We invited Dolores and Dan, bloggers at Acadia on My Mind and co-authors of multiple hiking guides, to share insider tips for making the most of a trip to Acadia National Park. In addition to their blog, you can find them on Facebook. The latest edition of “Best Easy Day Hikes, Acadia National Park,” was published in April 2015 by FalconGuides.
If you’re planning your first trip to Acadia National Park, you’ll soon see why the magnificent scenery has lured generations of families, artists, millionaires and even presidents.
The Northeast’s only national park and the first one east of the Mississippi, Acadia boasts more than 125 miles of hiking trails, from easy ocean strolls to challenging cliff climbs; 45 miles of carriage roads for biking, walking and riding in a horse-drawn carriage; a scenic Park Loop Road; a lighthouse; and the amazing contrast of deep blue sea and pink granite shores.
No wonder the viewers of Good Morning America named Acadia “America’s Favorite Place” and the readers of USA Today called it the #1 national park, all in 2014. And no wonder more than 2 million visitors a year come to this corner of Maine, most of them making the trip during the summer months and fall foliage season.
Even more visitors are expected this year, following the top ratings last year and Acadia’s 100th birthday in 2016, coinciding with the National Park Service’s Centennial.
Here are the top 5 things to see and do in Acadia National Park as a first-time visitor, as well as some insider tips on avoiding the crowds during the busy season:
1. Soak in the panoramic vista on Cadillac Mountain
The highest peak in Acadia, and the first place to see the sun rise in the United States during certain times of the year, Cadillac is a must-see stop. From here, you can see all of Frenchman Bay, the distinctive Porcupine Islands and down to Bar Harbor. Helpful interpretive plaques at a viewing platform point out the landmarks, from distant islands to mainland highlights. The paved 0.3-mile Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, partly accessible for wheelchairs and baby strollers, takes you around for the 360-degree views. You can drive up a 3.5-mile road to the top, or take one of the guided bus tours with permits to operate in the park, National Park Tours or Oli’s Trolley. (The fare-free Island Explorer bus, partly funded by $3 million pledged by L.L.Bean to the nonprofit Friends of Acadia, doesn’t go up Cadillac, but park officials are exploring the possibility of a bus shuttle to the top to ease crowding.) For the fit and adventurous, Cadillac can also be hiked up via a number of hiking trails, such as the Cadillac South Ridge Trail or Cadillac North Ridge Trail. And it can be biked up via the summit road, although be advised that it’s a steep, narrow and windy route. Gift shop and restrooms are available at the top.
Insider tip: To avoid the crowds during the busy season, visit the top before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
2. Drive the scenic Park Loop Road
The 27-mile road starts at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. The one-way section of the road takes you to Wild Gardens of Acadia at Sieur de Monts; Sand Beach; Thunder Hole; and Otter Cliff. The two-way section of the road takes you along Jordan Pond and up Cadillac Mountain. But don’t just drive the road. You can stop at the many pullouts or even in the right lane of the one-way section of the loop road where permitted. Get out of the car to see the sights, hear the sounds and smell the ocean air. Tour the Wild Gardens of Acadia. Dip your toes into the frigid waters off Sand Beach. Time your stop at Thunder Hole after a storm and as high tide approaches if you don’t want to go away disappointed by hearing just a gurgle instead of a thunderous clap. As part of preparations for the Acadia Centennial, park officials last year began rehabilitating 30 historic vistas along the Park Loop Road, restoring them to their former expansiveness. Enjoy the newly reopened views.
Insider tip: Drive early or late to avoid the crowds, or take the fare-free Island Explorer’s Loop Road line, or buy a ticket to one of the guided bus tours.
3. Have lunch or afternoon tea with a view of Jordan Pond and the Bubbles
The Jordan Pond House, the only dining facility in Acadia National Park, continues a tradition that began in the 1890s, of offering afternoon tea and popovers on the lawn, with the pond and the distinctive twin mountains known as the Bubbles as the backdrop. Lunch and dinner are also served in season. There’s a gift shop and restrooms, and a number of hiking trails and carriage roads that intersect at the Jordan Pond House.
Insider tip: Take the Island Explorer to the Jordan Pond House when the bus is running from late June through Columbus Day, to avoid having to circle around looking for parking.
4. Bike, walk or take a horse-drawn carriage ride on the carriage roads
The 45 miles of carriage roads and the 16 stone bridges along those roads, funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and donated to the park, are another of Acadia’s unique features. Built between 1913 and 1940, the carriage roads gracefully follow the natural contours of the landscape, around valleys and mountains, providing scenic vistas along the way. Each bridge is unique, with names such as Cobblestone Bridge or Deer Brook Bridge. A carriage road map is available on the Acadia National Park Web site. Horse-drawn carriage rides are offered through Wildwood Stables, south of the Jordan Pond House. Among the popular starting points for bicyclists and pedestrians: Hulls Cove Visitor Center, Eagle Lake parking on ME 233, Jordan Pond House, Brown Mountain Gate House and Bubble Pond parking.
Insider tip: Take the Island Explorer Bicycle Express from Bar Harbor Village Green to the Eagle Lake carriage road starting point, or one of the other Island Explorer lines to Jordan Pond House, Brown Mountain Gate House or Bubble Pond.
5. Take a hike through history
Imagine walking the same trails as late 19th century and early 20th century rusticators, artists, tourists and summer residents. Or picture yourself following in the footsteps of presidents and presidents-to-be. Many of the century-old village connector trails, allowing you to stroll from Bar Harbor to Sieur de Monts and beyond, or Asticou in Northeast Harbor to Jordan Pond and beyond, have been restored to their former glory as part of the park’s Centennial efforts. Great Meadow Loop and Schooner Head Path are two well-graded routes within walking distance of Bar Harbor. The Asticou & Jordan Pond Path that had been an important connector between Northeast Harbor and Jordan Pond in the late 1800s got a major overhaul last year as part of an $800,000 federal grant. And if your tastes in history lean more toward presidents than rusticators, here are the places visited by President Barack Obama during his family July 2010 trip: Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, Ship Harbor Trail and Bass Harbor Head Light. Other sitting presidents who’ve visited the area, before Acadia became a national park: William Howard Taft, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison. A young Theodore Roosevelt, drawn to the area by the landscape paintings of Mount Desert Island by Frederic Church and Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School, hiked Cadillac, which was then known as Green Mountain.
Insider tip: Watch for the Friends of Acadia’s map to the Village Connector Trails, including information about access points.