Maine in the fall – 5 day road trip itinerary

Maine, the USA’s northeastern-most state, is well known for its moose, its lobster and its gorgeous fall foliage. This road trip itinerary will take you from Bangor to Portland via Moosehead Lake and Acadia National Park, taking in the best of Maine. Time to fall in love with the state’s forest-covered hills, shimmering lakes and rugged coasts, quaint villages and great seafood restaurants!

Maine road trip itinerary highlights:

  • Moosehead Lake forests and moose safari
  • Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, from Southwest Harbor to Cadillac Mountain
  • Camden and Camden Hills State Park

This itinerary is not limited to the fall, but I do think that’s the best time to visit. Maine even has a special fall foliage website, to time it just right. Summers are also lovely, but tend to be busy. Be aware that from late October a lot of restaurants and some hotels close for the season, especially along the coast.

Day 1: Moosehead Lake

Fly to Bangor, pick up your rental car and head inland to Moosehead Lake. It’s a 1,5 hour drive through rolling hills and atmospheric all-American villages, with white wooden churches, New England-style houses, and a slightly eerie quietness. Stop for a lakeside lunch at The Lakeshore House in Monson, a friendly pub with great views.

We had planned to stay in a cabin near Greenville, the gateway to the Moosehead Lake area. Unfortunately, a severe storm some days before had knocked out the electricity at our cabin so we ended up having to book a last-minute alternative. One of the few options left was Gray Ghost Camps near Rockwood, a well-located but otherwise rather average collection of cabins. The best accommodations fill up fast around Moosehead Lake so booking in advance is recommended.

Spend the afternoon exploring the area, by car and on foot. We did part of the Little Moose Pond Trail, a nice hiking trail on the western side of Moosehead Lake. For more trails, check out the useful AllTrails website or app.

Evenings here are quiet. The liveliest place might be Rockwood Bar& Grill, where a lot of locals hang out. They serve basic but decent food in a friendly setting.

Day 2: moose safari and Southwest Harbor

One of our reasons for coming to Maine was to see moose, and if like us you are only around for a short time I highly recommend joining a moose safari. You might bump into one driving around on your own, but you’re much more likely to see them with an experienced guide who knows their favorite hangouts. The best times to see moose in Maine are at dawn and dusk, when they are most active, from mid-May to July and again in the fall. Fall is the breeding season, and this is when the impressive antlers of the bull moose are fully developed.

We got up at the break of dawn for a private tour with Northwoods Outfitters. During the warmer months, when moose like to hang out in the water to cool down, while eating aquatic plants, moose safaris can happen by canoe. At other times, you will go by car, and I have to admit I was happy to stay nice and warm inside! Sometimes your guide will let you approach them on foot. Our knowledgeable guide, Mike, said he encounters moose on most outings, but it’s always a question of luck. Lucky for us, very soon we came across an adult female, casually standing by a stream and not caring about us at all. After that we drove around several hours more, but unfortunately we never found our bull moose…

By the end, we were starving. Mike recommended breakfast at Auntie M’s, a cosy old-fashioned café (cash only). Because rain was predicted for the rest of the day, we decided to continue towards the coast and Acadia National Park, but if the weather had been better (and we would have been in the cabin of our choice) I would definitely have stayed another day! Besides the forests and waters around Moosehead Lake, nearby Baxter State Park is surely also worth a visit.

On your way to Mount Desert Island, stop for a quick lunch of delicious Maine lobster and crab rolls at Dorr Lobster Seafood Market, a little shack by the road just before Ellsworth. Stretch your legs with a short stroll through pretty downtown Ellsworth.

If you go to Acadia National Park between May and October, you will need to pay an entrance fee. A 30$ private vehicle pass is valid for 7 days and can be purchased at the Thompson Island Information Centre (among others), or online. We drove on to Southwest Harbor to check in at our B&B, The Birches. The owner is very friendly and helpful with information about the island, and rooms are pleasant and spacious, some with ocean views. Breakfast, although rather on the sweet side, is a real treat.

Spend the afternoon exploring the southwestern part of Mount Desert Island. Try the short but beautiful Wonderland Trail, leading through flat woodlands to the rocky shoreline, with tide pools to explore at low tide. Next, stop at the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Take the stairs leading down for some nice views. Bass Harbor itself is also very scenic in the late afternoon light.

