The Saco River is home to some of the most accessible, inviting canoeing in the state of Maine. The river rises in the White Mountains near New Hampshire's Crawford Notch, then wends its way to the sea south of Portland, passing through gentle farmlands around Fryeburg. The river is slow-moving but steady for much of its run, with gentle rapids, which make it interesting but rarely threatening. The land flanking the river is mostly privately owned, but some owners graciously open their lands to quiet recreation and camping. Thanks to glacial deposits, the river is notable for its numerous sandbars, which make for superb lounging. Bring a beach towel.
The largest outfitter in the area is Saco Bound (tel. 603/447-2177; www.sacobound.com), on Route 302 in Center Conway, New Hampshire, just across the state line (between Fryeburg and North Conway). From a busy shop across the highway from the river, staff provides equipment, advice, shuttle service, and guided trips. For more personal, smaller-scale service, try Saco River Canoe and Kayak (tel. 888/772-6573 or 207/935-2369; www.sacorivercanoe.com), on routes 5 and 25 in Bridgton and Fryeburg, respectively. Rentals run $24 to $42 per day for a canoe with all equipment, including river access and parking. (You can often find discounts Mon-Fri.) This outfit also runs a very handy drop-off and pickup shuttle service for a small extra charge; you can even specify to the driver your own private put-in.
Tackling the Saco: Tips for the Trip -- Should you decide to accept the mission of canoeing the Saco, congratulations and good luck. But bear a couple of caveats in mind: First and foremost, early summer -- especially following a damp spring -- brings mosquitoes onto the river in numbers you can't believe. The solution? Bring lots of good repellent, or simply wait and opt for a trip later in the season. The bug population (usually) declines after July 4th. By August, the 'skeeters will almost certainly be all gone.
Also be aware that the Saco's popularity has soared recently. You're not likely to have a true wilderness experience here anymore, especially on Saturday and Sunday. Armadas of lunkheads fueled by cheap beer descend on the river in goodly numbers each summer weekend, lending the river a bit of a frat-party (or maybe just Cannonball Run) atmosphere. It became such a problem at one point that police set up "riverblocks" on the busiest weekends to randomly check boaters and paddlers for sobriety and illegal substances. (The courts told police to cut it out.) It's mostly a weekend phenomenon, and it has abated somewhat. Monday to Friday, crowds tend to thin out, and more of those here tend to be solo nature lovers, sedate families, or couples enjoying a relaxing vacation.
Superb hiking trails lace the rugged, low hills of Evans Notch on either side of Route 113, offering something for hikers of every stripe and inclination. Far more trails exist than can be covered here. Pick up the national forest hiking brochure, or consult one of several trail guides covering the area. Among them are the White Mountain Guide and the Maine Mountain Guide (published by the Appalachian Mountain Club), and Fifty Hikes in Southern Maine by John Gibson (published by Backcountry Publications).
You won't need a trail guide, however, for the easy hike to the summit of East Royce Mountain. The trail leaves from a parking area on Route 113 north of the road's high point. A well-marked, 3-mile round-trip walk follows a small stream before it begins a steeper ascent. The summit is bald and rocky, with fine views of Kezar Lake and the mountains to the west. Return via the same path.
Other local hikes include the summit of Caribou Mountain in the heart of the Caribou Wilderness Area, and demanding Baldface Mountain, with a ridge-top trail that follows the edge of a ragged glacial cirque carved out of the mountain eons ago. A loop up and over Baldface is a tough, all-day hike that rewards experienced hikers; check the trail guides or ask the Forest Service for details.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.