New England’s only national park, Acadia National Park ranks high on many travel bucket lists and is in the top 10 most-visited national parks in the country. With rugged granite cliffs along the coast, miles of forested trails and incredible fall foilage – it’s the perfect road trip for sightseeing and outdoor adventures.
It’s also a national park unlike most others, as much of the park is designated as chunks of land around the island – from one end to the other. This makes touring Acadia National Park an even more enjoyable experience because it creates an interesting mix of natural features, great hikes, superb sightseeing and rugged coastline that you would expect from a park. But there is the bonus of many fascinating places, working harbor towns, historical sites, manicured gardens and great little towns and surprises to explore along the drive.
Acadia National Park is located on the Maine Coast, about three hours north of Portland and about one hour south of Bangor. The park’s main section is on Mount Desert Island, where the visitor center is located. Other sections are located on the Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut, with small parcels on other islands. Most visitors arrive at Acadia National Park by car.
The closest airport to Acadia National Park is Bar Harbor Airport (BHB) in Trenton, a small regional airport. The next closest is Bangor International Airport (BIA), which despite its name, doesn’t have international service. The Portland International Jetport (PWM) offers the most flight options and is a three-hour drive from Acadia National Park. Many visitors fly into Boston’s Logan Airport (BOS), which is a five-hour drive (or longer) from the park. All airports have rental car franchises.
The Island Explorer bus system, operated by Downeast Transportation, provides free transportation to anyone with a park pass. It operates from late May through early October and operates routes that cover most, but not all, of Mount Desert Island. One route connects with the Bar Harbor Airport, and a bicycle express route operates between downtown Bar Harbor and Eagle Lake. The Island Explorer also has a route on the Schoodic Peninsula that connects with the ferry from Bar Harbor.
An entrance fee is required at Acadia National Park and most visitors choose to purchase a Vehicle Pass which covers all occupants for seven days.
Depending on the length of your stay and how many National Parks you plan to visit in a year, it may be more beneficial to purchase the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. This pass covers entrance fees into all U.S. National Parks as well as over 2,000 National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, National Historic Sites, and other federally managed lands.
Passes are free for current U.S. military members and reduced for Seniors aged 62 years or older. Senior passes also provide a 50 percent discount at select campgrounds.
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Acadia National Park has four campgrounds: Blackwoods and Seawall on Mount Desert Island; Schoodic Woods on the Schoodic section tipping its namesake peninsula; and Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut.
Mount Desert Island offers a range of accommodations (campgrounds, glamp-grounds, motels, hotels, inns B&Bs, and resorts as well as rental houses), with the majority based in or around Bar Harbor, and to a lesser extent, Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor.
Although the park is open year-round, prime season is from late May through October. Spring brings wildflowers and active wildlife, July and August are the most pleasant months for warm weather, and fall brings cooler and drier weather along with incredible changing foilage that you won’t want to miss. The Island Explorer shuttle bus operates from late June to mid October, and that’s when everything is open. And don’t forget that reservations for the Cadillac Summit Road are required from late May through October.
Winter is a crapshoot with storms ranging from cold rain or ice to snow (when snow blankets the ground, the carriage roads are groomed for cross-country skiing). In winter, sections of the Park Loop Road are closed, lodging and dining options are scarce, and most attractions are closed. But if you arrive prepared for all weather and want to have the park to yourself, it can be a wonderful time to visit. As spring approaches, you’ll want to be prepared for everything from wet cold and perhaps snow, to warm sunny days. Some hiking trails close for nesting birds, and other park facilities may be closed for maintenance.
While you can drive the Park Loop Road and loop around to the western side of the island (on the Mt Desert Island Loop) in one day, you’ll want at least two full days (and ideally five days) to explore Acadia National Park.
Two days would give you time to drive one loop each day, and if you have more time available, add more short (or longer) hikes and trail walks to see more of the park and island away from the road and human traffic. Consider adding other activities like boat cruises, visiting the Schoodic section of the park, kayaking and horse carriage rides.
Acadia has become one of America’s favorite parks, and at times it may seem that it’s being loved to death. To avoid the biggest crowds, aim to be in the park before 8am and/or after 3pm. During the middle of the day, go island-hopping, cruise on an excursion boat, join a paddling tour, take the ferry to the Schoodic section of the park, visit museums, and poke around less visited park areas, especially on the island’s western side.
