Maine was created by volcanic activity and the shifting plates of the Earth. Over the centuries glaciers scraped layers off mountains and valleys, creating gentle curves where before had been jagged edges. Impossibly positioned boulders, dozens of waterfalls and even more tiny islands were left behind, all to develop into their own unique natural areas. Come to Maine’s lace-edged coast or go deep into the forested interiors, either way you will find something uniquely Maine, and definitely worth a second look.
Acadia National Park’s Unique Natural Areas
Cadillac Mountain, at 1,530 feet is the highest bit of land on the eastern seaboard. Its peak welcomes the rising sun before anywhere else in the United States. Created by volcanic fire and the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, Cadillac Mountain was later eroded by glaciers, giving it a distinctive barren look. It is the only mountain in Acadia National Park that has a road all the way to the summit and is the pride of Mount Desert Island. The same glaciers that carved the mountain also created Somes Sound, the East Coast’s only fjord. Great Head trail leads along the eastern edge of Mount Desert Island, offering panoramic views of the area.
Bubble Rock is a geologic feature that defies explanation. Sculptured by glaciers, the roundish granite boulder looks like it is just sitting on a slanted hillside, ready to roll down any minute. Sand Beach is the largest stretch of sand in the park and is known for its fossil finds. Among the sands are remnants of creatures that were eroded from nearby rocks. The oddly shaped mountain called the Beehive can be seen from Sandy Beach. Tide pools are found along the intertidal zone, letting you get close to sea creatures left stranded by the outgoing tide. Overlooking the ocean are the tallest climbable sea cliffs on the East Coast. The best way to see these cliffs is on a guided rock climbing tour.
Schoodic Point, on the southern tip of the Schoodic Peninsula, is known for its pounding surf and is the only part of Acadia National Park that is on the mainland. The point also has a rarely seen geologic feature, called diabase dikes. These are dark, contrasting veins of basalt that have been forced through the older reddish granite, creating a sort of zebra pattern in some places. A scenic drive leads you to the point, where you will find parking and restrooms.
Park Loop Road, a 27-mile scenic route, begins at the Hulls Cove Visitor’s Center. Open from mid-April until November 30th, the road leads to Cadillac Mountain, Jordan Pond, Otter Cliffs, Thunder Hole and Sand Beach.
Quoddy Head State Park and Other Unique Coastal Natural Areas
Quoddy Head State Park is on the very tip of Maine’s northern coast. It is home to a lighthouse that has been in service since the 1860s and massive black cliffs dating back 420 million years. This was the Silurian Age, when volcanic activity from beneath the ocean caused magma, or lava, to infuse the surface rock layers. Over time, waves and erosion have exposed the magma, making this some of the oldest surface rock on Earth. West Quoddy Head Lighthouse is reached via Quoddy Head Road. The Coastal Trail leads from the lighthouse to Scenic Point, a definite photo-op.
Head just a bit farther north to Deer Island and you find the Old Sow Whirlpool near the mouth of Canada’s Bay of Fundy. It is actually on the western end of Passamaquoddy Bay. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, averaging 50 feet per cycle. This massive influx of water makes this whirlpool one of the largest in the world. The name comes from the sound the swirling water makes. It is most active, and the nosiest, roughly three hours before high tide and the show lasts about two hours. Tidal surges or high winds only increase the effect.
Also along the coast, but farther south in Kennebunkport Maine is Blowing Cave, a water spout that is triggered by the waves coming in at high tide. An added attraction is a realistic carving of a dolphin out of a dead tree. The dolphin has a green tint courtesy of the local plant life, but he still seems happy leaping out of his tree-trunk waves. Biddeford Pool, also near Kennebunkport, is a large tidal waterway that is prime bird habitat. East Point Sanctuary, one of the Maine Audubon Society’s bird watching zones, draws visitors from around the country.
Matinicus Rock is a small island some 18 miles off the coast, near Rockland. The rock is a favorite of lighthouse lovers and those looking for the comical red-beaked puffins. Monhegan Island is nearby, home to the Cathedral Woods, rumored to have a population of wood fairies. Rumor or not, the woods are filled with tiny houses built by children and the young at heart, just to give the little creatures a home.
Merrymeeting Bay is a freshwater tidal waterway that stretched across Cumberland, Lincoln and Sagadahoc Counties. It does react to ocean tides, and is more of an estuary or delta than a bay. The waterway is prime habitat for plants that live in brackish (mix of fresh and salt) water and has one of the largest concentrations of water-birds on the eastern seaboard.
