Sunday, March 09, 2014

Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor

I love Acadia National Park. Maybe it's because I love Maine, but there's definitely something special about this park and its amazing scenery. The park is located along the Maine Coast on the Schoodic Peninsula, on Mount Desert Island and on Isle Au Haute. However the majority of the park is on Mount Desert Island and that is where we spend most of our time since there are almost 200 miles of hiking trails, the miles of coastline to explore and the village of Bar Harbor to enjoy.

Not only that, but Acadia National Park is America's easternmost National Park you can watch the first rays of sunshine hit the United States on the summit of Cadillac Mountain. Simply put, in my mind, Acadia is an outstanding park and should not be missed!

My History with Acadia

I had lived in Maine for almost a year before I first visited Acadia and realized what I had been missing all that time (even though I lived about 2 1/2 hours from Acadia up in the Greenville area). Acadia is one of those magic areas that when you are there, you quickly realize how wonderful it is that the area is protected by National Park status. Now that I'm not living in Maine, but in Massachusetts, I still try to get up there and I stop by every time that I'm in Maine.

On my first trip to Acadia, I toured and trekked through the park in mid-April and found that there were almost no crowds at even the most popular destinations in the park. While the days weren't all that warm and the weather wasn't perfect, the park was still there in all of its glory. If anything, it was even better because there were so few crowds. Wherever you wanted to go, you were able to get there with little or no trouble. No traffic jams, no shuttle buses, you did what you wanted when you wanted.

Even Thunder Hole, one of the must sees in the park and one of the most famous locations in the park, had maybe 20 people at any one time there while we were there. We were able to get right down to the edge of the rocks and experience, without the pushing and shoving crowds, what makes the area special. We even managed to get hit by several breaking waves as they crashed through Thunder Hole. The bad weather made it even more interesting, as the storm was whipping up the ocean, so the waves were even bigger than normal.

Since then I've visited Acadia several more times at different times of the year. Each has its pluses and minuses. In the summer months all of the attractions are open, as are all the store and restaurants in Bar Harbor and surrounding villages. However hotels are very expensive and just about everything is really crowded. Spring tends to be stormy and in a snowy winter, you'll have to wait for the snow to melt to do a lot of the hiking. The area during the early fall is almost as crowded as the summer months since everyone is looking at the changing leaves, but later in the year, like in November, the park empties out and if it hasn't snowed yet, just about everything is still open park wise (trails and attractions). However the shops and restaurants tend to close up in Bar Harbor and the other towns.

Visiting Acadia

Depending on when you decide to go to the park, your options for taking in Acadia change. In the spring or in the late fall you can really take your time explore the park without any crowds. This includes the trail network and the attractions like Cadillac Mountain and Thunder Hole. During the summer months exploring on this level is difficult, if not just impractical, since nowadays in the height of the tourist season, most roads within the park are really crowded. The only saving grace is that there are shuttle buses that run from the hotels and campgrounds in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth into the park so that you don't need your car at all. This is all in an effort to reduce air pollution in the summertime at the park. In the winter time most of the park is not easily accessible since not all the park roads are plowed. This includes the Cadillac Mountain Road and most of the park roads except for a portion between Sieur de Monts and Blackwoods Campground. The rest of the roads are open to walking and skiing, but that can make for long approaches for some of the mountain hikes.

Things to See

While at Acadia you have to take the drive (or hike if you are up to it) up Cadillac Mountain. The view is awe-inspiring and the drive itself can be quite an experience (especially for those with fears of exposure and heights). The road is well maintained and is not difficult to drive, however, in several places, you just look out into the wide open as you are coming around a turn. Nothing at like the Mount Washington Auto Road, but it is a really interesting drive none-the-less. Part of the reason that Cadillac Mountain is impressive is because it is right next to the ocean. So even at its somewhat short height, you are looking down over 1,000 vertical feet of relief to the ocean. The mountain will give you excellent views across the park and to the surrounding areas.

Another great spot is The Beehive, which is a small mountain right across from Sand Beach. The hike is maybe at most, a ½ a mile, but it climbs up and over what could be considered by some to be a cliff. There are ladders and steel cables bolted right into the mountain along the trail,, so that people without technical climbing experience can make their way up. The views are great, the exercise gets your blood pumping and you can make quite a few hiking loops from the top of The Beehive to get back down to your car at Sand Beach.

Sand Beach itself is also worth a visit. This is one of the few sandy beaches on the coast and while it is open for swimming, the water is very cold, even at the height of the summertime. Most people just enjoy the sun on the beach and skip going into the water.

