By Jean Grant – From the southern beaches to West Quody Head Light, and pristine Baxter State Park to iconic Acadia National Park, a Maine family vacation can be breathtaking and exhilarating. As a Mid-Atlantic native, I had my preconceived notions about the land north and “down east” — frigid winters, lobster everything, lighthouses, blueberries, sailing, but when considering the wide variety of things to do in Camden, Maine; It is all that, and more.
Since our first trip over ten years ago, Camden has become our family’s home away from home, only a few hours’ drive from Massachusetts. My children equate Maine with exploring rocky beaches, sailing and fun-filled outdoor excursions. My personal favorites: mountains and pine-scented forests, briny sea air at oceanside venues and slow-paced relaxation.
Bring your hiking and sailing shoes, beach gear, and camera to the state they call “Vacationland.” What awaits you in Maine? With nature, wonder, and adventure at every turn — by book, boat, or boot — almost anything you wish.
Camden Is A Mid-Coast Jewel
Camden is a former mill, mining and shipbuilding town that is the epitome of Maine with its affluent, old-town feel, year-round community, interesting history, non-commercialized streets and unique niche of tourists.
It’s ideally situated midway between Portland and Bar Harbor along coast-hugging U.S. Route 1. The town hosts fine hotels, B&Bs, Camden Hills State Park for camping and hiking, beautiful and unique shops and economical lodgings in nearby Lincolnville and Rockland.
Pro Tip: Book your Maine family vacation through Booking.com. They guarantee the best prices for any type of property and no booking fees!
Toss the itinerary! Family-friendly activities are aplenty in Camden. Just pack up the car with spare clothes and shoes (my kids always find ways to get wet), snacks, sunscreen and hats. A walk around town yields a plethora of shops.
The kids’ favorite: The Planet (for toys) or The Smiling Cow (for treats and trinkets). My favorites: The Duck Trap (art), Maine Sport Outfitters and Once a Tree (wood and handmade crafts). Daily visits to the old boat launch in Harbor Park are a must for our sons.
They hop over the seaweed-covered rocks at low-tide and watch the Megunticook River empty into Camden Harbor. High-tide (because one can’t just go once a day): bring bird seed or corn for the ducks.
Our children also enjoy games of hide-and-seek in the Camden Library Amphitheatre, a modernist marvel of arched, tiered stone seats and grassy pavilion built in 1931, with a backdrop of Camden Harbor. It’s nestled adjacent to the library, which has a charming children’s area.
Need a cup of local java and a scrumptious breakfast? Check out the Bagel Café (a local favorite tucked away behind Main Street in the old Knox Mill), Boynton and McKay or the Owl and Turtle book shop on Bayview Street.
The Montessori school has an enclosed playground (on non-school days) for young ones to burn off energy. The Waterfront restaurant offers a splendid view of the harbor for afternoon or evening dining.
Lighthouses, Lakes and Mountains near Camden
Camden makes a great home base for exploring the Mid-Coast Penobscot Bay region. Maine is home to over 60 lighthouses, large structures with tall towers, intricate light workings and ocean views that are beacons for my nautical-loving children.
Some lighthouses have fees (or suggested donations), and some are situated on islands only reachable by ferry or boat or are down long peninsula drives or trails, so always check on that before you go. Some of our favorites:
- Marshall Point: of Forrest Gump fame and where the kids scramble over rocks looking for seaweed and shells
- Pemaquid Point: noted for its vibrant streaks of granite formations, and if your child is tall enough, the fee for this light includes a tour up the tower to the light; it also has a fabulous museum in the keeper’s house
- Rockland Breakwater: an adventurous three-quarter mile walk on a breakwater to the light (not for the nervous type and keep a hand on young children)
- Curtis Island Light: kayak or take a small dingy out to the island in Camden Harbor to explore this light – Maine Sport Outfitters offers guided paddles to the island
Wherever you venture you’ll be rewarded with spectacular sights, educational museums, galleries, shops and quintessential Maine with a self-guided lighthouse tour. The Lighthouse Handbook of New England (by J. D’Entremont) is one of my go-to books.
Deep blue Lake Megunticook offers rich views of Camden Hills State Park via numerous trails and is an ideal spot to visit a lake beach or launch a kayak/canoe to explore the island-speckled and snaking glacially-formed lake. Nearby Fernald’s Neck Nature Conservatory has flat trails; the kids love to try to tip over “Balance Rock,” one of the many large glacial boulders of Maine.
