Say “Highlands” and people often think bagpipes, kilts, clans, castles and the rugged green hills of northwestern Scotland. But did you know Maine has its very own Highlands?
And while it lacks the Celtic features of the Scottish Highlands, there is no denying the rugged beauty in this part of central Maine. The Maine Highlands are 8,000-square miles of forests, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and trails within Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
It’s an area with some impressive state superlatives including Maine’s highest peak — Mt. Katahdin; the longest river — Penobscot; the largest lake — Moosehead; and a thriving urban center — Bangor. It’s also where you find the town of Greenville. A community tucked along the southern shore of Moosehead Lake.
Greenville was once a center of Maine’s logging and lumber industries from the early 19th century through the 1970s. Moosehead Lake was a vital transportation link for the massive log drives where steamboats were used to tow huge rafts of timber bound for the mills in Bangor and farther south.
That all ended with the last log drive in 1976, and while the woodlands around Greenville remain working forests with active logging operations, today the timber is transported by trucks to the mills.
As for Greenville? The town and surrounding communities have evolved into a vast playground with thousands of miles of trails, hundreds of waterfalls and scores of peaks for outdoor enthusiasts to explore on foot, by bicycle, car, ATV, snowmobile, canoe, kayak, whitewater raft, motorboat, skis, snowshoes, dogsled or floatplane. All of which is good news for anyone looking for a quick trip and chance to get away for a few days immersed in all things Maine outdoors.
So let’s break it down.
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Small town, big offerings
My tiny dog Chiclet and I spent three days in Greenville and did not come close to exhausting all the recreational cultural, culinary, historical and sight-seeing options available. Not only are there a ton of options, but Greenville is also the kind of place in which you do not want to be rushed or force yourself to try and do it all.
It’s a place made for relaxing, for taking time to soak up everything around you. Whether it’s sitting on a quiet beach along Moosehead Lake, hiking one of the trails through the woods or taking a moment to look at the view from atop a peak on one of the summits overlooking the region. All that natural beauty is bound to get to you.
What to see
Chiclet and I began our exploration of Greenville by taking a drive to Lily Bay State Park, about 10 miles north of downtown Greenville on Lily Bay Road. The drive takes you along the shore of the lake for the first 4 miles, offering gorgeous overlooks before entering a more wooded section full of twists, turns and hills. You may find yourself sharing the road at times with loaded logging trucks on their way out of the woods, or trucks hauling empty trailers on their way in for another load. Give them plenty of room.
The entrance to the park is on the left and is well marked.
There is a fee to enter — $4 for Maine residents and $6 for nonresidents — and the park is open daily from 9 a.m. to sunset. Once inside, you have 940 acres on which to hike, watch birds, look for wildlife, fish, boat, swim ski, picnic or camp. Dogs are welcome in the park as long as they are on a leash, so Chiclet and I parked on Dunn Point at the end of the park’s paved road and took a leisurely walk along on the 2-mile trail along the shore of Moosehead to Rowell Cove.
If you are unsure of where you want to go or what you want to see in the park, the friendly and knowledgeable Maine State Park Rangers at the gate are more than happy to offer suggestions and provide you with a handy map.
Bicycling is always a fun alternative way to explore, and after getting directions to Big Moose Mountain trailhead, I dropped Chiclet off at our hotel, loaded up my bike and drove about 4 miles north on Route 15 to the intersection of North Road and parked at the small gravel parking area just after the turn.
North Road is a dirt road and one of many in the Greenville area that can be pedaled using a sturdy mountain bike or gravel bike. People also enjoy hiking up to the trailhead on the road. North Road takes you to the trailhead at Big Moose Mountain and to several ponds beyond.
There is also the former railroad bed that is now a wide and flat gravel route leading out of Greenville starting where the pavement ends on Moosehead Industrial Park Road. It’s a multi-use trail, so it’s perfect for walking, bicycling or riding an ATV.
For something less physical, head to Downtown Greenville. It’s small but packed with fun shops to check out.
At Maine Mountain Soap & Candle Co. you can pick out natural soaps and lotions made right on site. I even found an organic pet shampoo bar for Chiclet, who was welcome to join me inside smelling all those great soap and candle scents.
Get a real feel of the area’s logging history at The Moosehead Marine Museum. It’s right downtown on the shore of the lake and is filled with artifacts from the days when timber ruled the north’s economy.
It’s also where you can book passage on the Steamboat Katahdin which offers daily morning or sunset cruises from May to October on Moosehead lake. The Kathadin — or “Kate” as it is known locally — is the last of the steamships that pulled those vast rafts of trees across the lake.
By far the largest building downtown is Kamp Kamp, a historical building that takes up half a block. It’s worth going in just to see the eclectic collection of lumbering antiques, taxidermy and other Maine artifacts for sale. There’s also a candy store on the side with enough selection to satisfy the fussiest of sweet tooth.
If views are what you are what you are looking for, there’s really no better way to see Greenville than from above — high above. At Curriers Flying Service you can take a 45-minute to 2-hour scenic flight in a vintage Cessna float plane. All flights take off directly from the lake in front of Currier’s docks.
It’s a rush and gives you a real appreciation for the sheer size and scope of Moosehead — all 75,000 acres of it. Currier’s pilot Roger Paradis can describe every land and water feature you see and point out areas where you are likely to spot moose, deer or bear. The shorter flights take you up and around the lake while longer flights include up close views of Mt. Katahdin.
If for some reason you did not see moose from above or while driving around, fear not, there are several options for taking a Moose Safari, including one offered by Northern Outfitters.
