Aroostook County could be sitting on a tourism treasure

9 months ago

A St. John Valley roadway and a bike route connecting Bangor to Allagash could bring tourism gold to Aroostook County if more people knew about them.

The St. John Valley/Fish River National Scenic Byway and the U.S. Bike Route 501 were federally designated about two years ago. The byway pays tribute to northern Maine’s Acadian and Native American culture, while the bicycle route aims to give cyclists a safe and pleasant trip north.

Winter recreation activities, like snowmobiling and skiing, bring abundant visitors and a huge economic boon to The County. The roadways were touted as a way to boost tourism in other seasons. But the Aroostook community needs to get the word out to make that work, Maine Department of Transportation and Northern Maine Development Commission officials said Tuesday.  

“Both of these routes are really nothing more than lines on a map right now,” said Jay Kamm, senior planner at Northern Maine Development Commission in Caribou. “We need to generate local enthusiasm.” 

The County already succeeds with winter tourism, Kamm said during an information session with transportation and tourism representatives from around Maine. The commission and the transportation department worked to seek federal recognition of the two travel routes to offer visitors more in the summer. 

The St. John Valley/Fish River National Scenic Byway opened about 13 years ago, but earned federal designation in 2021. The Bold Coast Scenic Byway in Washington County and Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway were approved at the same time.

To earn the national nod, a route should have features of archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational or scenic significance and be widely recognized in its region, according to Federal Highway Administration guidelines for the America’s Byways Program.

The route travels 129 miles through the Valley and near Maine’s border with Canada, according to Aroostook County Tourism. The path encompasses the region’s heritage, historic places and languages. 

Riders with the 2018 BikeMaine ascend Fort Fairfield Road in Presque Isle on the first leg of their seven-day, 325-mile trek through Aroostook County. U.S. Bike Route 501 winds from Bangor through several roads in northern Maine. (File: Anthony Brino | BDN)

U.S. Bike Route 501 added 344 more miles in 2021 and now goes from Bangor to Allagash. RidewithGPS.com features a map of the route, which travels by the Penobscot River, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, then goes through Houlton, Presque Isle and up into northernmost Aroostook County.

The Maine Department of Transportation is working to add signs and pave shoulders along the routes, active transportation planner Dakota Hewlett said, and also plans to include all the U.S. bike routes in Maine on state maps. 

The department released the state’s first active transportation plan earlier this year, which encompasses walking, biking and other forms of exercise. The plan’s goals include assessing speed limits, improving municipal transportation options and expanding the off-road network with multiple-use trails, Hewlett said.

Several communities across Maine, including Bangor and Presque Isle, are working with the department in its Village Partnership Initiative to improve their downtowns.

The department is working with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine to improve safety and marketing, he said.

A promotion called Slow ME Down encourages motorists to travel at speed limits and watch for people on bicycles, said Erik daSilva, the coalition’s associate education director. 

The coalition’s website features a Where to Ride section, which includes statewide routes and cycling information, including for Aroostook County, daSilva said.

Considering the growing popularity of electric bicycles, access to chargers every 50 or so miles along the way is important. Bicycle chargers use regular outlets, he said. 

“One of the things that keeps people away from doing routes like this is they can’t be sure of being able to charge,” daSilva said. 

The aim now is to get communities involved with promoting the routes, Kamm said.

Area businesses will help with that marketing, said Jacob Pelkey, tourism developer with Aroostook County Tourism. The routes really represent tours and experiences, which need to be valued by local businesses, he said.

The tourism group has designed and printed materials like brochures and maps featuring the routes, and has developed vinyl stickers that businesses can display to get the word out to visitors, he said.

Another information session is planned later this fall.

“I think the ball is rolling,” Kamm said. “We just want to make sure it keeps rolling.”