The Saco River is a river in northeastern New Hampshire and southwestern Maine in the United States. It drains a rural area of 1,703 square miles of forests and farmlands west and southwest of Portland, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Saco Bay, 134 miles from its source. It supplies drinking water to roughly 250,000 people in thirty-five towns.
It rises at Saco Lake in Crawford Notch in the White Mountains and flows generally SSE through Bartlett and Conway in Carroll County, New Hampshire before crossing into Oxford County, Maine. After running through six hydropower stations and entering York County, the river crosses under Interstate 95 and passes between Saco and Biddeford, where it is bridged by U.S. Route 1. It enters Saco Bay on the Atlantic with Camp Ellis in Saco on the north shore and Hills Beach in Biddeford on the south shore.
The pristine Saco River lures recreationalists from throughout the Northeast who wish to engage in the fine fishing, canoeing, kayaking, sight-seeing, and camping opportunities which abound on its waters and banks.
The Saco River was designated into the NH Rivers Management and Protection Program in June 1990. Its basin is the only major river basin in New Hampshire which is currently meeting all of the surface water standards of the federal Clean Water Act. The watershed of the Saco River upstream from the New Hampshire-Maine border encompasses approximately 427 square miles, of which 80 percent is within the White Mountain National Forest.
With the exception of some scattered residential housing, private lands in the river corridor are generally undeveloped and forested. The town centers of Bartlett, North Conway, and Conway are located near the Saco River, but land use along the river has remained a mixture of agriculture and low-density residential uses.
Historically, the Saco River was one of the premier trout fishing rivers in the Northeast. Today, the natural reproductive capability of native fish populations has been exceeded by angler demand, and stocking of hatchery-reared brook, brown, and rainbow trout is carried out each year by the NH Fish and Game Department and the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. On weekends, anglers congregate in the fly-fishing only section of the Saco River from Humphrey Ledge pool to Artist Brook. The Saco River also supports extensive spawning habitat for anadromous fish (fish that live in saltwater, but return to freshwater to spawn), but seven downstream dams in Maine currently prevent their return to New Hampshire. An effort is underway to require fish passage facilities at these dams, thereby restoring anadromous fish, including Atlantic salmon, to the New Hampshire portion of the river.
The presence of clear, clean water and sandy beaches along the Saco River provide excellent opportunities for swimming, tubing, and other water-based recreational activities in all sections of the river throughout the summer. Campgrounds are located along the river from Crawford Notch State Park to Conway providing through private and publicly owned facilities, a full spectrum of camping experiences. For those desiring a more remote adventure, wilderness camping is available within the White Mountain National Forest and on isolated sandbars and, by permission, on private lands along the river.
The Saco River and its tributaries are used by thousands of people from throughout the Northeast annually for canoeing, kayaking and rafting. In early spring, the upper section of the river offers one of the most exciting whitewater runs in all of central New England. Between the Gorge at Notchland and the center of Bartlett, five miles of continuous rapids and occasional drops require whitewater expertise to navigate. From Bartlett to Conway, the river offers a popular run of medium difficulty with quickwater and intermittent rapids. From North Conway to the Maine border, the river is primarily smooth water with the exception of a few rapids between Conway and Center Conway.
Route 302 parallels the entire length of the Saco River and provides numerous access sites to the river. Canoeists and anglers frequently use bridge crossings over the river as access points. Conway also maintains three public access sites and the town beach in Bartlett is located on the river.
Riffles, pocket water, holes, sand bars, gravel beds, shoreline brush and timber, coves, inlets.