Desert of Maine, a Saharan Enclave in the Middle of the US Northeast

A Thermometer in the Desert of Maine

photography by: daveynin/ Flickr

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Even though deserts cover about a third of Earth's surface, the appearance of a barren wasteland in the North American region of New England would rather be regarded as a mirage. That is, unless you are talking about the Desert of Maine, a small patch of sandy dunes in an otherwise forested area. Coincidently unearthed by poor agricultural practices, this natural oddity serves as a vestige of the last ice age as well as a local tourist attraction awash with surreal sights.

The US state of Maine is widely associated with its pristine forests, rocky coastline and abundance of lobsters. Nonetheless, the Pine Tree State is also home to a speck of sandy dunes that defies any stereotype one might have about this part of the country. Appropriately named the Desert of Maine, this 40-acre anomaly near the town of Freeport was born over 13 millennia ago, when a retreating glacier from the last ice age left the area with incredibly large amount of glacial silt.


Also known as rock flour, the silt is formed by the crushing force of a glacier as it grinds its way through the surrounding rocks. Despite the sheer resemblance to sand, the silt deposited by glaciers is classified differently as its constituent grains are far thinner in size. Due to the area’s relatively low elevation, it subsequently became a sink where the drifting silt carried by the wind accumulated over time, forming a series of dunes.


In the thousands of years that followed, the tracts of sandy land became covered with soil, and then wild weeds. It wasn’t until the 1860’s, when the well-kept secret was finally discovered by the then owners of the land, the Tuttle family. The Tuttles, who purchased the land four decades earlier, established a farm over the area. Determined to get the maximum out of their land, the family engaged in an intense crop rotation, which coupled with the overgrazing by their herd of sheep depleted the soil and exposed a fraction of the hidden sand beneath.


In a matter of years, the small spot grew larger by the day, ultimately inundating the entire farm with the ancient glacial silt. After a few desperate attempts to thwart the inevitable, the Tuttle family abandoned the farm in 1890. Thirty-six years later, the Tuttles’ calamity turned out to be the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs for Henry Goldrup, who purchased the land for a measly 400 dollars. Fascinated by the unusual natural phenomenon, Goldrup branded the sandy land as a tourist attraction, calling it the “Desert of Maine”.


While scientifically, the land isn’t classified as a true desert due to the area’s high amount of precipitation and the constant encroachment by the surrounding forest, it is for all intents and purposes considered as such by the visitors who marvel at the Saharan-like dunes. As of today, the site offers a hiking trail which meanders between the dunes and the nearby woodland, a souvenir shop, a sand museum and a mini-golf course.


However, the single most interesting spot across the mini-desert is undoubtedly the Buried Spring House. Constructed atop a local well, the wooden gazebo is almost entirely submerged under the sand, epitomizing nature’s upper hand over humanity.


Take note that the most recommended time to visit this natural rarity is during the summer months (June-September), as in the winter, the desert is completely covered with snow, making it indistinguishable from its surroundings.