Sanford Maine sits 30 miles inland from the beaches of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport in the center of prestigious York County.
Often overlooked for the sensational shoreline or more touristy cities on the Southern Maine Coast, Sanford holds secrets and seclusion worth exploring while still being the pivot point to the mountains, coast, and ski resorts in New Hampshire.
Once touted as “The Town that Refused to Die” in 1955, the same tenacity reigns in this fast-growing community that is, quite literally, etched in the fabric of New England.
Ditch the crowds of The Kennebunks and The Yorks for a spell to explore this treasured Maine community, which even Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn used to frequent.
Sanford Maine’s Storied History
Sanford’s spot along the Mousam (“Mouse-am”) River infused a booming mill industry, with textiles like Palm Beach Cloth invited here in the late 1800s.
Mill after mill lined the river, which was dammed and rerouted for deep water passage from the coast and a more direct line to the shipping possibilities in nearby Kennebunkport.
Fire & Short-Lived Textile Success
In 1905, a fire wiped out much of Springvale, which is now a village within Sanford. The town persevered and rebuilt.
As the textile industry moved south because of more competitive wages and a growing industrial battle for domination, Sanford was on the brink of collapse, only to expand its industry beyond the powerful waters of the river.
The success was short-lived, and time slowly etched away the industrial seams that held the town together.
In 2023, Sanford is once again refusing to die. Similar to the housekeeping one does when visitors are coming, the city is getting its house in order with a surge of funding from the state to revitalize downtown while cherishing the natural assets that make it an outdoor lover’s dream.
Learn more about Sanford’s Growth Initiative and why it’s an up-and-coming tourism destination.
Four Seasons in Sanford Maine
Sanford gets the beauty of all four seasons, from winter wonderlands to spring blooms to perfect summer temperatures to crisp fall air and a landscape dotted with stunning foliage.
Despite being 19 miles inland, the city still reaps the coastal climatological benefits of getting more rain than snow and dodging the most dangerous cold spells found in Maine’s northern interior.
Casual, comfortable clothing planned in layers will suffice most spring, summer, and fall days, with winter requiring base, middle, and outer layers to keep warm and dry while exploring the river and wilderness.
Outdoor Things to Do in Sanford Maine
Sanford blurs the lines between outdoor adventures and city streets because it was built along the river. Whether you want to walk along the water or get lost in the woods, there’s a spot to explore for everyone.
Sanford and Springvale Maine have their own separate historic district walks. Trails lead the way through city streets, over bridges, and along the water, with nearly 40 historic stops along the way.
Free parking is available for both trails. Download a walking district map if you’d like, but historical markers will also guide you along the paths.
Mill Around the Historic District
This experience will be different for each visitor depending on when they visit Sanford Maine. The mills that remain are in various states of neglect and rebirth.
A massive plan infused with taxpayer dollars and state funding will pave the way for new infrastructure and recruit new businesses and residences to the Sanford Mill part of downtown. Pair this walk with a visit to the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society Museum to see photos of then, now, and what’s to come.
In 2021, Sanford was officially designated as a Heart & Soul city where the community is dedicated to revitalizing downtown.
“We all have something that we love about our community, we all have a vision of what that future might look like, and this program gives a path for that vision to become reality… all of a sudden, Sanford is the place to be!”
-Laura Bell, Downtown Sanford Business Owner
One of the most undersold scenic views of Sanford Maine is at the intersection of Riverside Avenue and Washington Street, where Gateway Park overlooks one of the many dams along the Mousam River.
Whether you see it by the fresh sunrise of spring, the winter sparkle of snow, or the colorful display at night, this is a photo op that you will cherish for years to come.
Number One Pond
From Gateway Park, take the trail along Number One Pond, which is a wider point on the Mousam River. You’ll get 360-degree views of the city with some great nature mixed in with historic homes. This is also where 4th of July fireworks are held.
The waters are famous across the state because of the Maine Attraction Water Ski Show Team. It’s like a circus on the water with pyramids, synchronized routines, gymnastics, and lots of jumps along the watery way.
Free performances are held every Thursday night in July, with pre-show entertainment and food available.
Mousam Way North trail (3.9 miles) circles from the northern edge of Number One Pond through a scenic and rugged region along Mill Pond and weaves its way to Indian’s Last Leap, a place of Springvale folklore and a popular swimming hole.
Mousam Way South (1.6 miles) is an easier trail on the south side of Sanford and has a boardwalk over a marsh.
Mousam Way Land Trust
When you want to walk the most unbeaten path, consider one of the many Mousam Way Land Trust sites. This is a project that protects natural spaces from development and disturbance.
With nine protected sites, you can visit the habitat of an endangered butterfly, a boardwalk through one of just a few Atlantic White Cedar Swamps, and trees that grow right on top of rocks (which are actually erratics).