Have dinner at Red Sky in Southwest Harbor. They serve tasty food in a stylish dining room, it’s a little more upscale than most Maine restaurants but still very casual. I can highly recommend the white wine steamed mussels!

Day 3: Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor

After breakfast, head to Somesville, the oldest settlement on the island. The tiny village features a small museum and a picturesque footbridge which might just be the most photographed spot on Mount Desert Island.

Keep driving round Somes Sound to the Gatehouse, from where you can go on a hike along the historic Acadia carriage roads and bridges built by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr in the early 20th century. I personally prefer narrower, more natural trails, but it is part of the Acadia experience.

The only restaurant within Acadia National Park proper is Jordan Pond House, famous for its popovers (puffy, hollow rolls, an American version of Yorkshire pudding) and a place where almost EVERYONE visiting the park stops by (whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’ll let you decide). As we were there just after it had closed for the season, we decided to go to Bar Harbor for lunch instead.

Bar Harbor used to be an elite summer colony for the rich and famous in the decennia around 1900. A catastrophic fire in 1947 burned down a big part of the palatial summer houses and grand hotels, and thousands of acres of forest. Nature has rebounded since (and is even more varied than before), but although Bar Harbor is still a popular summer destination, it is a much simpler place now. A few historic houses survived the fire, most are now B&Bs. One of those is the Elmhurst Inn, our accommodation for that evening, a little old-fashioned but friendly and comfortable. Some rooms have fireplaces and great breakfasts are served in a pretty breakfast room.

Spend the afternoon leisurely driving the Park Loop Road, which is absolutely wonderful outside the high season (when it can get very busy and you might want to find quieter alternatives). You’ll come across plenty of viewpoints and hiking trails. Stop at Beaver Dam Pond and/or Jordan Pond to see if any of the furry rodents are around. They are mostly nocturnal, but fall is when they are most active, so you can get lucky. We only saw their lodges and other signs of their presence.

Don’t finish your loop without a drive up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. It is the highest point of the island and allows for sweeping 360° views. End the day with a cosy seafood dinner at Galyn’s in Bar Harbor.

Day 4: Camden Hills and Freeport

Before leaving Mount Desert Island, go for a last morning hike at Indian Point. Make a stop on the way at the small Acadia National Park Pond, across the road from Eagle Lake, to see if there is any early morning beaver activity. At Indian Point there is a short, quiet trail through Blagden Preserve, with nice views over the bay. Although it’s not in the National Park proper, it’s a good place to see birds and deer. Sometimes you can also spot seals from here.

Next, head back to the mainland and on to the pretty town of Camden, about 1,5 hours. It is a scenic road with plenty of vistas over Penobscot Bay and forested hills. Camden is centered around a picturesque harbor. Have lunch at Marriner’s Grill, a quaint luncheonette overlooking the harbor from the top of a small waterfall, with snug old-fashioned booths inside if it’s cold.

After lunch, double back a little for a hike in Camden Hills State Park. There are several trails of varying length, all through pretty forest and some leading to viewpoints. If you have the time, I recommend spending the night in Camden. You could splash out on a stay at the pretty Camden Harbour Inn, which is supposed to have an excellent restaurant, too. We decided to drive on to the Kendall Tavern Inn in Freeport instead, to reduce our driving time the next day. Freeport’s main attraction are its outlet stores, and there is not much else to do. We did have a pretty good dinner at the cheerful Broad Arrow Tavern.

Day 5: Portland

We had an early afternoon flight out of Portland International jetport, which gave us just enough time to explore some of the town. We arrived early for a sinfully self-indulgent breakfast at The Holy Donut. It’s very popular so be prepared to wait in line, but it’s worth it!

Afterwards, go for a digestive stroll around the Old Port neighborhood and the harbor with its wharves and docks. If you’re staying longer, check out this 36 hours in Portland city guide for more tips. You can fly out of Portland airport, or continue driving to Boston and beyond.

Save it for later:

In short:

Day 1: arrival Bangor, hike and stay near Moosehead Lake

Day 2: moose safari, drive to Mount Desert Island and explore Southwest Harbor

Day 3: Acadia National Park, Park Loop Road, Cadillac Mountain and Bar Harbor

Day 4: Camden and Camden Hills State Park, stay in Camden or Freeport

Day 5: Portland, departure

 

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