And after doing an exploration drive around the loops, consider using the shuttle buses if planning a longer hiking day – to avoid having to search for trailhead parking at busy times. Shuttles are also an excellent solution for one way through-hikes.
One of the park’s main attractions, this 27-mile (43-kilometer) road is the go-to scenic drive around the east side of Mount Desert Island, and connects Acadia’s lakes, mountains, and shoreline.
Constructed between 1921 and 1958, the road allows motor vehicles to access the park separate from local roads and non-motorized carriage roads. Just keep in mind that while there are many parking lots, parking also occurs in the right-hand lane unless posted otherwise.
Often referred to as the “Heart of Acadia”, Sieur de Monts is a great place to learn about the park’s natural and cultural history.
Pop into the Nature Center to learn more about the animals and plant life, or see more than 400 indigenous wildflower species at the Wild Gardens of Acadia. There’s also some lovely nature strolls, a spring house, and even a small museum with an archeological artifacts dating back as far as 11,000 years.
Created by erosion and weathering, when waves enter the crevice and then the chamber, the water is sprayed up as high as 40 feet (12 meters) with a thunderous roar: “I am Thunder Hole!!!!”. The effect is strongest within a couple of hours of high tide, and when the waves are larger.
If it’s low tide and calm, it can sound more like a weak gurgle – but Gurgle Hole doesn’t sound as exciting.
One of the high points, literally and figuratively, of our journey is Cadillac Mountain. Its 1,530-foot (466-meter) summit is the highest along the North Atlantic Seaboard.
In the 1880s we could have ridden a cog railway to Cadillac’s summit. These days we can drive, hike, or bike – but we do need a reservation to drive our car on the Cadillac Mountain Road.
Is Acadia’s only “sandy” beach really sand? Most sand beaches are created from rocks and minerals, but Sand Beach is different. Its sand is almost entirely comprised of zillions of crushed shell fragments that has been pulverized over thousands of years to look like sand.
If you head to the beach to check out the sand, go ahead, dip your toes in the frigid water, if you dare; it rarely gets warmer than 55 degrees. And even if you’re not up for a dip, there’s an easy hike along the Ocean Path with incredible coastline views.
Now what is a carriage road? As the name suggests they are designed for horse-drawn carriage rides, and Acadia’s 16-foot (5-meter) wide carriage roads are considered the best example in the country of broken stone roads.
We can thank summer resident John D. Rockefeller Jr for the 45 miles (72 kilometers) of these roads within the park, and to this day we can tour Acadia’s carriage roads aboard a horse-drawn carriage ride. And perhaps imagine wealthy visitors doing the same during an era from more than a lifetime ago.
Feasting on tea and popovers with jam on the lawn of the Jordan Pond House has been a tradition for more than a century.
The original, rustic teahouse was built in 1947 and was a treasure, but it burned down in 1979 and was replaced in 1982. While it’s a different style, the views overlooking Jordan Pond and the ‘Bubbles’ from the lawn remain the same.
Formed during the last glacial event, this large, deep body of water almost – almost, cuts Mount Desert Island right in half.
Somes Sound was an important navigational reference point for pre-GPS sailors who entered the sound through the Narrows – which is something of a pinch point. For boaters today, passing through the Narrows isn’t as treacherous as it sounds but once you get through, boating and sailing in the sound is really quite magical.
Many of Maine’s beaches are covered with cobblestones, but this coastline is unique. We can thank powerful ocean storms for creating the massive natural seawall that gives this area of the park its name. The wall comprises stone cobbles kicked up during storms, carried by waves and tides and piled on the shore.
It feels far more raw and remote on this side of the island, and it’s a favorite area for birdwatchers, who sometimes find themselves enjoying a bonanza of interesting sightings.
Who doesn’t love a lighthouse! Established in 1858, this is the only lighthouse on Mount Desert Island and one of the most photographed along the Maine Coast.
If you can snag a parking space, take a walk around this handsome light and take some pictures. Unfortunately, neither the tower or keeper’s house are open to the public, but you can still enjoy it from the outside.
Here’s a selection of park hikes, but the best advice is to consult with park rangers. They can match you with options that meet your desires and abilities.
The Ocean Path parallels the shoreline from Sand Beach to Otter Cliff, taking in the best sights along the Ocean Drive section of the Park Loop Road.
