A new electric train that seats 36 people will tote around guests at the Desert of Maine. Maria Skillings / The Times Record

Once a rundown Freeport tourist trap, The Desert of Maine has grown each year since co-owners Doug Heestand and Mela Jones purchased the property in 2018. Opening for its 2023 season this weekend, guests will find an oasis of mini golf, camping, concerts and scientific exploration.

The attractions new this year include an electric train that spits out fake smoke as it carries guests around the property, a summer concert series, new camping cottages, a magic wishing well that was previously buried under 20 feet of sand and a replica of the original house that sat on the property during the Civil War.

“It’s just a very special place and we saw the potential from the beginning, and as we got going, more presented itself,” Jones said.

The mini golf course is a new feature at The Desert of Maine this season. Maria Skillings / The Times Record

Combining their visions of family fun and education, the owners have woven history into each attraction. Upon arrival, you enter a 1930s welcome center to purchase your tickets — and maybe a stuffed version of Sandy the camel. Just outside the gift shop is a snack bar that serves hot dogs, kettle corn, soda and more. From there, you can play a round of mini golf on a historical course called Hermit’s Adventure Golf. Each hole represents a different piece of the history of the desert and is named after a real-life figure.

In the 1800s, the property was owned by sheep farmers who didn’t realize they were sitting on a bed of glacial sand until their sheep grazed too much, creating a mini dust bowl. They rendered the property useless for farming and eventually abandoned it. For a few decades, the property was called “the sand pit” and used by the community for picnicking. In 1926, an entrepreneur purchased the property and gave the destination its famous name, The Desert of Maine.

Jones said a hermit lived in a shack just down the road from the desert in the 1930s. A former vaudeville star and folk artist, he fashioned an instrument from two organs and a piano and would play songs to guests he charged a nickel for entrance.


“He made his own tourist attraction,” she said.

Camping in the desert

Previously, there were six small cabins for guests to stay in and a bath house, but this year, Heestand has added eight larger cabins with bathrooms and kitchenettes, with room for up to four adults and two children. For those seeking a cheaper option, Heestand added seven “glamping” tents, each with a queen-size bed. There is a 24/7 self-checkout snack shed and a place to purchase wood for campfires. The campsite also features a bocce ball court, cornhole and tether ball. Heestand said he hopes to add a sauna and dipping pool in the future.

“We love creating a place where families can come and connect with each other and disconnect from their busy lives and make some memories,” he said.

The Desert of Maine Center for Arts and Ecology

Doug Heestand and Mela Jones show off authentic fossils. Maria Skillings / The Times Record

Aside from golf and camping, kids can enjoy running through a gemstone maze, taking a peek inside a hobbit hut and testing their paleontology skills at the fossil dig, where they can uncover the bones of a 30-foot-long whale. These scientific attractions are part of a nonprofit established by Jones.

“We are doing outreach right now to public schools to put ecology books in the hands of educators and reaching out to Title 1 schools whose students don’t have as much access to these natural spaces,” Jones said.

Jones and Heestand said they are also refurbishing a barn to use as an arts center for community theater and concerts, which will be ready by next year. For the time being, they’ve erected a large tent in the middle of the property to host birthdays and musical performances this summer.

“We really believe in supporting our local musicians,” Jones said. “We have so much talent here in Maine, but we are also bringing people in from New Orleans and New York City.”

For more information, visit desertofmaine.com.

Comments are not available on this story.