As the land is surveyed and planned for minimal natural disturbance, you’ll find more trails to explore. While most tourism brochures won’t go into great detail about these pristine locations, you can view details of each site on the land trust’s website.
Sanford Country Club
Don’t let the name deter you — the Sanford Country Club isn’t for members only. While you can consider a membership, public rates, and reservations are available.
Eighteen holes cover the historic lands that once hosted a national qualifying event. The Barn is a venue on site with a restaurant and bar, plus a great space for special events.
The fresh harvest gives fall foliage stiff competition, and McDougal Orchards is one of the best in Southern Maine. You can walk through orchards on family-owned land since 1779.
The peak season is mid-August through October, and the apples, local honey, maple syrup, cider donuts, pumpkins, and peaches are the most popular farm and store items. You can pick your own fruits, including apples, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, and raspberries.
See the Southern Maine Coast from a bird’s-eye view aboard a Pine Tree Helicopters tour. Day and night tours are available for as short as 30 minutes or as long as you’d like with customized packages. Lighthouses, islands, and the most notable Maine landmarks are included in each tour.
Indoor Things to Do in Sanford Maine
While Sanford Maine is designed as a great outdoor destination, there are some indoor opportunities to learn, explore, and socialize.
Smitty’s Cinema & GameLAB
You’ll find something for everyone in the Smitty’s Cinema and GameLAB entertainment complex. There is a dine-in movie theater with the hottest blockbusters, an arcade filled with the top trending games, and a bowling alley with notable neon coloring.
And, don’t miss the newest Virtual Reality Hyperdeck, where you are immersed in a multisensory experience as a solo or competitive player.
Sanford Performing Arts Center
In the heart of Sanford Maine, this theatre brings people from across York County in all seasons to enjoy a wide mix of performances. The Sanford Performing Arts Center is the crown jewel of the arts community, and the ticket prices are among the most affordable in New England.
Nasson Community Center
Whether you want to see a play or simply play, the Nasson Community Center is a great indoor way to meet the great people of Sanford Maine.
The Little Theater brings a cozy atmosphere to performance art. You can also find sports clinics and exercise classes, like yoga, at some of the lowest prices in Maine.
Tucked inside a modest home on Main Street, you’ll find the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society’s Historical Museum with well-preserved artifacts and photos documenting the triumphs and tragedies of the community.
One truly cannot appreciate what this city has endured to survive until you see the grand mills that changed the textile industry and the ashes left behind by the fire of 1905. Highlights include photos of the 1905 fire, how snow was “plowed” before cars, The Blizzard of 1888, and how the Mousam River was re-routed in the name of prosperity.
“They hatched a great plan to change the direction the old Mousam ran. They broke through the beach to straighten the flow, but what they unleashed they couldn’t have known.”
– “Saga of the Mousam River” song, written and sung by Bob Marier.
Exploring More of York County
York County is known as the Gateway to Maine, starting at the New Hampshire border and stretching along the coastline to Old Orchard Beach. The eastern and northern boundaries ride the Saco and Ossipee rivers.
Sanford Maine is close enough to even the extreme edges of York County to make the most of your time. You’ll be within a 25 to 40-minute drive of:
- Berwick, North Berwick, and South Berwick
- Biddeford & Saco
- Old Orchard Beach
- Waterboro/Lake Arrowhead
Restaurants in Sanford Maine
Sanford is one of the most affordable places to eat in York County. Best of all, there are enough options to cover all palette preferences.
Pilots Cove Cafe
Your taste buds will really take off at the Pilots Cove Cafe alongside the runway at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport. Don’t let the name “cafe” fool you. This is a first-class place to be for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and after-hours.
The expansive menu covers comfort foods, fresh lobster rolls, savory steaks, and a puddle jumper menu for kids under 12. Dining is available indoors or on the patio.
The Runaway at PCC is a nightlife destination with outdoor concerts, indoor comedy shows, and other lively events throughout the year.
Kai Asian Fusion
Dine in or takeout at the best Asian option in Springvale Maine at Kai Asian Fusion. Fresh sushi and traditional Chinese favorites are backed up by an expansive bar and a cool neon glow. The dining area includes a window wall and skylights to enjoy views of historic Main Street.
Jen’s Delightful Sweets
Craving carbs or looking to satisfy a sweet tooth? Look no further than Jen’s Delightful Sweets on Main Street. Homemade pies, doughnuts, and muffins cover everything from traditional to tropical, and there’s a special savory surprise each day for lunch.
When a store sells out before a big New England storm, you know it has to be good!
Richie’s Jerk & BBQ
This might be the most flavorful and eclectic mix of spice-infused food in Sanford Maine. Richie’s Jerk & BBQ is a Black-owned business that goes beyond backyard basics.
From a secret spice mix in the jerk chicken to unique dishes like Jamaican escovitch fish, you’ll definitely need a few more minutes to review the menu. As a bonus, you’ll get views of the mills if you dine outside.
