The Desert of Maine

The Desert of Maine started as a patch of sand and grew to cover more than 40 acres. Photos by Jen Mathews.
The Desert of Maine started as a patch of sand and grew to cover more than 40 acres. Photos by Jen Mathews.

The Desert of Maine: It Started as a Patch of Sand

By Jen Mathews

My husband and I found ourselves in Maine on our honeymoon because we wanted something different than the typical island getaway for newlyweds.

Instead, we chose Old Orchard Beach in the off season and took day trips to Portland and its neighboring towns, stopping at any roadside attractions we found along the way.

Though we enjoyed seeing the gigantic boot at the flagship L.L. Bean store and Lenny, the only life-sized chocolate moose in the world, at Len Libby’s Chocolates, the Desert of Maine was our favorite stop. Oddly enough, it’s a large expanse of sand left behind by a receding glacier that passed through the state thousands of years ago.

What Made Us Visit

To be honest, we didn’t have high expectations for the Desert of Maine. While doing some online research into tourist attractions near Old Orchard Beach, I stumbled across its website.

Thinking that it looked strange but interesting, I decided that we could combine it with a few other stops in and around Freeport, Maine.

On the morning of our day trip, we left our bed and breakfast relatively early so that we could catch one of the morning tours at the Desert of Maine. It wasn’t hard to find – we took I-295 north to exit 20, then followed Desert Road to a dead end.

When we arrived, we wandered around the gift shop and purchased our tickets. As of February 2010, prices are now $9.75 per adult, $6.75 per teen (13-16 years old) and $5.75 per child (5-12 years old).

The author in front of the boot at the L.L. Bean retail store in Freeport, Maine
The author in front of the boot at the L.L. Bean retail store in Freeport, Maine

First Impressions

Initially, we were impressed by the size of the Desert of Maine. Unfairly, we had pictured something like a very large sandbox. In reality, it’s a 40-acre expanse of sand and minerals.

While the sand looks a lot like sand you might find at the beaches along the eastern U.S. coast, it was odd to see a forest of trees surrounding the “desert.” Truthfully, it’s not technically a desert because of the amount of rainfall southern Maine receives. However, the name is still pretty catchy.

What Your Ticket Includes

Admission to the Desert of Maine includes a number of things. We were most interested in a guided tram ride out onto the sand field, where a guide would tell us about the history of the place. We also toured the barn museum, which housed antique farm equipment and tools.

In the barn museum, we were interested to see a collection of sand from around the world. Apparently, visitors to the Desert of Maine sometimes shipped back sand from their hometowns or other locations they visited. I was excited to see a vial of sand from a beach very near my own hometown.

Soon after we arrived, we took the 30-minute, narrated Glacier Desert Tour Ride out onto the sand. The day we visited, it was sunny and mild enough to be comfortable in a sweater. As we rode along and stopped at the major viewpoints, our knowledgeable guide shared information about how the Desert of Maine was discovered and how it formed.

View from the tram on the Glacier Desert Tour Ride
View from the tram on the Glacier Desert Tour Ride

How the Desert of Maine was Discovered

As our guide explained it, the land we were standing on was once farmland. A farmer named William Tuttle purchased the land in the 1700s and moved his wife, their existing house, and their barn from the Portland area to Freeport. Oxen pulled the house and barn.

The Tuttles farmed the land for several years, growing potatoes and hay. However, several factors – overgrazing, clear cutting, and failure to rotate crops – led to erosion of the topsoil on the farm. First, a patch of sand appeared. As the soil continued to erode, more and more sand appeared.

Eventually, the sand overtook the farm and covered the buildings. The barn, now more than 200 years old, is still standing and is the only building that remains from the original farm. To demonstrate the extent of the damage to the farm, our tram guide stopped at a sign describing how the spring house built in 1938 at that exact location had been covered with sand by 1962 and now lay beneath our feet.

A spring house buried by sand at the Desert of Maine
A spring house buried by sand at the Desert of Maine

How the Desert Formed and Grew

Approximately 11,000 years ago, during the last ice age in the Pleistocene Period, a glacier that covered Maine receded to the north. As it receded, it left behind a sandy glacial silt. Over the centuries that followed, topsoil grew and concealed the sand beneath.

The Desert of Maine may have overtaken buildings since its reappearance in the 1700s, but it looks like nature has found a way to coexist with the shifting sand.

On our tram tour, we saw healthy pine trees half covered in sand. Their original roots might have been 50 feet beneath our feet, but, as our guide explained, the branches submerged in sand began to act as roots.

As for us, my husband and I left the Desert of Maine slightly changed as well. No longer would we dismiss the odd or puzzling roadside attractions we passed as a distraction for another time. Now, they have become as much a part of our vacations as the ultimate destination.

Gritty McDuff's brew pub in Freeport, Maine
Gritty McDuff’s brew pub in Freeport, Maine

Other Suggestions for Visiting Freeport

I would be remiss in recommending a visit to the Desert of Maine without sharing a few of the other attractions we visited in Freeport:

• The Maine Bear Factory. Sadly, it looks like this store has closed since our visit, but we enjoyed building “Edmund the Bear.”

• The L.L. Bean, Inc. retail store. Apparently, three million people visit this store every year. I think most of them take the same pictures we did next to the giant boot.

• Gritty McDuff’s. We stopped at this brew pub for lunch. It had great beer and great food.

Contact Information for the Desert of Maine

Desert of Maine
95 Desert Rd., Freeport, ME 04032

Additional Points of Interest in the Freeport Area

L.L. Bean, Inc. retail store
95 Main St., Freeport, ME 04033

Gritty McDuff’s Freeport
187 Lower Main St., Freeport, ME 04032

Jen MathewsJen Mathews is a writer, frequent traveler, and national parks lover from the eastern United States.

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