Unique Natural Areas in Maine’s Interior
Sugarloaf is a well know ski and golf resort. Located in the Maine Lakes & Mountains region, the resort is close to a number of unique natural areas in the extreme western part of the state. Daggett Rock is a 40-foot tall boulder deposited by a glacier long ago. A short but uphill 1/3 mile hike takes you to the rock, which has a split big enough to walk through. The 2,000- foot long Cascade Stream Gorge is in the Sandy River Plantation. Some of the rock walls are 90 feet high and the gorge is home to a 16-foot waterfall. Grand Falls is horseshoe shaped and accessible by a dirt road and then a short hiking trail.
Crocker Mountain, reached by hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail near Sugarloaf, reveals a reflecting pond looking down from the summit. It’s a 14-mile hike roundtrip. Piazza Rock, a giant rock overhang surrounded by trees, is an easy half-mile hike off the Appalachian Trail at the base of the Saddleback Mountains. Small’s Falls, a popular picnic area south of Rangeley, was created by the convergence of two streams. The area is unique because it is easy to get to by car, yet at the same time has a number of half-hidden trails, as well as natural swimming holes.
A bit farther away near Byron is Coos Canyon. A roadside stop leads you to a 1,500-foot long gorge with potholes and rock formations all caused by both wind and water erosion. The spot is favored by gold panners. Two other spots that should be on your visit list are Mount Kineo at Moosehead Lake, famed as one of the largest masses of flint, and Mount Katahdin, Baxter State Park’s crown jewel. At 5,268 feet, this is Maine’s highest mountain.
Desert of Maine
If you’ve spent your time in Maine exploring the forested wilderness or basking in the sun on the beach, it may be hard for you to believe that the state actually has a desert. A real desert, with sand dunes, authentic enough to make the most stressed out desert camel feel at home. Located west of Freeport, this oddity is the remnants of the Tuttle family farm that was founded in 1797. For several years the farm was successful, producing quantities of potatoes and hay. The farmers didn’t remember to rotate their crops, effectively leaching the nutrients from the soil. Erosion and the wind did the rest, taking away the topsoil and exposing the desert. This geological wonder was left behind by a glacier some 11,000 years ago. The tale is told in the onsite Farm Museum, housed in the 200 year old Tuttle barn. The Desert of Maine (desertofmaine.com) now offers camping, a butterfly room and various other visitor-friendly activities.
Maine’s waterfalls helped shape the state’s varied topography. There are some 44 that are considered scenic, but many more that are just impromptu spills of water found on a back-country stream. One of the most notable is Screw Auger Falls on the Bear River in Grafton Notch State Park. The tiered rocks give the falling water a bit of a swirling motion, hence the name.
Gulf Hagas Gorge, sometimes referred to as Maine’s “Grand Canyon,” is home to Billings Falls. Located on the Pleasant River, the falls are only 18 feet tall but the stepping-stone-like topography makes the water fall in layers, tempting the artist’s brush. Moxie Falls, at 90 feet high is one of the tallest falls in the state. Located on Moxie Stream in Somerset County, the water is part liquid, part mist when it reaches the bottom. Another 90-footer is Angel Falls in the White Mountains in Franklin County. The name comes from the ethereal, almost transparent flow of the water during certain times of the year.
Maine also has two tidal reversing falls. One is Blue Hill Falls in Hancock County and the other is Sheepscott Reversing Falls in Lincoln County. The direction of the water flow reverses in these intertidal waterways if the incoming tide is just right. Both are challenging for kayakers, and some people have been known to try and surf the reverse waves.
The Great Heath
Located in the Downeast Region is the 7,000 acre Great Heath, the largest peat bog in the state. The Pleasant River winds through the center of this ecologically significant area. Endangered animals such as the Upland Sandpiper and the Atlantic salmon are found in this area. The Sandpipers are particularly fond of the wild blueberries. Rare plants include Jacobs Ladder, Bog Bedstraw and the Canada Mountain-Ryegrass. The bog is a draw for wildlife enthusiasts and researchers alike.
A good place to find these natural areas and countless others in the state is to visit the Delorme Map. It is an up-to-date Atlas with listings and information, helping you to get the most out of your vacation