Maine’s evergreen trees are just that, ever green. With their needle-fringed canopies and impressive height, they are beautiful in their own right. Yet it is the deciduous varieties that welcome fall with a blaze of color that make Maine fall foliage touring a memorable, and photogenic, experience. Cruise the highways and byways of this impressive state on your own or join like minded travelers on guided tours eager to see the latest works of Mother Nature’s paintbrush.
The Science Behind Maine’s Colorful Trees
Leaves are the food factories for trees. Chlorophyll, a green substance that gives leaves their spring and summer colors, absorbs the sun’s energy. A process called photosynthesis uses that energy, along with water and carbon dioxide, to create sugars and starch for the trees. This is where maple syrup comes from.
The leaves of deciduous trees also have orange and yellow pigment, but that is hidden by the vast amounts of green chlorophyll in the spring and summer. In the fall, when the days become shorter, the leaves make less food and the green disappears. The other colors become visible. At the same time, the physical structure of the leaf is changing. It gradually loosens from the branch, eventually falling to the ground.
Temperature also plays a part. Trees tend to have more reddish leaves when the thermometer drops below 45 degrees F. Different tree species tend to have different fall colors. As an example, sugar maple shows bold yellows, reds and oranges, depending on the amount of sugar trapped in the leaves; the more sugar, the redder the leaves. Aspens and hickories show shades of yellow, dogwoods and sumacs tends to sport reds and purples. The Maine Forest Service (maine.gov) has a guide that shows the types of trees found in Maine and their anticipated fall colors.
Best Times to Find Fall Foliage in Maine
The farther north you are in Maine, the earlier the fall colors will appear. Trees in higher elevations also show the most color, due to the colder temperatures. The first hint of color arrives in the Aroostook Region after the first week in September, with full foliage during the latter part of that month. Best places to look are Baxter State Park, Aroostook State Park, the Eagle Lake Public Reserved Land and along Route 11.
Central Maine is at peak color at the end of September into the first week of October. Route 17, leading to Richardson Lake and Bigelow Preserve and Routes 27 and 16 in the Carrabassett Valley, are scenic drives. Other good bets are Mt. Blue State Park, Lily Bay State Park, Moosehead, Jackman, Sebec Lake, Rockwood and the Tumbledown Mountain Range.
Southwestern Maine sees peak colors around the second week of October. Interstate 95 and various feeder routes run through or past places like Augusta, the northern end of greater Portland, Rumford, Farmington, Rangeley and Bethel. The southern coastal parts of Maine welcome their boldest colors in mid-October. This includes areas south of greater Portland down to the New Hampshire border.
Maine’s Most Scenic Byways
If you are the adventurous type that prefers going in search of Maine’s fall foliage on your own it helps to know the most scenic byways to follow. Maine has four of the 95 designated National Scenic Byways in the United States. The Acadia Byway hugs the coast, traveling through the wilderness of Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island. Little has changed along this coast since the 1600s.
The Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway reaches from Solon all the way to Canada via Route 201. A favorite of those seeking fall color, it also heads through stretches of land with an abundance of moose, also quite active in the fall. This is their breeding season and the males in particular are bolder than normal, and usually cranky. It’s best to get your pictures from a safe distance.
Routes 4 and 17 make up the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway. Not only does this byway take you through prime fall color viewing territory, it also leads to first rate golfing, fishing, boating and skiing areas. Lakes and mountains provide the backdrop for your photo ops.
The Downeast Maine coast is home to the Schoodic National Scenic Byway. Sporting a mixture of evergreen and hardwood trees, the roadway leads past lightly populated coasts and quaint villages, home to residents that make their living by lobstering and creating works of art
Fall Foliage Tours Offered
It is also possible to see Maine’s fall foliage by tour bus. Some outfits, like V.I.P. out of Portland offer day long excursions combined with a train ride through the forests. One example, including a visit to a working farm and lunch averages $79.00 per person. Limousine companies, found in the larger cities such as Portland, Bangor and Augusta, offer private charters where you can tour the fall colors in style, sipping champagne along the way. Prices depend on length of tour and type of vehicle selected.
Take to the air in a fixed wing plane, helicopter or maybe a hot air balloon to see the colors from a different perspective. Fixed wing flights could be in a vintage biplane or a modern Cessna, ranging in price from roughly $60 to $150 per person depending on season and length of flight. Float planes are also available, particularly in the interior. Helicopters have the advantage of being able to hover and get in closer to the terrain. Flights are available along the coastal areas and in the interior, with pricing similar to fixed wing planes.
Hot air balloon excursions usually last about three hours including the pre-launch inflation and celebratory sip of champagne at the end of your trip. Average cost is about $300 per person. Outfitters are found in cities such as Portland, Auburn and Savoy. A balloon, once the burner is turned off, is one of the quietest forms of flight. You literally float along with the air currents as you gaze down at Mother Nature’s handiwork.