written by
Joe Boone

Up and down its coasts and in its heartland, the U.S. begs to be explored, and one of my favorite regions for a memorable land cruise is New England, the birthplace of America. From the rugged Atlantic coastline, to changing autumn foliage and forested mountains, some of the most striking road trips in this part of the country can be found in Maine and New Hampshire.

Welcome to “Vacationland”

Since 1936, Maine has adorned its vehicle license plates with the slogan “Vacationland” and for good reason. Maine’s unique natural setting, historic past, and endless opportunities for exploration have been attracting vacationers for decades. Pristine wilderness, pine forest mountains, crystal clear waterways, world-renowned parks, extraordinary beaches, nationally-ranked golf courses, moose safaris, whale watching trips, and the dramatic coastal scenery of Maine’s 5,000 mile long majestic, craggy coastline make it one of America’s favorite outdoor playgrounds.

Add to all that, dozens of National Historic Landmarks, quaint B&Bs and inns, hundreds of antique shops, internationally-known shopping areas, 65 historical lighthouses, 40,000 acres of wild blueberries, lobster and clam shacks, and award-winning restaurants, make Maine the perfect setting for a fun and unique adventure. And one of the best ways to experience “Vacationland” is on a road trip along Maine’s Coastal Highway, U.S. Route 1, from Portsmouth to Bar Harbor and nearby Acadia National Park.

Approximately 225 miles by car, the drive can be completed in about four hours and a round-trip journey can be done in a day, but that’s hardly the way to experience the best of Maine. U.S. Route 1 parallels the coast and along the way there are numerous opportunities to pull off the highway to walk along sandy beaches like Ogunquit and Old Orchard or explore the many lighthouses, small towns and villages offering perfect settings for a Norman Rockwell painting. 

If time permits, consider an overnight stay in Kennebunkport, Rockland, and Bar Harbor, each a two-hour drive from the next. In between these three towns there is so much to see just off each junction you’ll encounter along Route 1 that you will wish you had more time. Small seaside villages, lighthouses, seascapes and natural wonders will draw your eyes from the road, so remain vigilant of your surroundings.

Kennebunkport offers the charm of Old World New England and was the summer home to the late former President George H.W. Bush family. Kennebunkport stands out for its picturesque small town setting, turn of the century captain's homes, and active harbor with trendy restaurants and shops. Be sure to check out the circa 1825 Wedding Cake House while you’re there.


Further along is Portland, Maine’s largest city. Forbes Magazine named it America’s most livable city and Bon Appetit said it's the “foodiest small town in America.” Continuing on is Freeport, a charming community known for its plethora of shopping outlets, restaurants, and home to L.L. Bean.


One of my favorite stops along the route is the small coastal town of Rockland, known as the Lobster Capital of Maine. Perfect for an overnight stay, each August, Rockland plays host to the Maine Lobster Festival. Next, consider a stop in Rockport, one of the prettiest towns in the state and a popular tourist destination and art colony.


No trip to Maine would be complete without a visit to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Settled in 1763, Bar Harbor is a quintessential American harbor resort town that has to be experienced. Acadia National Park lies just southwest of Bar Harbor and preserves about half of the island. Protecting the natural beauty of the rocky headlands, including the highest mountain (Cadillac Mountain) along the Atlantic coast, it's a stunning national treasure. Acadia boasts a glaciated coastal and island landscape, and an abundance of habitats. Its mountains, lakes, streams, wetlands, forests, meadows, and coastline contribute to a diversity of plants and animals. Acadia's collection of twenty-seven lighthouses attract visitors from all around the world and with more than 3,000,000 visitors annually, it’s one of the most visited of the U.S. National Parks.


On Down the “Kanc”


While there are many opportunities for short, one-day road trips throughout New England, one of the most popular is New Hampshire’s 34.5-mile-long Kancamagus Scenic Byway. “The Kanc,” as it is also known, is perfect for late spring and summer cruising, but early autumn is the most popular time to enjoy this idyllic stretch of country. The brilliantly colored fall foliage is undoubtedly its hallmark and will take your breath away. Considered one of the top fall foliage viewing areas in the continental U.S., this is one road cruise that will forever stay in your memory.  


The Kanc is part of northern New Hampshire’s 56-mile long Route 112 (NH 112) that spans east to west from Lincoln to Conway. This stretch of the highway provides an awe-inspiring escape from civilization, taking you through a winding path cut through the White Mountain National Forest that follows the Swift River. Reaching an elevation of just under 3,000 feet at its highest point at Kancamagus Pass, heavenly views of the White Mountains, the Swift River, Sabbaday Falls, Lower Falls, and Rocky Gorge abound throughout the journey, earning it recognition as an American Scenic Byway.

Driving along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, you are taken back in time through a pristine forest unblemished by the creature comforts of the modern day world. No gas stations, no restaurants, no hotels, no tourist attractions or other businesses have staked their claim. And no cell phone access either. It’s a welcome disconnect from the outside world. 

While you can drive The Kanc in an hour, why would you want to? Rarely do we have the opportunity to enjoy nature without interruption, so take advantage while you can. Enjoy the spell-bounding allure of its natural wonders, picturesque ponds, and Swift River up close by exploring the numerous walking paths and hiking trails that are available throughout the White Mountain National Forest. On hot summer days, take a dip in a swimming hole along the Swift River. There is a perfect spot at the Lower Falls. Featuring natural waterfall slides, minor rapids perfect for tubing (bring your own), and a large green swimming hole, it's a natural water park and lots of fun for kids of all ages. 


If rock climbing is your forte, check out the Kancamagus Crags. It’s one of the hidden secrets on the eastern end of The Kanc that not many people know about. Campers will love the six campgrounds that can be found along the byway, all available on a first-come, first served basis, as well as private campgrounds on the outskirts of the byway, so bring your family and stay a while. If camping isn't your style, there is an abundance of other accommodations on either end of the Kancamagus Highway in the towns of Lincoln and Conway. Either way, when you are ready to clock out and head to the great outdoors, this is the perfect venue.

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