Make it your goal to visit all 10 of the best state parks in Maine, and you'll understand why so many people are enchanted by the diversity within the state's boundaries. Your senses will be awakened and your memory banks filled as you dig your toes into soft sand at a lake, pond or ocean beach; listen to the haunting cry of a loon; inhale the tingly scent of pine trees in a quiet forest; look down from sheer cliffs, a bridge observatory or a mountaintop at the rocky coast, rivers or vast tracts of wilderness; spy on moose munching swamp weeds; or leave tracks on snow-covered ground. Whether your favorite outdoor activity is swimming, fishing, boating, snowmobiling, camping, hiking, paddling or birdwatching, there are parks that will speak to you and remind you of how much beauty exists in our natural world.
Percival P. Baxter, who served as Maine's governor from 1921 to 1924, made it his lifelong obsession to preserve the wilderness surrounding mile-high Mount Katahdin: the tallest peak in the state. Today, Baxter State Park's 209,644 acres are preserved predominantly as a wildlife sanctuary, making it an excellent place to spot moose. Baxter State Park is the northern end point of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, and there are a whopping 220+ miles of trails to hike within the park including the challenging Knife Edge atop Mount Katahdin. Camping options are bountiful but rustic, and winter camping can be especially harsh. You don't need to hike or camp to appreciate the rugged beauty of these northern wilds, though. Drive the mostly dirt Park Tote Road 46 miles through this amazing landscape for views of Mount Katahdin, serene ponds, dense forest lands and wildlife.
The pinnacle experience within this state park in the seaport town of Camden is the drive to the summit of Mount Battie. From the summit you can get sweeping views of Maine's coast and when conditions are clear, you can spot Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. The aerial views are even more striking when fall colors arrive in the Camden Hills (peak typically occurs in mid-October). There are easy walks and more strenuous climbs aplenty here including the moderate trek to the top of Mount Megunticook, the highest peak on the Maine mainland. Horseback riding and mountain biking trails also exist within the park. In the winter, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers make this their domain. Bring your camper or a tent, and enjoy an affordable stay at the park's campground.
Take Maine's fastest elevator to the top of the world's tallest, publicly accessible bridge observatory for views of the Penobscot River, Penobscot Bay and the state's largest historic fort. You'll marvel at the scenes you'll see in all directions from this engineering wonder that was built as part of the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge and opened to visitors in 2007. When you're back on the ground, fascinating Fort Knox awaits. Built of granite between 1844 and 1864, it was left uncompleted after playing a non-combat role in the Civil and Spanish American Wars. Exploring the well preserved coastal fortifications and the site's waterside grounds is both educational and exhilarating. In October, it can be spine-tingling, too, during the annual Fright at the Fort event.
At the tip of the Phippsburg peninsula near Bath, you'll find one of Maine's longest sandy beaches. Wear sunglasses because Popham Beach has Hollywood clout: it appeared in a Kevin Costner movie. Since the filming of "Message in a Bottle," the sands here have been subject to dramatic erosion. Because the beach narrows as the tide rises, it's wise to check current tide information before you go. While you're in Phippsburg, don't miss two Maine State Historic Sites near the beach: Civil War-era Fort Popham and Fort Baldwin, built as a submarine lookout during World War I.
Home to West Quoddy Head Light — one of the most beautiful lighthouses in New England and the only candy cane-striped lighthouse in America — this 541-acre Maine state park has another distinction. Daylight touches this Bold Coast point of land before any other spot in America. Scraggly pines cling to sheer cliffs here that rise 80 feet above the Atlantic ocean, and although the park doesn't technically open until 9 a.m. each day, photographers walk in before dawn to catch images of majestic sights in the day's early light. There are picnic areas and trails along the rocky coast and through Quoddy Head Bog. Whales and seals can be spotted cavorting in the waters off Quoddy Head, and bald eagles nest nearby. From Memorial Day weekend through mid-October, stop into the lighthouse Visitor's Center to learn more about this storied beacon, which is still an active aid to navigation.
Outdoors enthusiasts have made the trek to Maine's western lakes and mountains region since the mid-1800s: long before they all drove SUVs. The stunning Rangeley Lake, with its Saddleback Mountain views, remains a chief attraction. This is paradise for boaters and for catch-and-release anglers: The lake is renowned for its landlocked salmon and trout populations. The park's 869 acres beckon to hikers and ATVers in the fair weather months, leaf peepers each fall and snowmobilers in the winter. There are 50 fairly private campsites near the lakeshore available seasonally.
Maine's first saltwater beach to be gifted forever to the public is on the island of Georgetown in Midcoast Maine. Since that generous donation by Walter E. Reid in 1946, Reid State Park has been a year-round destination for ocean lovers who find calm and inspiration here, even when the sand is sprinkled with snow. In the summer, Mile and Half Mile beaches are not just a place to stroll, sunbathe and swim in the brisk, sparkling ocean. You'll see Mainers surf casting for saltwater game fish and building elaborate driftwood structures. Join them!
Imagine diving into frothy, cold Atlantic Ocean waters, then turning your back on the sea and retreating to the relative warmth of a 60-acre freshwater pond. That unique experience awaits at this little-known state park situated on a point of land south of Machias. If you could view these 274 acres from the air, your focus would be on the narrow, half-mile strip of sand that separates Simpson Pond from Englishman Bay. On the ground, you'll see diverse and photogenic coastal landscapes if you set out to explore the 6-mile trail network. Also at Roque Bluffs State Park: Fish the trout-stocked pond or rent a kayak to paddle on its serene waters.
Maine's deepest, second-largest lake is super-clean, scenic and the centerpiece of this 1,400-acre park. Sebago Lake State Park one of the first five Maine state parks to open to the public in 1938. More than 80 years later, the old-fashioned joys of freshwater swimming, paddling, boating, eagle watching, hiking easy-to-moderate trails and fishing for landlocked salmon and lake trout still lure day visitors and overnight campers. The park's campground has 250 sites for tents, campers and RVs. It's so popular, reservations open for the late May through early September camping season on February 1: four days before the state begins accepting reservations for any of its other campgrounds. All reservations booked in February must be a minimum of four nights.
So close to Maine's largest city — Portland — yet a peaceful world away, these 200 mostly wooded acres on Casco Bay and the Harraseeket River beckon to hikers, birdwatchers and, in the winter, cross-country skiers. The park's must-do activity is a walk along the Casco Bay Trail for views of Maine's rocky coast and offshore islands. In the summer, continue on the White Pines Trail, and you can spy on ospreys that return each year to nest on nearby Googins Island. Guided walks and nature programs are routinely offered: a schedule is available online.