I ran into a family from Wisconsin who had traveled — by car — all the way to Greenville to do just that. They were staying at my hotel, and I heard them leaving around 4:30 a.m. to meet their guide at 5:30 a.m. to head out into the woods. They were back at 10:30 a.m., all smiles after spending several hours canoeing on woodland ponds and spotting five moose.
Watch: Close encounter with two Maine moose
Still looking for more to do? At Northern Outfitters owner Mike Boutin can point you toward the perfect fishing hole, the best hikes or where you have the optimum chances of spotting some Maine wildlife.
Northern Outfitters also has guides for hire to take you on a tour of the woods and water on day trips or overnight camping excursions. Boutin can arrange for a shuttle to drop you, your friends, your gear and your canoes at one end of the lake or a river and then pick you up at the end of your paddle once you reach your destination.
The store is stocked with an impressive array of practical outdoor apparel and gear for sale or rent.
And if you do not have what you need, Greenville has several businesses right in town that rent camping gear, bicycles, canoes, standup paddle boards, kayaks and ATVs.
Where to eat
All that hiking, flying, biking and shopping is a sure way to fire up an appetite. Luckily, Greenville has a great selection of dining options.
Chiclet and I were staying at Kelly’s Landing, which has waterside lodging and dining. I can think of few better places to end a day than on the deck at Kelly’s with a cold beverage and a plate of steaming hot mussels or a classic hamburger fresh from the kitchen. Toss in a front row seat to one of the best sunsets Maine has to offer, and it’s the perfect place to cap off your day.
There is not a huge food cart scene in Greenville. I counted only one. But its a case of quality over quantity, and Claudine’s Crepe Cafe is a food cart on Pritham Avenue just down from Kamp Kamp. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and has an impressive menu of savory and sweet crepes. The baked brie crepe with turkey, brie cheese, walnuts and raspberry preserves all wrapped up in one of the best crepes I’ve had this side of Paris, France.
A short drive out of town is The Farmhouse Cafe, where the views, coffee and baked goods are tops. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., it’s a popular spot for locals and visitors alike for breakfast and lunch.
You can eat inside or one of the decks or porches overlooking Moosehead. I fell in love with the lemon-filled strawberry cookies, the banana-strawberry protein smoothie and the strong, black coffee.
Inside Northern Outfitters is the Hard Drive Cafe, tucked into the corner with windows overlooking Main Street and the lake beyond. The face offers hot and cold Maine-roasted coffee drinks, nonalcoholic beverages and pastries.
It’s even dog friendly.
There are plenty more places to dine in Greenville with options including pizza, Mexican food, traditional Maine meals and basic fast food. Like the recreational opportunities, there was no way I was going to be able to try them all. Most serve alcohol and feature wine and beer made in Maine.
Where to stay
Next to outfitters, what Greenville seems to have the most of is lodging. Lakeside cabins, hotels, inns, beds and breakfast, cottages, and camping offer everything from luxury spa-like rooms to a level spot to pitch your tent.
I spent three nights at Kelly’s Landing in a room that overlooked the lake. It was peaceful, clean and pet friendly. Kelly’s offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, so if you don’t feel like going out you can simply walk a few feet to the restaurant to eat indoors or on the deck.
If a luxury spa experience is your cup of afternoon tea, the Blair Hill Inn offers all that and more. Perched on a hill overlooking Moosehead Lake, this former “gentleman’s mansion” has been converted to 10-room boutique inn and restaurant. At Blair Hill you can enjoy a massage or soak in the hot tub at the spa, dine on a five-course farm to table meal at the restaurant or simply sit on the deck and enjoy the view.
The Lodge at Moosehead Lake is among Maine’s oldest Triple AAA Four Diamond hotels. It’s in a private setting surrounded by trees on three sides and the lake on the fourth. Every meal at the lodge’s restaurant comes with a view of the lake and skews heavily toward local ingredients.
To get a sense of where else you can stay, check out the listings at visitmainehighlands.com or contact the Moosehead Lake Region Visitors Center as you drive into town.
How to get there
It’s a pretty easy 90-minute drive from Bangor to Greenville on Maine 15-North. From Downtown Bangor, start out heading west on Harlow Street which turns into Kenduskeag Avenue after about a quarter mile. Stay on Kenduskeag Avenue for a half mile until it changes into Maine 15-North and follow that all the way into Greenville by way of Dover-Foxcroft, Guilford and Monson. It’s a 75-mile drive on two-lanes with passing lanes on some of the longer hills.
Trust me on this — do not rely on your GPS navigational aids. I did and, while I did eventually arrive in Greenville, it was only after following those satellite directions that took me down pretty much every back road between Orono and Greenville.
Sure, it was some of the prettiest driving I have done in Maine, but it took a good hour or so longer than I had anticipated.
I shared that story with some of the locals who chuckled and told me similar things had happened to other visitors. I would recommend taking the advice offered by the women at the Farmhouse Cafe and turn off the GPS and instead use your hardcopy DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer.
Which brings me to another observation. Greenville does not seem to have the most consistent or reliable internet service. I had trouble connecting to Wi-Fi a lot of the time, even at Kelly’s Landing where it is included with the room.
There are spots in town that offer free Wi-Fi and places to sit while you surf the net or check your emails.
But, frankly, in a place with as much natural beauty as Greenville, the lack of internet access is a bit of a bonus, forcing you to look up from the screen and enjoy what’s around you. And who among us does not need several days of that?
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s September 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.