Lincolnville Beach will nurture the sandcastle builder in your family, and hidden Laite Beach in Camden provides a view of gorgeous Camden Harbor and is one of our favorite beaches. Rocky beaches abound as well so there is no shortage of shells and cairn-building. Be prepared though – even in the heat of summer, the north Atlantic is cold! Did I mention that the kids get wet? Extra clothes and shoes are a must with young explorers.
Got mountains on the mind? A trip up Mount Battie by the Autoroad (with a fee) or by trail (Mount Battie Trail from town, for elementary-aged children or older) rewards you with an amazing panorama of the Mid-Coast, town and the harbor beyond. The tower at the top is a definite kid-magnet. More ambitious? Hike up Bald Rock Mountain, Maiden Cliff Trail or Mount Megunticook’s Ocean Lookout, all with rewarding views.
Catching the Wind in Camden
Maine is home to 5,000 miles of ragged tidal and island coastline and 2,500 islands. Although summer is stunning with its Independence Day activities, September is a sun-drenched, fun month and our favorite time to visit.
Camden hosts a yearly Windjammer Festival, where big schooners and sailboats travel north from places as far away as the Bahamas for a festive Labor Day weekend of sailing, boat tours, talent show by schooner crews, kid-friendly activities, including lobster crate races and fireworks. Snap on the life-jacket and let the kids meander the docks, explore the schooners or paddle out to Curtis Island Light.
The larger islands are reachable by ferries, but for voyages to the smaller islands chartering a sailboat or booking passage on a schooner is a must. The Olad, captained by Aaron Lincoln, is one of our favorites. Like many Mainers, he regales us with his personal colorful story about being an aspiring photographer who turned into a sea-faring captain of a 90-year-old wooden schooner.
The Olad has a rich history of ownership, including the likes of Walter Cronkite and E.B. White. Captain Lincoln gladly let my youngest son take the helm and steer, while my older son pointed out the anemometer, as we sailed past Curtis Island and out into Penobscot Bay. Camden is easy to sail with its cold, deep water and reliable winds, ingredients for ideal wooden schooner sailing.
Captain Lincoln shared that sailing is humbling, peaceful and always a learning process, even 17 years into his career. And it’s never too early to start sailing – my sons both christened their first boat young and have natural sea legs.
Camden Is A Place for all Seasons
Another nugget of Maine is its resplendent autumn, with peak fall foliage in early to mid-October. The sugar and red maples, aspens and oaks bathe the coastline and inner areas in a rainbow of color, an irresistible lure to leaf-peepers. Winter brings the crisp smell of pines, spruces and firs, and snow activities, including Snow Bowl’s toboggan chute and skiing.
Camden hosts a “Christmas by the Sea” weekend in December, complete with Santa arriving in the harbor via lobster boat followed by a parade through town, a reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas at the library, pictures with Santa, concerts and performances, craft-making, Holly Berry Fair (with artistic gingerbread houses) and picture opportunities with Belted Galloway cows at the Aldermere Farm.
Down East & Almost to Canada
Over 90% of Maine is forest land, with the majority in the northern part of the state. Maine is home to the grand finale of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) that begins in Georgia and ends at Baxter Peak (Katahdin). This 5,200-foot beast is a magnificent sight and adventure, and the easiest trail to the peak is the 11-mile roundtrip Hunt Trail from Katahdin Stream campground.
It’s not recommended with young children, but doable with older elementary children who are fit, prepared and adventurous – involving a 4,000-foot elevation gain (my husband and I clocked in at 11 hours for this tough hike).
The park also hosts several campgrounds with tent and cabin sites. The Roaring Brook campground in Baxter State Park is a good choice for families with its easy nature trails around Sandy Stream Pond, or one can choose a moderate hike up South Turner Mountain or to Chimney Pond, both with rewarding views of Katahdin. In over a decade of visiting Maine, Baxter is where we saw our first moose!
No matter where you go, Maine will leave you with sand-filled shoes, full photo memory albums, windswept sailor’s hair (no joke!) and memories to last a lifetime.
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Jean Grant is a scientist, author, part-time education director, and a mom to two active, nature-loving sons. She currently resides in Massachusetts. Her website can be found at: jeanmgrant.com
Bonnie Schmidt says
You totally missed out on Rockport Harbor.
Jennifer Fontaine says
Great suggestion, Bonnie! Thanks for taking the time to comment. There are so many wonderful things to do and see in this part of the U.S.