A glacier started it. A flock of sheep played an integral role. But the Desert of Maine, as we know it today, is largely the result of human influence.
Farmers, families, and business owners all played parts – some unwittingly, some with a talent for tourism marketing and access to live camels.
The desert, on Desert Road in Freeport, has a colorful history. Case in point: The Hermit of Maine, Charles Coffin (not to be confused with the more recent North Pond Hermit), was a musician and artist who lived in a cabin on Desert Road. He entertained desert visitors with music and tours of his shack while they waited in bumper-to-bumper automobile traffic.
These days, in the hands of owners Mela and Doug Heestand, who live in Freeport and purchased the property in late 2018, the Desert of Maine is getting a welcome freshening. The buildings are renovated and bright, interpretive signs explain the desert’s unique and changing landscape, and even the fabled spring house was unearthed after being swallowed up by blowing sands for the last 60 or so years.
The Heestands want the desert to be a place for visitors of all ages to explore and wander, but also a place that celebrates artists, nature’s fortitude, and the desert’s true history.
They’re doing this with the help of paleontologists and geologists, as well as Mela’s own archival research. They’re also doing it with good humor and personality, which is evident in the wonderfully pun-rich campground signs (“50 ways to leave your loofah” reads a sign in the campground shower), an engaging animated Desert of Maine History video (find it on YouTube), and funny registration confirmation emails.
If you’ve been to this sand-covered curiosity, maybe when you were a kid, it warrants a revisit. If you haven’t, here’s a quick primer:
The Desert of Maine is technically not a desert (it rains far too much in Freeport for it to be classified as one). But it is, genuinely, super neat.
The sand is the handiwork of a massive ice sheet that stretched from Canada to Cape Cod nearly 30,000 years ago. The ice was so thick that it easily buried the summits of Mount Washington and Mount Katahdin. It was so heavy that it submerged Maine’s present-day coastline below sea level, allowing the ocean to creep inland for miles.
As that ice sheet inched along, it ground up rock into sand and silt. When it eventually receded and the coastline buoyed back, around 13,500 years ago, all that sand started flying around in the wind. A whole lot of it gathered in a place we now call Freeport. Vegetation grew on it, and then a forest.
The desert disappeared as Wabanaki feet walked the land and stayed buried for thousands of years, even as Europeans arrived and began to settle – that is until the Tuttle family began to farm the land in the 1820s. The process of farming, along with the family’s herd of grazing sheep, eroded the topsoil. And up from the ground, the sand came again.
There’s so much more to the Desert of Maine’s story – real-life naturalists and some truth-fluid folklore – that you’ll learn during a visit.
And the desert-adjacent campground makes for a unique place to spend a few nights.
The campground boasts a host of amenities, including a self-serve camp store that takes cash or credit cards. Need ice or bug spray or a bottle of ginger beer at midnight? No problem. There’s a renovated and sharp-looking bathhouse and there are lawn games to play, including cornhole, tetherball, and giant Connect Four and Jenga.
Pop a tent or park your RV under towering pines on a traditional-looking campsite. Or, for folks who prefer to not assemble their shelter upon arrival, there are brand-new A-frame cabins with comfy beds, electricity, and a big window that lets you peer out into the woods.
Campers get a 15 percent discount on desert admission and mini-golf (did I mention there’s mini-golf?) and are also welcome to roam the desert after it closes to the public for the day (stargazing from the desert is a thing!).
And that desert? It’s taken a new shape since you’ve likely seen it last.
The forest is in the process of reclaiming the sand. What once was a 110-acre desert is now down to about 20 acres. In the not-too-distant future, it’s likely the desert will exist only in our memories. All the more reason to see it now.
Visitors can take a one-mile self-guided tour through the desert to learn about its history, geology, and ecology, including a “recovery zone” where reforestation is happening as we speak.
There’s also a hiking trail through the woods that skirts the desert’s perimeter, a cool Gemstone Village with a labyrinth, wishing bridge, and hobbit house, and a “fossil dig” area, where kids (and adults) can employ the tools of paleontology to discover fossils and minerals.
And while the gazebo-like wooden structure of the spring house didn’t survive the decades it spent under the sand, you can see the original well and stone walls. The old barn – a remnant from the Tuttle family farm, which was on this spot when the desert first began to reemerge – is also under renovation and will eventually be an event space.
Inside the welcome center, browse the books, art, and T-shirts for sale in the gift shop, and take a gander at the small art gallery. The attached snack bar serves up ice cream, kettle corn, and fresh-made lemonade.
The Desert of Maine is a place for kids – a geological wonder paired with hermit folklore and things to climb on. But there’s plenty for grown-ups to be fascinated by, too.
Shannon Bryan is a writer and outdoor enthusiast who lives in South Portland. Find her at shannonkbryan.com.