Patreon Exclusive Sneak Peak: Hello Ranger’s Guide to Acadia National Park
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As the most visited and most iconic national park in New England, Acadia stands out as the true gem that it is. Located on the quintessentially craggy coast of Maine, the park commands more than 3.5 million visitors annually, making it among the top 10 most visited in the country, and for good reason. This is a place of stunning diversity, bustling wildlife, and vivid scenery, from soaring trees and crashing waves to picturesque islands, oceanside mountains, and the bucolic town of Bar Harbor. Oh, and popovers.
Photo by Matt Kirouac
In 1604, Samuel de Champlain spotted Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island, giving the land a name the French call “the island of the bare mountains.” This island forms the heart of Acadia National Park, and Cadillac Mountain is its leading lady, drawing hordes of visitors to its summit every morning to see the sunrise—this is the first place in the U.S. to see sunlight every day.
Before Acadia was the summertime tourist magnet it is today, it was a magnet for the rich and powerful, who flocked to Mount Desert Island to build mansions as luxe woodland getaways from city life. John D. Rockefeller and George B. Dorr were two such folks, but in addition to having wallets lined with gold, they had hearts of gold too, because once they saw that developers were trying to take advantage of the region’s popularity with new construction and attractions, they intervened to protect it. Rockefeller did his part by constructing almost 60 miles of carriage roads for the park, and spent more than $3 million of his own money to purchase land and donate it to the National Park Service, while Dorr also donated land, built trails, and eventually became Acadia’s first superintendent. The park was designated a National Monument in 1916, before getting upgraded to Acadia National Park in 1919.
Ultimately, Acadia was created entirely out of private land donations, and had it not been for the altruism of Rockefeller and Dorr, there’s a good chance Mount Desert Island would have started looking like a lavish party scene out of The Great Gatsby. A huge fire in 1947 razed 17,000 acres worth of existing property, which had been used by elites as summer homes, ultimately setting the foundation for the Acadia we know today.
But prior to all the mansions, Native American peoples known as Wabanaki lived here for 12,000 years, traversing the waters and fishing in birchbark canoes. They still live in different areas of Maine today, and over the years they meshed with incoming communities by selling baskets and other goods to wealthy tourists, and even entertaining visitors with ceremonial dances and guided trips.
Of course, nature played a pivotal role here as well. There once was a time when Mount Desert Island was part of the mainland, some 25,000 years ago when the region was all connected by a massive ice sheet. As ice receded, it left behind vast swaths of space for ice melt to fill in lakes and Somes Sound, which separates the eastern portion of the park from the western side.
How to Get There
Acadia National Park is located on the coast of Maine, about three hours/170 miles northeast of Portland, the closest sizable city with an airport and ample rental car options, though smaller cities like Bangor are closer, and Bar Harbor is right next door. Making the drive, you have a few routes to choose from, depending on how much time you have. Coastal Route 1 is the most scenic, as it meanders along the shore, though I-95 is by far the faster choice. Many visitors arrive in Boston, the largest city and airport in New England, and at about 280 miles southwest of Acadia, it’s an accessible (and more economic) option as well.
Photo by Matt Kirouac
What to Expect
Clocking in at 47,000 acres, and with 158 miles of hiking trails, there’s plenty to see and do at Acadia, a park that encompasses an array of landscapes and terrains. Most of the park’s 3.5 million annual visitors flock here in July and August, when the weather is sunny and warm, as well as late-September and early-October for prime leaf-peeping. The park is divvied into three main sections: Mount Desert Island is the most visited and most popular, along with the Schoodic Peninsula, which is the only portion on the mainland, and Isle au Haut, only accessible by boat. Most visitors stick to Mount Desert Island, and this is where much of the prime attractions and trails are, as well as the 27-mile Park Loop Road.
One thing to point out is that Acadia National Park is one of the most dog-friendly parks in the country, and pets are allowed on most hiking trails, aside from a few of the steeper, more perilous ones. And speaking of animals, Acadia is teeming with the non-domesticated kind, including seals, beavers, eagles, hawks, falcons, bears, moose, otters, starfish, and whales, to name a few.
Photo by Matt Kirouac
Things to Do
A great way to start any trip to Acadia is with a stop at the historic Hulls Cove Visitor Center and museum, built in the 1960s and perched on a hill at the apex of a long series of stairs. From here, head out on Park Loop Road into the heart of the park, which is easy to navigate and explore thanks to the layout of the scenic loop route.
Sand Beach is an apt starting point, but don’t come here expecting Malibu vibes and warm waves. Even at the height of summer, the ocean is chilly at best, although brave souls are welcome to swim. Sand Beach is what’s referred to as a “pocket beach,” and it’s one of only a few cold-water shell-based sand beaches on Earth, unusual for the fact that cold water traps gases that naturally dissolve most seashells. Just off the coast of Sand Beach is a large rock formation called Old Soaker, which diverts currents into a pocket that captures shells and piles them into this beachy alcove, atop massive granite beds.
From here, the Ocean Path trailhead departs along a 4.4-mile out-and-back jaunt along the coast, just south of Sand Beach. En route, you’ll spot several beautiful lookout points and rock-lined cliffs, including a section called Thunder Hole, which gets its name due to the thunderous crash of waves that hit the rock at certain points in the tide.
If you’ve got time to prioritize one destination here at Acadia, make it Cadillac Mountain. It’s not renowned for its towering height necessarily, although at 1,530-feet, it’s the tallest in the park, but more so for the fact that the summit is the first place in the country to see sunlight each morning. Set your alarm and make the drive up the top to be there for it—there’s something supremely beautiful and enthralling about standing outside in the dark, as light begins to trickle all around you. Keep in mind, you won’t be alone; even at ungodly hours, Cadillac Mountain’s parking lot is swarming with early birds eager to experience it. Later in the day, you can also bike and hike up the mountain.
Loons!/Photo by Kristi Rugg/Courtesy of NPS
And since you’ve gotten an early start, you’ll have plenty of time to drive from Cadillac Mountain to nearby Jordan Pond, one of the deepest and clearest ponds in the state, and one of the best for hiking. The main trail here is a 3.3.-mile loop that circles the water, with one side of the trail being natural earth and the other a series of wooden planks that weave through trees. About halfway through the trail are a couple rocky peaks called South Bubble and North Bubble, with trails that scramble up to the top, affording sweeping views of the pristine pond below. While you’re hiking, keep your eyes and ears peeled for loons. These beautiful aquatic birds are an iconic fixture at Acadia, but be respectful of their space, because they’re known to be quite territorial around their nests.
After a hike at Jordan Pond, stroll over to Jordan Pond House for a meal with a killer view. The historic building, home to the only full-service restaurant in the park, looks like a mansion that Rockefeller would probably feel right at home in. In the summer, the seasonal restaurant is best known for its popovers, while other dishes include smoked salmon plates, crab cakes, chowder, lobster stew, and of course, lobster rolls. For dessert, they even have a popover sundae with ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Other things to do at Acadia include paddling at Eagle Lake and Long Pond, rock climbing at Otter Cliffs, and swimming at Echo Lake, the warmest waters in the park.
Dessert at Jordan Pond House/Photo courtesy of NPS
Where to Stay
In addition to plentiful boutique lodging and charming inns in Bar Harbor, plus ample Airbnb options throughout the region, Acadia features two campgrounds on Mount Desert Island, plus one campground on the quieter Schoodic Peninsula, and five rustic lean-to shelters on Isle au Haut, for those who really want solitude. All campgrounds are seasonal, running primarily mid-May through mid-October.
Header photo: By Kristi Rugg/Courtesy of NPS