The Jesup Path and Hemlock Path Loop, at Sieur du Monts Springs, is lovely anytime but especially gorgeous in autumn. This level trail passes through woodlands, traverses a field, bisects a boggy area with boardwalks, has interpretive signage.
Wonderland Trail and the Ship Harbor Trail are both mostly level trails on the west side of the island. Wonderland is a bit easier, while Ship Harbor has interpretive signage and passes through multiple habitats.
Great Head rises over and protects Sand Beach. The trail rises through steps to open ledges, the ruins of a 1915 teahouse, and panoramic ocean views.
The 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) Gorham Mountain Loop rewards hikers with views over Frenchman Bay and islands, and is a beautiful hike with an excellent overview of what Acadia has to offer.
The Bubbles are the rounded mountains rising over Jordan Pond. You can hike North Bubble, South Bubble, or both, connecting them with the Bubbles Divide Trail. South Bubble rewards hikers with eye candy views over Jordan Pond and out to the Cranberry Islands as well as the opportunity to take a Sisyphean photo at Bubble Rock, a gigantic glacial erratic. North Bubble is steeper but offers equally fine views.
The South Ridge ascends Cadillac Mountain from near the Blackwoods Campground, so if you’re staying there, this is a fine trail for catching sunrise (be sure to bring a headlamp). The steady climb includes a rung section.
Despite being one of the smaller peaks in the park, Flying Mountain has some of the best views. The trail ascends moderately to open ledges with views over the mouth of Somes Sound and out to the Cranberry Islands, then it follows the ridge north before descending to Valley Cove. The return is via the Valley Cove fire road.
The Beechcroft Path ascends Champlain Mountain. Granite stairs zigzag up to Huguenot Head, which offers fine views over Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay. From there, after a brief descent, it rises steeply via steps and scrambles to the open summit. Note: This trail can be very slippery when wet.
The St. Sauveur and Acadia Mountain Loop traverses two peaks wedged between Echo Lake and Valley Cove. It can be hiked from either base in either direction. The best part is that you can cool off afterward in Echo Lake.
Hike the Beech Mountain Loop for views over Long Pond as well as over the Cranberry Isles from the summit. Although the firetower is closed, you can soak in the views from its wraparound deck.
One of the park’s most strenuous hikes, the Beehive Loop climbs a cliff face using iron rungs and staircases. It’s also one of the park’s most popular trails, as hikers challenge their bodies (and minds) as they ascend the 450-foot (137-meter) cliff trail up to stunning views over Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and the Gulf of Maine stretching to the horizon.
Don’t even consider hiking the Precipice Loop if you have any fear of heights. It climbs more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) in less than a mile and has open cliff faces and iron rungs. Don’t attempt to descend it; return via Champlain’s North Ridge Trail. Note: Precipice is closed during peregrine falcon nesting season.
The Perpendicular and Razorback Loop begins along the shoreline-edging Long Pond Trail. Perpendicular, considered one of if not the most constructed trail in the park, rises sharply from the shoreline, ascending Mansell Mountain via granite steps built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. An overlook provides views over Long Pond, Beech Mountain, and the Cranberry Islands. Descend via the steep Razorback Trail, and then close the loop via the Gilley Trail and Cold Brook Trail to the Long Pond Trail.
Kids love this, but adults also enjoy it. Diver Ed descends to the ocean bottom with an underwater camera, while passengers watch the adventures on a big screen. He returns with his finds, and everyone has a chance to meet the sea creatures before they’re returned to the sea.
This family-friendly coastal trail is popular for birding spot and good tidepooling at low tide. Hike the Wonderland Trail on a receding tide to see what the sea has left behind in tide pools – just remember to look but not touch.
Explore the Carriage Roads either on foot, on a bike, or on a horse-drawn carriage just like in the olden days.
Stargazing is a great way to experience nature, explore science, and ponder history. Explore the night sky from the west side of Mount Desert Island while enjoying the ocean soundscape at the Seawall, or comfortably on a blanket at Acadia’s only sandy beach, Sand Beach.
Take a nature cruise to learn about seabirds, sea life and local history – and even try hauling a few lobster traps.
Acadia’s park rangers offer a variety of programs including guided hikes, walks, and boating excursions as well as night sky talks and evening campground talks.