For people less interested in climbing mountains and who want to enjoy a stroll along a wooded path or a bike ride down some nice bridle paths, there is a very extensive system of very well maintained bridal paths (originally horse and carriage roads) that are open to walking and biking that go around almost the entire park. You can ride your bike on them, walk on them and take horses on them. There are stables in the park where you can get a horse too.

The Schoodic Peninsula, which is about a an hour and a half drive from Bar Harbor and the main portion of the park is the only part of Acadia on the mainland of Maine. It's about 45 minutes to the east on Route 1 from Ellsworth and is worth the drive if you have the time. A single solitary ocean drive makes its way around the tip of the peninsula offering vistas across the bay to Mount Desert Island and up the coast to the east.

There are a ton of hiking opportunities in the park, which has almost 200 miles of trails. These trails explore just about every corner of the park and make for some great day trips. There is no overnight camping in the backcountry though, so all of your hikes have to be day trips. In the summertime the shuttle system makes its easy to link together trails for longer hikes since you don't have to worry about coming back to where your car is. Some of my favorite hikes include the Beehive, Penobscot Mountain and Beech Mountain. The trails are all very well maintained and thanks to the work of the CCC back in the 30's the quality of the trails in places is simply amazing. One trail literally is made of thousands of granite steps up the steep face of a mountain.

The Jordan Pond House is worth a stop when it is open. They serve lunch and dinner within the park and are famous for their afternoon tea that is served at tables that are on the lawn of the house. It makes for an incredible experience, either dining there or having tea surrounded by the mountains of Acadia.

Sieur de Monts Spring is home to the spring itself, a small nature center, the Abbe Museum, several hiking trails and adjacent to the site, the Wild Gardens of Acadia are accessible. The Spring makes a great stop as you travel along Acadia National Park's drive and gives you a chance to explore both the natural and human history of the Park.

While I'm sure that not everyone wants to learn about all of the plants in Acadia, the Wild Gardens of Acadia should interest just about everyone and if you don't have the time or the ability to visit all of the various ecological zones of Acadia National Park, but still want to get an idea of the various types of plants throughout the park, then stop by the Wild Gardens of Acadia. These gardens are host to native flora of Acadia, from the ocean to the tops of the mountains.

Bar Harbor and Downeast Maine

While at Acadia you will have to stop in the nearby town of Bar Harbor to get a flavor of the region. While Bar Harbor is a richer version of Downeast Maine culture in general, it is an interesting and fun place for those who want to explore. Don't forget to stop in a seafood restaurant and get a taste of some Maine "Lobstah." You won't be able to go wrong, because they are all great (and that's coming from someone who doesn't even like seafood, but never found a place his friends didn't like when he took them down there).

If you want to experience true Downeast culture, I would suggest a trip further east, out towards Machias, the unorganized townships that include Trescott and ultimately, at the very eastern tip of Maine, Lubec. Don't expect to find the kitschy shops and trendy restaurants of Bar Harbor, expect to find the true spirit of the Downeast area. It's an experience worth having and is one that very few people are lucky enough to experience (I was lucky because I got to cover the Downeast region for a year when I was working in Maine. Even though I worked out of Augusta, I was still up there as much as I could).

Camping and Lodging

There are campground facilities in the park for those wishing to stay (reservations are recommended and probably almost impossible to get in the summer unless you book way in advance), along with private campgrounds and hotels outside of the park in the Bar Harbor area and surrounding towns. In the summertime, just about everything is booked up, so without reservations, you are out of luck. I was down there once and the closest available hotel room was in Bangor, almost 2 hours away.


The only restaurant in Acadia National Park proper is the Jordan Pond House. There are also a few shops that sell some snacks and water. The rest of the dining is located in Bar Harbor and the other nearby towns. Bar Harbor has the most with everything from deli's and pizza places to fine dining restaurants. You should be able to find almost anything. Reservations are generally needed in the summer unless you want to wait a while. In the off-season, some places close, but generally there's no waiting for the remaining restaurants.

Final Thoughts

So I'd say if you live in the area, or are planning a trip to Maine, Acadia National Park has to be on your list of must-see places. While I love Acadia in the summertime, if you really want to get a good look at the park, I would shoot for visits in the spring or the fall to beat the crowds and to take the hassle out of your trip.

Otherwise if you are going in the summertime, prepare for some crowds, but even with them, you'll love the park.

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