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Maine’s unlikely desert an enduring curiosity

By Ellen Albanese
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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FREEPORT, Maine - It’s a bit of a shock. Sure, you have heard of the Desert of Maine, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not desert in one of the leafiest states in the country. But when you pull into the dusty parking lot, the site looks like a lot of other homespun attractions. You enter a gift shop filled with a predictable assortment of T-shirts and souvenir spoons. You buy your ticket, exit the gift shop - and feel as if you have fallen into an “X-Files’’ episode.

A shimmering expanse of sand spreads out before you - 45 acres in all. Wind-carved ledges and dunes create an undulating effect. The desert is dotted with trees buried so deep only their tops are visible. L.L. Bean meets Lawrence of Arabia.

Admission includes a narrated 30-minute tram ride through the desert and surrounding woods. Our tour guide explained that the desert was created by a glacier some 10,000-12,000 years ago. The sand, which is technically glacial silt, ranges in depth from 45 feet at the spring, discovered in 1935, to 90 feet at the top of the tallest dune. It’s silky to the touch, and the colors range from rust to beige to pink, based on the mineral content. It never gets too hot because of the amount of mica, which reflects the sun’s heat, and the relatively high water table.

The tops of trees emerging from the sand create pockets of shade. They help to hold the sand in place, our guide said, and they don’t die because the sand rose around them so slowly. The desert ends abruptly; at the top of the 90-foot dune, the land just drops away over a wooded cliff.

In the 1800s the site was the Tuttle Farm. Two generations of Tuttles raised vegetables and cattle, with no thought of crop rotation or land stewardship, our tour guide said. Eventually all the topsoil eroded, exposing the glacial sand underneath. In 1919 the farmhouse burned to the ground, and the Tuttle heirs abandoned the property. Henry Goldrup bought it for back taxes of $400.

Goldrup was an enterprising sort, and the story goes that when geologists from the University of Maine told him, “You bought a desert,’’ he ran out and posted signs along Route 1, “Visit the Desert of Maine.’’ Goldrup ran the attraction for more than 60 years.

Later owners paired the natural attraction with a focus on farm history. The 1783 Tuttle Barn, untouched by the fire that destroyed the house, now operates as a farm museum, exhibiting farming tools and other artifacts “circa 1900,’’ some of which were found on the property. Also on display are photos of the desert in earlier years - one shows buried apple trees, their tips still bearing fruit - sand art, and sand specimens from deserts across the world.

Each morning the staff scatters polished gemstones on the desert sand, and children under 12 are welcome to search for them and take home up to three. A new attraction is the butterfly room, a screened-in area filled with colorful plants, where visitors can see eight to 10 varieties of butterflies in various stages. Other activities for children, offered for a small fee, include making sand art in a bottle, gemstone ring making, and “mining’’ for minerals and fossils in a running-water sluice.

But nothing beats that first view across the desert.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at

If You Go

Desert of Maine
95 Desert Road
Freeport, Maine
Open 7 days 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. through Oct. 14, half-day Oct. 15. First tour 9 a.m., last tour 4:30 p.m., adults $10.50, teens $7.75, 4-12 $6.75, under 4 free.