All American Woodfired Pizza
Get ready for a slice of local flavor at All American Woodfired Pizza. The pizzas are made in a real wood-burning oven and are topped with locally harvested ingredients.
Try something new with the Big Mac Pizza or the Venus Fly Trap pizza pie, or dive into an old favorite like a loaded meat option. Salads, sandwiches, and sides round out the affordable menu with extra pizzazz.
Riverstone Brewing Company
Look for a brick-and-mortar location before you visit Sanford, as the city’s first microbrewery is trying to find the perfect location.
The Riverstone Brewing Company’s owner started working out of his garage while offering fresh brews at local favorite Springvale Publick House. You can get a taste at Smitty’s GameLAB or Smitty’s Cinema too.
Sanford Maine Vacation Rentals & Camping Options
The unique nature of Sanford parlays into innovative overnight options for solo travelers, couples, and families. Take a look at these fantastic accommodations for your next Southern Maine Coast getaway.
The homes are wind and solar-powered without sacrificing any climate control. A private pond, hot tub, and dock await when you awake from your serene sleep.
How about a hobbit habitat to really break the mold of Maine hospitality? The same group of friends who own the Treehouses also own the Hobbit House. Instead of being elevated, this one goes underground. The home is all on one level with its own outdoor stone patio and fire pit.
1800s Horse Barn
Saddle up to this renovated historic horse barn in Sanford Lakes. The 1800s Horse Barn offers seclusion and serenity with walking paths nearby and the beach less than 30 minutes away.
You can horse around on 2 acres of private space, or walk 15 minutes to neighboring communities. Pet owners especially like this wide-open space.
Huttopia Southern Maine
Yearning for a yurt or a bougie bunkhouse? Look no further than Huttopia Southern Maine where you choose the level of outdoorsy you want to be overnight.
Two-person tents up to multifamily cabins are available, and glamping or backcountry campers will all stay in harmony. All toiletries and amenities are covered with grills and firewood ready upon arrival.
“..inviting rather urban families looking for a simple and direct contact with nature, to come and share moments of relaxation and discovery in respect of the environment.”
– Philippe Bossanne, founder of Huttopia
Cole’s Mine RV Resort & Campground
Campers will really “dig it” at Cole’s Mine RV Resort & Campground, one of the newest outdoor overnight locations just 7 miles west of Sanford. The resort is flexible to accommodate everyone from solo travelers to massive RVs to big rigs.
It has awesome amenities, like a resort-style pool, a playground, and mine cart rides. Themed weekends bring more excitement to the camping community.
FAQs About Sanford Maine
Is Sanford Maine haunted?
You can’t have a town this riddled with history and tragedies without some good ghost stories. In fact, since 2005, Sanford Maine has had more ghost sightings than any other Maine city.
From ghosts on the dark road between Sanford and Berwick to shadowy soldiers lurking over beds, you can read the stories and decide for yourself. You can also get into the ghostly spirit by reading “Haunted York County” for more spirits and secrets of the oldest towns in the region.
How does Sanford Maine compare to Kennebunkport or Ogunquit?
The beauty of Maine’s towns is that they each hold a special puzzle piece to the magic of the Pine Tree State. You shouldn’t look at any city as “and/or,” but instead look for “and/and” opportunities.
Sanford Maine is marketed as part of the Maine Beaches region but can be overlooked since it’s not part of a beach community.
However, the scenic drive from Kittery to the Berwicks through Sanford and down to the Kennebunks is fewer than 50 miles, and you get so much Maine culture in that short trip.
Is Sanford Maine Really Up and Coming?
You’ll be amazed at all the improvements coming to this once-neglected community, and we’re not just talking about replacing potholes. The funding to improve quality of life and attract tourists is real:
– The largest solar project in Maine is at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport.
– The city received $35 million in grant money to revitalize downtown infrastructure, paving the way for business and recreation growth.
– A new $100 million high school and technical center is the most expensive school ever built in Maine.
– Sanford Mill is in the ongoing stages of development with apartments, restaurants, and shops opening throughout 2023.
Is a place called Indian’s Last Leap safe to visit in Sanford Maine?
Absolutely. In fact, there’s no proof that the legend behind the name ever happened.
As the story goes, a third-generation feud between Native Americans and the Plaisted family turned into a foot chase through the woods. While the young boy being chased by a chief managed to jump the distance between two rocks, the chief wasn’t so lucky and fell to his death.
The story is just as popular as the swimming hole below the boulders, which still brings summer crowds to soak in its cool waters.
Experience the Special Nature of Sanford Maine
This historic community holds so much character that it’s about time the city gets national recognition. It holds the beauty and friendliness of Maine without being a tourist trap or overpriced.
Also, it’s close to many other amazing York County cities while still holding onto its own independent spirit, now and into the exciting future.