201 and Quebec’s Route 173.
The Corridor, which follows along the Kennebec and Chaudiere River Valleys, has been used by travelers for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The region’s indigenous people, the Abenaki, used the Corridor to reach the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of Maine. At the dawn of the 1600s, European settlers and traders floated up the Kennebec along their way to the far reaches of Maine’s interior.
The two rivers later served to keep early English and French colonies separated. After nearly a century of skirmishes over the region – a significant trade zone – the English took over the Acadia region in 1763. Over the next century, French-Canadians used the route to migrate south, seeking and finding work in Maine’s lumber mills, factories and forests.
Today, the Kennebec-Chaudiere Corridor traces the route taken through history, allowing visitors a glimpse into the Maine of days gone by. But memories from the past aren’t all this drive has to offer; visitors to the region will find a range of recreational, cultural and scenic attractions along the way, no matter what time of year they visit.
Start your exploration of the corridor in the coastal Tidewater Kennebec region. Set where the Kennebec River meets the sea, take a tiny detour off of Route 201 to discover Swan Island in Merrymeeting Bay. This protected area, an ancestral land of the Abenaki, is now home to a variety of sea birds and wildlife, from bald eagles to deer. Though it sits near one of Maine’s most populated areas, this tidal delta retains the area’s original natural beauty.
While in the Tidewater region, visit the first English settlement in New England. Located near the present-day town of Bath, the Popham Colony and Fort St. George were established in 1607, predating Plymouth Rock by 13 years. Though settlers only lasted there for a few years, today visitors can see the remains at Popham State Park.
For more history, visit Bath’s Maine Maritime Museum. With a range of exhibits, collections and interactive displays that trace Maine’s close connections to the rivers and the sea, the museum also offers a series of workshops and lectures.
This region is also known for its textiles, both home-spun and commercially produced. By 1840, almost half of Maine’s manufacturing industry depended on textiles, from fine silks to handcrafted wool rugs.
Further to the northeast, Augusta’s Maine State Museum offers four floors of artifacts, photos, art and geologic and animal specimens that document the region’s cultural and natural past. While in Augusta, visit Old Fort Western; this National Historic Landmark, built in 1754, is the region’s oldest wooden fort.
Continue along the Corridor into Central Kennebec. Here, the land has long been utilized for family farms and lumbering, and the route is dotted with agricultural communities and mill towns. The population reflects the region’s close connections to French-Canadian Quebec, as well; at the height of the timber boom, many French-Canadian farmers migrated to the area to work in the mills, bringing their culture with them.
Stop in Waterville to browse the collections at the Colby College Museum of Art. The museum contains over 6,000 pieces of American and contemporary art, spanning the 18th through the 21st centuries.
Just up the road in Hinckley, the LC Bates Museum houses artifacts from Maine’s cultural and natural history. Set in a 19th century school house built in the Romanesque Revival style, the museum features nature trails, a picnic area and an arboretum.
The Upper Kennebec stretch of the Corridor is lined with evergreen forests. This region’s economy has long been based on logging. Learn more about the timber industry at the Rangeley Lakes Region Logging Museum. Set on 18 acres, the museum is open in summer and hosts the annual July Logging Days Festival.
This region is also famous for its recreational activities, from hunting to fishing, snowmobiling to hiking. Try your hand at whitewater rafting at the Forks, where the Kennebec and Dead Rivers meet. Bikers can explore the more-than 200 miles of trail systems that cross this northern region. Hike along the legendary Appalachian Trail; it crosses the Corridor at Caratunk. Don’t miss the especially scenic section near Pleasant Pond Mountain.
For even more photo opportunities, stop by Moxie Falls. An easy, 20-minute hike brings visitors to viewpoints of the falls’ 90-foot-drop, while a more difficult hike leads to the base. In summer, bring a bathing suit and take a dip at the one of the many swimming holes downstream.
For a glimpse into this northern region’s past, visit the Native American petroglyphs carved in the Kennebec River rocks near Solon-Embden. Though these ancient markings were mostly destroyed by logging, a few still remain.
When Route 201 reaches the Maine frontier, take time to explore the tiny towns of Jackman and Moose River. Known as the Switzerland of Maine, these border towns draw recreational tourists from spring through summer for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, mountain biking and fishing. For that spectacular fall foliage, visit from September through October. Winter visitors can go cross-country skiing or snowmobiling on the area’s extensive trail system.
Just north of Jackman, the Corridor continues across the border into Canada. Follow in the footsteps of generations and take the Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway as it winds along the Kennebec River and past scenic Wyman Lake. Be sure to watch out for moose on your journey!