Explore this network on foot, on a bike, or aboard a horse-drawn carriage. The Carriage Roads lace the heart of the park, and are accented with 17 handsome stone bridges.
It’s one thing to see Acadia by land and another to do so by sea. Boats operating from Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor, or Southwest Harbor often highlight birds, whales, and other sea life; explain lobster fishing; or share historical context.
The Abbe Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, shares the story of Maine’s Wabanaki people at the main downtown location as well as the seasonal trailside museum at Sieur de Monts.
Passenger ferries from Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor make the rounds of the Cranberries and allow passengers to hop on and off the circuit. Explore Great Cranberry and Islesford either on foot or bring a bicycle.
The Garden Preserve manages these three gardens in and around Northeast Harbor. Asticou and Thuya can be accessed anytime; reservations are required for the Rockefeller Garden.
The best sunset spots in Acadia National Park are at the Cadillac Mountain Summit (remember, reservations are required during peak season), by taking a sunset cruise on an excursion boat or from Eagle Lake on the island’s eastern side; at the Seawall, Bass Harbor Light, and the Bass Harbor Marsh on the island’s western side; and Islesford Dock on Islesford.
For sunrise, check out the Ocean Drive section of Park Loop Road, the Cadillac Mountain Summit (reservations required), along Bar Harbor’s Shore Path, and Seawall on the island’s western side.
Lobster, of course. Most island menus have some form of lobster listed (stew, salad, roll, dinner), but for an authentic experience, head to one of the classic Maine lobster shacks. These include Abel’s in Northeast Harbor, Beal’s in Southwest Harbor, and the most scenic, Thurston’s in Bernard. And chase it all with a lobster ice cream from Ben & Bills in Bar Harbor or a slab of wild Maine blueberry pie topped with a scoop of Gifford’s vanilla. If you love ice cream, don’t miss Mount Desert Island Ice Cream in Bar Harbor.
Thirsty? You’ll find Maine craft beers everywhere. Prefer a soft drink? Try Moxie (or maybe not). And don’t miss sampling the official Maine snack: a whoopie pie. In addition, since Maine was farm to table long before it was a trend, you’ll find most restaurants source many ingredients from local foragers, fishermen, and farmers.
Extra Layers: Maine weather is fickle and climate change is making it more so. The best advice is to dress in layers, so consider that when packing. Various high-tech fabrics offer wicking, sunscreen, warmth, and some are waterproof. Often these fabrics dry quickly, which allows you to pack fewer pieces of clothing. Good items to have include a waterproof jackets, waterproof footwear, a windbreaker and lightweight gloves. Dress in the area is casual.
Footwear: Bring sturdy footwear for hiking or exploring coastal ledges.
Daypack: A comfortable pack makes all the difference. In addition to carrying an extra layer, water, and headlamp, it’s a good idea to throw a few snacks in there as well.
Sun Protection: Bring a broad-brimmed hat, sunblock, and sunglasses.
Bug Repellant: Bring good bug repellent. Black flies, active early May to mid June, may be tiny, but they bite. When the black flies disappear, the mosquitos come and stick around through August. Use repellent with DEET to repel ticks. When outdoors in the woods or fields, apply bug repellent with DEET to repel ticks, tuck pant legs into socks, and wear a hat sprayed with repellent.
Hiking Poles: Light-weight hiking poles are like having a third leg. They help maintain balance and can get you into a rhythm while walking.
Water Bottles: Always bring water – refillable water bottles are recommended. And make sure you drink it! No matter what time of year you visit, dehydration is always a risk – even if you’re not doing much physical activity.
Headlamp: You never know when a hike is going to take longer than planned – we always throw a lightweight headlamp in our daypack just in case.
Binoculars: Bring binoculars or a spotting scope.
A Cooler: A cooler can come in handy to help keep your water and snacks chilled.
Map: Consider bringing an actual map – like, one made out of paper. Since your phone won’t have much service, it won’t be much use for navigation. Having a hard copy to consult can be useful when you’re leaving the tour route.
Portable Phone Charger and Cable: If you’re taking pictures with your phone, running out of batteries may result in missed opportunities. A DC car charger is best, so that you can charge your phone while driving.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag, so we can do our part and help keep the park clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the parking lot, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the area beautiful for everyone who visits.
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