We were supposed to go to Scotland in 2020, but given the Covid restrictions, we had to cancel. Instead, we decided to head to Acadia National Park, and of course, stop in and visit the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Fort Knox!
Getting to Maine
So we could avoid quarantining when we got back to Vermont, we had to plan where we stopped on the way to Maine carefully. Vermont, at this point, had designated some counties in Maine as safe and others as hazardous. We stopped and had lunch at the West Gardiner Rest Area which was designated as inside one of the safe counties.
If it hadn’t been for Covid, I’m not sure we would have found this rest area, but we’re planning on using it again! It has a decent gift shop, clean bathrooms, and lots of picnic tables for a picnic lunch. Well worth the stop if you’re driving up to the Acadia area on I-295 North, just get off in West Gardiner.
From West Gardiner, it’s another 67 to 73 miles to Fort Knox and the Penobscot Narrows Observatory, depending on which route you take.
Hint: it’s worth getting tickets to both the Observatory and the Fort! For both the Fort and the Observatory, as an out-of-stater, it was only $9/person in 2020. Pretty inexpensive for three hours of exploring. However, fair warning, you may want to explore the Fort while you wait for your Observatory time. Due to Covid restrictions and cleanings, it may take a few hours to be able to go up into the Observatory.
Fort Knox, Maine? Don’t you mean Fort Knox, Kentucky??
If you didn’t know there are two forts in the USA named after Major General Henry Knox: the one in Maine and the more famous one in Kentucky. The major general served in the American Revolution and afterward became President Washington’s Secretary of War. After his years of service, the major general retired to Maine.
The building of the granite Fort began in 1844 and continued through 1869; however, the Fort was never finished. The Fort was built on the Penobscot River in the section called the Narrows. This site was chosen to better repel possible British invaders from the Atlantic Ocean. The British, in fact, sailed up the river during the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
Chief Engineer Joseph Totten, who fought in the War of 1812, designed the Fort but was only one of the superintendents of its construction. The Fort is based on a bastion design, which is a pentagon with towers on the five points to provide better cover fire. The design also helps eliminate “dead zones” which could allow invaders to more easily reach the Fort walls.
The first troops arrived at the Fort in 1863 and they stayed until 1866. Mostly the troops were there for training exercises before being sent to their active posts. Troops were again stationed at the Fort in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, but they never saw any military action.
Grounds of Fort Knox
Plan at least two hours to tour the Fort. Both times we’ve been here, it’s taken us that long to wander the grounds and read all the plaques. The Fort grounds cover over 100 acres, so wear sturdy shoes and plan on some walking. (A great place for kids to burn off some energy exploring!) Also, bring a flashlight or headlamp if you go down the stairs and take the tunnels to the outer battlements. Or circle through the bottom corridors of the Fort.
The Fort grounds also have a large picnic area with picnic tables. Some of the tables even have a camp grill near them. So don’t forget to pack a picnic lunch if you’re at the Fort around lunchtime!
If you’re really lucky, you might even see a large ship across the river and tug boats taking it back out to the Atlantic Ocean.
If you’re really, really lucky, you might even get to see one of the cannons being set off!! (In all honesty, out of the three times we’ve been to the Fort, we’ve only seen them fire the cannons for one of those visits.)
Fort Hours of Operation
Currently (January 2021) the Fort is closed for the season; however, the grounds are open to the public. (From 9 am to sunset.) The Fort will open again on May 1, 2021, at 9 in the morning. Their hours vary through the Spring, Summer, and Fall, so make sure to visit their site for current hours and prices before you arrive.
Penobscot Narrows Bridge (and Observatory)
The previous bridge, the Waldo-Hancock bridge was built in 1931 at the same location. You can actually see the previous abutment up on the hill near the Fort Knox Road and US Route 1 intersection. And parts of the piers from the existing bridge are still in the Penobscot River.
Cable-Stayed Design and Construction
The two towers are styled to reflect the Washington Monument in Washington, DC. Some of the granite used to build the Washington Monument was quarried from nearby Mount Waldo. The obelisk towers are 450 feet tall and the Observatory is 420 feet up in the tower. The Observatory is one of four bridge observatories in the world.
While you’re up in the Observatory, notice the inlaid compass rose to help orient you. The compass is based on a map by early French explorer, Samuel de Champlain. Enjoy looking out the floor to ceiling glass windows down to the river below. Sometimes you will see wildlife on, or in, the river. On a clear day, you can see quite a ways – sometimes all the way to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park!
Observatory Hours of Operation
The Penobscot Narrows Observatory opens at 9 in the morning, starting May 1, 2021. The closing hours differ from those of Fort Knox, so as stated above, make sure you check the Fort Knox website before visiting.
Other Sites to See on the Way to Acadia National Park, Penobscot Narrows, and Fort Knox Area
Some other sites to see on your way to Acadia are:
Colonial Peamquid: first the area was inhabited by Native Americans and then became an early English outpost. The site contains Fort William Henry, a Fort House, stone foundations from different time periods, a museum, and a burial ground with gravestones from the early 1700s.
Fort Popham: the site of a never completed semi-circular fort from the 1800s.
Owls Head Lighthouse: built in the 1800s, this lighthouse sits 100 feet above the water.
Vaughan Woods & Historic Homestead: located in Hallowell, the woods contain a 3-mile trail system with stone bridges, waterfalls, and meadows. The house, built in 1794, now represents seven generations of one family and the changes a home undergoes.
Make sure to stop and stretch your legs. As stated above, while on the way to Acadia, the Penobscot Narrows and Fort Knox are great places to picnic for lunch or take a 3-hour ramble! Not to mention see some inspiring scenery!