Maine Scenic Drives: Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway


The Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway cuts through a region that was settled by a small number of hardy pioneers in the early 1800s. Rugged and remote, this region grew slowly, while sustaining about a dozen family farms and lumber mills throughout the first half of the century.

In the 1860s, the small community began to change when vacationers from cities along the Eastern Seaboard discovered 10- to 12-pound brook trout swimming in the region's pristine waters. As word spread about the unparalleled fishing and the unspoiled beauty of the region, large numbers of anglers and their families began an annual trek to the region. By 1925, the Rangeley region had become a premier destination resort area that attracted visitors, as well as a host of U.S. Presidents, from all corners of the nation.

Today the region's cultural history and outstanding scenic, natural, and recreational resources offer local residents and visitors an array of activities that extend throughout the year. During the summer months, treat yourself to a host of festivals, concerts, and museums as well as boating, hiking, fishing, bicycling, and wildlife watching.

When autumn paints the hillsides in red and gold, come enjoy leaf watching, hiking, and hunting in the crisp Maine air. A cup of fresh squeezed cider from the Apple Festival, a tour of the Wilhelm Reich Museum, or a drive along the bronzed byway will round out your autumn day in Rangeley. Winter arrives early, cloaking the region in 12 feet of snow. Between Christmas fairs, concerts, and the annual Snodeo festival, join skiers, snowmobilers, and ice skaters and take to the slopes, trails, and lakes. Then, as temperatures rise and the days increase in length, spring ushers in the annual "ice out contest."

Archaeological Qualities of Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway

The first people known to have inhabited Maine were the Paleo-Indians. They moved from the south or west about 9,000 years ago as the area that is now Maine was recovering from the last glaciation. Typically they camped on land away from river valleys and were probably the only prehistoric people to have done so. Near the end of the Paleo-Indian era, trees spread across Maine and forced the state's inhabitants to live and travel along coastal areas, lakes, and waterways.

Four types of archaeological sites are found in Maine: habitation and workshop sites, lithic quarries, cemeteries, and rock art. Habitation and workshop sites make up more than 95 percent of the known archaeological sites in Maine. Artifacts found at these sites were used by the Paleo-Indians to procure and process food and to manufacture and maintain tools.

Northwest of the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway on the shoreline of Aziscohos Lake is the Vail Site. It is located in a high mountain river valley, and artifacts from this classic Paleo-Indian habitation site date back to 11,000 B.C. Surrounded by smaller habitation sites, the Vail Site includes a stone meat cache and two killing grounds, the first of their kind to be recorded east of the Mississippi River. Professional excavations in eight or nine sites recovered more than 4,000 tools.

Although no bones were found at the Vail killing sites, it has been suggested and supported through other site research that the prehistoric people hunted caribou almost exclusively. One of the most significant finds at the Vail Site was a series of finely crafted fluted points. The points are very sharp and many are thought to have tipped thrusting spears. These discoveries also support the idea that the hunters were aware of the seasonal migration of caribou herds and that they slaughtered hundreds of them en route to their winter habitat.

Qualities of Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway

Responding to the sudden flood of anglers (or "sports" as they were affectionately called) in the late 1800s, the local residents built rustic sporting cabins along the shores of the region's lakes. Equipped with beds, gas lamps, and fireplaces, these simple but comfortable structures offered a welcome alternative to a lumpy bedroll and canvas tent.

With an intimate knowledge of the lakes, the locals acted as guides, using the famed Rangeley Boat to row their clients to the best fishing holes in the region. Equally adept with a skillet and a campfire, the guides treated the sports to lakeside dinners of fresh trout, locally grown vegetables, and hefty mugs of coffee. The tradition of sporting cabins and guiding continues today, as anglers cast for the "speckled beauties" throughout the spring and summer months.

A dangerous and difficult way to make a living, logging supported many of the local families and contributed to the development of a strong regional identity. For nearly a century, two-person teams used crosscut saws and sturdy pairs of horses or oxen to fell and haul the mighty trees over the snow to the region's frozen lakes. When the ice gave way each spring, the logs were hauled across the lakes by steamship. Finally, dams built to hold back the mighty waters were released, sending cascades of logs downriver to the paper mills.

Over the years, technological advances slowly replaced the handsaws, oxen teams, and axes. As a result, the physical demands of the job were reduced while the overall productivity was increased. Today the highly advanced mechanical harvester and 18-wheeler have replaced the double-bladed axe and river drive. Two-person crews have replaced the lumber camp and the storytelling, joking, and camaraderie that rose among the fallen trees as the loggers labored through the frigid winter months toward a common goal. Fortunately this unique story of the industry and the changing cultural landscape has been preserved at the Rangeley Lakes Logging Museum. Open on weekends in the summer, the museum captures the past and brings it forward to the future to be relived a few hours at a time.

This map details Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway. This map details Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway.
This map details Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway.

Qualities of Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway

Long before settlement of the region by pioneers from the south, two Native American nations made the lakes area their home during the warmest months of the year. The St. Francis nation from the north and the Abenakis from the south hunted game and fished for trout in the many lakes and rivers. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of campsites and arrowheads near the outlet of Rangeley Lake indicating that this was one of their favorite sites to spend the summer.

The region was first "discovered" by British lieutenant John Montresor in 1760. However, it was not until 1794 that the region, as part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was surveyed and mapped.

