It is surprising to us that many of the people we know have never heard of Acadia National Park. The park attracts thousands of people each year eager to explore the many scenic areas of the mountainous island on which the park resides. Although the park is a fair distance away (about 10 hours by car from Pennsylvania) we feel that it is well worth the drive.
In our area many people flock to the New Jersey shore to simply sit on the sand for hours on end, sometimes venturing into the murky waters of the Atlantic. We’ll have none of that – we want a more active vacation: hiking the rocky trails that lead to amazing views; biking the carriage roads designed by John Rockefeller Jr himself; waking early to see the sunrise, staying up late to see the sunset, and staying up even later to see millions of stars in the night sky. This is the essence of a truly rewarding vacation for us.
Before I dig into the park attractions and activities, let’s have a geography lesson. The island that Acadia NP mostly sits on is Mount Desert Island, first discovered by explorers in 1604. This island has many mountains, lakes (the smaller ones called ponds), and rocky granite cliffs and coastlines. Glaciers played a big part in the formation of these features. On this island sits the majority of Acadia National Park. The park actually extends to some other areas outside the main island, most notably Schoodic Peninsula to the north.
The main town on Mount Desert Island is Bar Harbor, which is where most of the shops, restaurants, and boat tours in the area are located. It is not necessary to stay in or near Bar Harbor to enjoy your trip. We rented a house about 6-7 miles from town, and although we did have to do a little more driving we had a beautiful view of Somes Sound as well as very peaceful surroundings. There are a handful of other towns scattered around the island, some with nice shops and restaurants (like Southwest Harbor), but also some that are mostly residential.
Now for the park … let’s start at the beginning. This is the stretch of the Park Loop Road right after the ranger station. This area approximately 2 miles in length encompasses a number of destinations that can keep you busy for a couple of days. Consequently this is the area that attracts the most visitors, which can lead to crowds during the summer.
- Sand Beach
- The rocky coastline
- Thunder Hole
- Otter Cliffs
- The Beehive trail (challenging)
- Gorham Mountain trail (moderate)
- Great Head trail (moderate)
Tip: Avoid the busy summer period from the end of June through August.
Tip: Parking is typically allowed in the right-lane of the park loop road. Watch out for parked cars.
Sand Beach is a nice scenic little beach. It is not really a destination like the New Jersey shore – it is more of a respite from an otherwise busy and active visit to the park. You can stop by for a quick lunch, or stay for the day and sit in the sun or play in the water.
The rocky granite coastline between Sand Beach and Otter Cliffs is a lot of fun to walk along. You’ll see boats in the water, people fishing, and seagulls catching and eating crabs right from the ocean.
Photo Tip: This is a great area for catching sunrise photos. The beautiful morning light on the coastline and Otter Cliffs make for beautiful photos. Remember – sunrise is very early in the summer – before 5 AM.
Thunder Hole is a geologic formation that shoots water up when waves crash in. It is fun to watch (around high tide only), and it draws lots of visitors to a very small area, so it probably has the highest density of visitors compared to its area.
We hiked all three trails listed above, and they are all worthwhile. The Beehive Trail is the most difficult, as it requires you to climb vertically on steel ladders at a number of places during the hike. It also has the biggest “payoff” – a beautiful view of Sand Beach from over 500 ft high. The hike down is much easier!
The Gorham Mountain trail is more moderate and a little longer, but it also has some great “payoff” views during the hike. The Great Head Trail is a fun trail that does not take you too high but gives you various scenic views along the coast, including a great view of Sand Beach and the Beehive.
Beyond the Sand Beach/Otter Cliffs area, the other main areas and attractions of Acadia NP, in no particular order, are:
- Jordan Pond, and the Jordan Pond House
- The Carriage Roads which weave throughout the park
- Cadillac Mountain
- Bar Harbor town
- The western side, including Echo Lake, Acadia Mountain, and the Bass Harbor Lighthouse
Jordan Pond is the central hub of activity in the interior of the park. The pond itself is very attractive, with trails around it and distinctive “bubbles” in the background (small mountain formations). You’ll find the Jordan Pond House which has a very good restaurant, the feature item of which is the Popover. This is a tasty baked treat that is a staple of this restaurant. And finally there are many carriage roads that pass through this area and weave throughout the park (see below). This is a must-stop for any visitor.
Photo Tip: Late day or early morning light can make for fantastic photos here. Try to find different compositions with rocks and other features.
The carriage roads were designed to carry horse-drawn carriages around the park, but today the most common usage is bike riding. Walking and jogging are also common. There are many miles of carriage roads, so you have a lot to choose from. They also extend all the way to the visitor center at the northeastern tip of the park.
Tip: Be wary that the carriage roads can be quite hilly. Buy a $5 trail map at one of the park shops and pay attention to the topographical lines to determine the slopes.
Cadillac Mountain is the spot where you can be the very first to see the sunrise in the US. You get great views of the whole island and surrounding smaller islands, especially near Bar Harbor. In summer sunrise is around 4:50 AM, so be prepared to get up very early for this. Sunrise is also very popular, and the preferred area is the Blue Hill parking lot since that’s on the west side of the mountain.
Tip: You may want to drop into Jordan Pond House after seeing the sunset, to have dinner or to simply have a tasty dessert, including the popovers.
When you want to get back to civilization, or just to have a sit-down meal, Bar Harbor is the place to go. Dozens of shops and restaurants fill the streets, and if you want you can even find the docks that serve fresh lobster dinners – and by fresh I mean straight off the lobster boat.
Tip: Spend an hour or so around low tide and walk across the sand bar at Bridge Street to Bar island. The walk to the peak of Bar Island yields a nice view of Bar Harbor and Cadillac Mountain.
There are also some attractions on the western side of the island, but not as much as the east side. We loved the Acadia Mountain hike, and many people swim in Echo Lake (on of the few lakes/ponds you are allowed to swim in). The Bass Harbor lighthouse is small but photogenic.
Final Tip: You are not limited to the lengthy one-way Park Loop Road when planning your driving routes. Study the map of the island and find alternative roads. The one we used most often is Otter Cliffs drive, which you can use to exit the Park Loop Road right at Otter Cliffs and make your way back to Bar Harbor or other areas.
I hope you can now see why we love Arcadia National Park. Please include this park in your future vacation plans.