For the third year running, I have gone to South Portland Maine in early September for the Maine Lighthouse Ride. This is a century ride that begins and ends at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, and over the course of 100 miles passes 9 lighthouses as it winds it’s way along the coast from Portland south to Kennebunkport and back again. This ride is the most scenic and enjoyable experience on my cycling calendar.
The ride is gently rolling, and while there are a few climbs that will make you work, the hills are either short ramps or gentle grades and all have corresponding restful descents. The sum total of climbing for this ride is approximately 2600 feet over the course of 100 miles. The average recreational rider can manage this ride with appropriate century training and preparation, and shorter options are available. The ride itself is well supported, with road markings and signs that are easy to follow. Route maps are available for GPS computers as well. Riders can rent road bikes from bike shops in and around Portland if needed. That’s all the technical information any rider needs; what really sets this ride apart is the scenery and the experience.
The ride begins on the Campus of Southern Maine Community College in view of the Spring Point Ledge lighthouse at the entrance to Portland harbor. Riders go to the Portland Breakwater (Bug) Light, and move away from the waterfront in South Portland along the eastern trail. Riders are asked to start at particular times based on the distance they’re riding to help ease congestion at the start, and there will be some congestion as you ride out, but despite this the early miles will reward you with some fine scenery, and it’s worth the patience required as you go through South Portland.
Be patient and careful until you find open road where you can safely increase your speed. The ride itself is run by the Eastern Trail Alliance, so it’s no surprise that this century is run on some of it’s trails. Faster riders will want to get to the front of the pack at the start time, but it pays to be very careful, patient and keep your phone cameras available. Photographers should be very careful not to obstruct other riders when they stop for a photo, since some of the areas you’ll ride through are narrow, particularly in the early miles.
The route continues inland, heading toward the causeway over the Scarborough marshes. This is a two mile section of compacted sand and gravel pathway, and while that might not be easy for narrow road bike tires, (pro tip: make sure your tires are in good condition before you arrive) the surface poses little problem if you ride it at a slow speed (10-12mph). Volunteers will be nearby to help you if you need it. While crossing the marshes, take a moment to notice the water level. You’ll ride through twice, and chances are that tidal conditions in the marshes will have changed by the time you return to cross the causeway again. After the marshes, the ride takes you to the first rest stop at Old Orchard Beach.
The next leg sets out through Old Orchard Beach before heading west through the towns of Saco and Biddeford and into the countryside until you reach Kennebunkport. This marks the southernmost part of the ride. After a stop outside Kennebunkport, riders go through the town and head north along the rocky coast, meandering along around the inlets and marshes. At this point you’re rewarded with views of mansions, harbors, inlets and rocky shores. Shrub roses grow in the sandy soil by the roadsides, and those that aren’t in bloom display a riot of colorful rose hips. The route winds along the coast past Fortune Rocks, back through Old Orchard Beach and across the Scarborough marshes again. You’ll go to Cape Elizabeth, and through Fort Williams Park to Portland Head Light before you return to the start.
All along there will be places where you can view and photograph the lighthouses. You might miss one or two if the weather isn’t clear, but they’re out there, and the route passes them. Goat Island Light, Wood Island Light, Cape Elizabeth Light (East & West), Portland Head Lighthouse, and the Ram Island Ledge Light. The coastal scenery never disappoints.
The weather can vary widely. You can expect cool mornings, heat or rain. Southern Maine in early September is on the cusp of a colorful Autumn, and you’ll find the trees starting to turn color in places. Come prepared for differences in temperature between start and finish. You can expect good route markings, good support, and post ride food along with locally brewed craft beer. Portland provides many other distractions – you can browse the shops and restaurants along the Portland waterfront, take a boat ride through Casco Bay, or drive 20 minutes North to Freeport and the L.L. Bean Home Campus to shop the outlet stores. The salt air, the scenery and the fellowship among the riders and volunteers make this a memorable event. Enjoying the coast of Maine by bicycle is a unique and rewarding experience.