In 1796, four investors, including Philadelphian James Rangeley, Sr., purchased nearly 31,000 acres of land in the western mountains for timber and mineral rights. However, it was nearly 26 years before any of the owners set foot on their land. In 1817, Luther Hoar and his family of eight established the region's first substantial and permanent settlement. The following year, two other families settled near the lake. When James Rangeley, Sr., died, his son inherited the land and bought out the remaining partners. James, Jr., and his family decided to make this wild place their home. Only 12 years later, the area was officially renamed Rangeley, and by 1840 the population had increased to 39 families.

The settlement of Rangeley was small, but thriving. Soon, anglers from out of state discovered Indian Rock, where brook trout weighing over ten pounds could be caught. By 1860, Rangeley had acquired a reputation as a fishing paradise. Local residents were very accommodating to all of the anglers and began building sporting camps, cabins, and hotels to house their guests.

In the 1880s, the region was prominently featured at several National Sporting Expositions, as well as in newspapers up and down the East Coast. As a result, outdoor enthusiasts arrived in throngs, and by 1900 there were more than 200 fishing guides in the area. The state's most famous and first registered Maine guide was Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby. Certified by the state in 1898, Crosby was not only a superb angler, but also the individual who first pioneered and promoted the now fashionable policy of "catch and release" and the adoption of fishing seasons.

By 1909, the population had swollen from a mere 238 in 1860 to nearly 1,400. The region boasted a number of five-star resorts and sporting camps, among them the Mooselookmeguntic House, Rangeley Lake House, and Grant's Kennebago Camps. A number of wealthy and influential families from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston owned many of the private camps, and the late 1920s and '30s became known as the "Golden Age." Entire families boarded trains to escape the heat and smog of the big cities for a summer of leisure and sport at their favorite resort. Upon arrival they were treated to exquisite dining, ballroom dancing, golf, casino gambling, moonlight boat rides, and a "Boston orchestra."

Following the outbreak of World War II, the travel and leisure habits of the nation changed. Reservations at the grand hotels declined dramatically, and by 1958, the famed Rangeley Lake House was razed. Fortunately, Rangeley is able to adapt to the changing demands of vacationers, and today is an extremely popular summer resort and summer home destination. Several historic sporting camps are still thriving as public resorts for outdoor recreationalists, and the more-than-90-year-old Rangeley Inn (once part of the Rangeley Lake House) continues to stand as a testament to the grand Hotel Era.

Qualities of Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway

The Rangeley Lakes region is a wonderful place to do a little wildlife watching. More than 10,000 acres of land have been preserved, which includes more than 20 miles of lake and river shore, ten islands, and a 4,116-foot mountain. In such a wide range of settings, visitors are likely to see a variety of wildlife. Bird-watching is a particular favorite. In fact, just about any bird that comes to the Northeast can be found here, including rare or endangered types.

The best way to see birds, if you are not planning to stay a few seasons, is to tromp through the woods at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Canoes and kayaks are the best way to see waterfowl and shore birds. A trip along Kennebago River will often bring views of kingfishers, cranes, and herons. A less strenuous motorboat ride on Rangeley or Mooselookmeguntic Lakes will offer sightings of the common loon.

Rangeley Lakes is a favorite with deer and moose. They are often spotted in the late spring and early summer. Wooded trails are a great place to spot them. Bike rides in the early morning offer a wonderful way to cover more territory without the startling sound of an engine. If you are lucky, you may see bear, deer, rabbits, and coyote. You may even happen across a litter of playful fox pups. When you can stand the bugs, take a quick jaunt down to a bog. These areas are alive with an assortment of life. A quiet night by a pond may offer glimpses of beavers, otters, and a variety of ducks.

Recreational Qualities of Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway

Blessed with an abundance of natural resources, the Rangeley region provides four seasons of recreational treats. During the summer, this region comes alive with activities such as Fourth of July picnics and fireworks, blueberry and logging festivals, auctions, concerts, and stage performances.

Fall attracts many travelers because of the brilliant foliage and is a great time to hike. Since 1933, the famous Appalachian Trail has crossed both Routes 4 and 17 and leads to many of the region's highest peaks. A strenuous, but very rewarding, hike is along the trail northward to the summit of Saddleback Mountain. This hike is ten miles round-trip and offers exceptional scenery along the way. Hikers should be prepared for sudden shifts in weather and high winds that rake the open ridgeline. An easier hike is the one-mile trek to Bald Mountain. The trailhead is a mile south of Haines Landing on Bald Mountain Road in the picturesque village of Oquossoc. A viewing platform at the peak offers spectacular 360-degree views of Mooselookmeguntic Lake, Rangeley Lake, Gull Pond, and Richardson Pond.

Canoeing is also a favorite in the Rangeley Lakes region. Sometimes referred to as a canoeist's paradise, the miles of interconnected waters, dense forests, and looming mountains contribute to the allure. Most of the lakes and ponds have public launches while Rangeley Lake has several: the Rangeley Lakes State Park launch on the south side of the lake, the public landing in the northwest corner of the lake at the intersection of Routes 17 and 4 in Oquossoc, and the town park in downtown Rangeley.

Winter sports include alpine and cross-country skiing, as well as snowmobiling, sled dog racing, and ice fishing. Rangeley has an extensive system of snowmobile trails (more than 125 miles) that link to the Interconnected Trail System (ITS), which allows travel all the way across Maine and into Canada. Nearby Saddleback Ski Resort has 41 trails and the highest vertical drop in the state while the local cross-country ski club boasts some of the best skiing and grooming in New England.

Spring and winter in Rangeley blend together until mid-April, allowing snow sport enthusiasts to play for a month longer than their neighbors to the south. When the ice finally goes out on the lakes and the green buds begin to swell on the trees, Rangeley's famous fishing season kicks into high gear.

Find more useful information related to Maine's Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway:

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