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Mainers enjoy amazing fall foliage, and we don’t take it for granted. Websites and television reports track the advance of peak colors. We talk about it, comparing this year to last. If necessary, we make excuses: It’s been too dry, or too wet, or too windy. We care.
But we may be in a rut. Little has changed since our parents took the kids for a Sunday drive in the station wagon. This month, let’s rethink leaf-peeping via planes, trains and automobiles.
The automobile part is easy. Rather than just taking a routine drive through the countryside, consider one of Maine’s Scenic Byways. There are 10 state scenic byways, three national scenic byways, and one All American Road. Pick one with a vista and lots of maples. It’s hard to beat the Million Dollar View on Route 1 in Weston, or Blackwoods along Route 182 from Ellsworth to Cherryfield. The Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway includes Height Of Land, one of the most spectacular panoramas in all of Maine.
The Acadia All American Road is an obvious choice. A devastating fire in 1947 replaced much of Mount Desert Island’s spruce-fir forest with colorful hardwoods. A drive up Cadillac Mountain provides the best showcase.
Now, park the car and kick it up a notch. Ride a train. It’s inexpensive, ideal for families and the kids won’t realize they’re absorbing a piece of Maine history. Some of that history is pretty quirky.
For instance, the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad got its name before the first rail was laid. Shortly after the line was chartered in 1867, plans changed. The line to Moosehead was never built. Instead, it served only to connect Belfast to the Maine Central Railroad junction in Burnham. But the name stuck, and though the railroad now functions solely as a tourist excursion, it is the oldest rail line in America that still operates under its original name — even though the original name was never accurate.
The railroad now entertains visitors from its base on Depot Street in Unity. Expect a short, slow ride, as you reminisce about a time when the click of cars over rails was a routine sound in Maine. The hourlong round trip to Unity Pond spans a section of forest that is mostly maple, oak and ash — lively with color.
The Downeast Scenic Railroad in Ellsworth offers foliage rides, and the history of the track is equally fascinating. The Maine Shore Line Rail was built in 1884. It was later taken over by Maine Central Railroad to connect wealthy passengers to Bar Harbor — a premier summer destination for affluent city dwellers seeking to beat the heat. They rode the rails to Bangor, jumped on the connector train that would carry them to McNeil Point in Hancock, and then boarded steamers waiting to ferry them the last six miles across Frenchman’s Bay.
Not much of the original track remains, but the Downeast Scenic Railroad is making the most of it. Train tours typically run a short distance westward to the Union River, then reverse course and wind through the backwoods of Ellsworth to the depot at Washington Junction. The foliage colors are particularly vibrant along this latter section of track.
For both rail excursions, 70-year-old diesel engines have replaced 100-year-old steam engines. But the passenger cars are original and a century old. Nothing is plastic. Back then, everything was made of wood and metal. Both trains are run completely by volunteers, and it’s their heroic duty to keep everything painted before it rusts. Throughout summer, visitors can often ride the rails of both trains on short notice. But the foliage runs of October are popular, and reservations are highly recommended.
Or take your leaf-peeping to new heights this year. Nothing beats the fall foliage from a plane. On the ground, each tree is separate. Red maples stand next to russet oaks next to yellow beeches. But from the air, Maine’s forest looks like a richly colored carpet, according to Vicki Vroom at Scenic Flights of Acadia. Her company has been around for 50 years. She’s been the owner for the past 15. In October, their pilots offer quick jumps to the most colorful spots, swinging up the coast to Tunk Mountain, then inland to the awesome foliage around Lucerne. They even customize trips to suit passenger interests.
Naturally, weather can be an issue. There are high-tech ways to be certain the cloud ceiling is high enough, but from her vantage point on Route 3 in Trenton, all Vicki has to do is glance over at 1500-foot Cadillac Mountain. If she can see the summit, all’s well. Throughout summer, the two pilots and three planes stay busy. Then when autumn arrives and the leaf-peepers show up, it gets truly hectic. Make a reservation.
There are many flight options in Maine. The float planes of Currier’s Flying Service in Greenville and Katahdin Air in Millinocket come to mind. Even the shortest flights from Rockland on Penobscot Air are sure to dazzle with the beautiful foliage of the Camden Hills. New leaf-peeping adventures await, via planes, trains and automobiles.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s October 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.