Tucked halfway up Maine’s east coast, Acadia sits in isolation from the rest of America's National Parks. Actually, the next closest National Park would be Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, a good 900 mile drive away. Being the only National Park for such a distance, Acadia is the vacation choice of over two million visitors a year, making it the 9th busiest National Park in the country. Throw in the fact that it’s on a small (for the amount of visitors) island and well, If backcountry treks far from anyone in sight are what you’re looking for, Acadia is really not the park you’ll find them at. It is however, still a park worth visiting.
In many ways, there really is nothing like Acadia. The park has an interesting history, being the first National Park east of the Mississippi and being mostly created by donations of wealthy landowners. The geography of the park starts with the Atlantic Ocean continuously crashing against cliffs, boulders, and perfectly smooth, rounded stone after countless lifetimes of sea salt treatment. The famous saying, “Where the mountains meet the sea” finds its home in Acadia. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails on a scale of easy to fearful, especially if heights and sheer drops are a concern.
Another unique aspect of Acadia is its culture. If you can’t have endless wilderness with no one to be seen, then you might as well have the next best thing: a lively town. Acadia sits next to the famous Bar Harbor. Matter of fact, these two are so close to each other, many don’t realize that Bar Harbor is in-fact not inside the borders of Acadia. Bar Harbor offers big nightlife for a “National Park town”, tons of shopping, an amazing “Maine on the harbor” feeling that would take a better writer than I to put into words; and well, lobster. Endless amounts of lobster. Actually, so much lobster, we created a Lobster Guide To Acadia National Park & Bar Harbor Maine (Coming Soon!), where you can incorporate it into every meal of the day, from breakfast to dessert.
The majority of Acadia and all of Bar Harbor sit on Mount Desert Island. The island is split between the “Quiet Side”, or west side, and the “Bar Harbor Side”, where you can imagine most of the action takes place. There’s also a small part of Acadia National Park that sits on the mainland, just north of Mount Desert Island. If I had to name it to fit in with the first two, I'd call it the “Forgotten Side”. Given the time it takes to get off Mount Desert Island and drive up to this northern part of the park, separated from the rest, most Acadia visitors don’t make the trip. The best time to visit is in the warmer months. Bar Harbor shuts down entirely before the first snowfall and doesn't open back up until there are leaves on the trees. As for the mountains and park during January, did we mention it’s Maine on the east coast? If winter trekking is your thing, head to Denali National Park.
The weather during the summer is what you would expect for the northeast: humidity mixed with hot days that don’t seem to cool off too much at night, and buggy. At least, that's the case for summer. In the fall, the humidity settles and you can get warm days with colder winds and cooled off nights, and of course, fewer bugs.
TIME TO VISIT:
If you have never been on a food tour, there are a few things to note. You eat and eat and eat. You will leave happily too full. These tours are a great way to get a layout of the town/city you’re in as you walk through the streets, and they offer a great chance to ask the local guide about the hot spots to hit. We typically take these tours on the first day of our visit so we can use the knowledge gained throughout the rest of the trip. Lastly, in-between meals or during a meal, you’ll hear a lot of history about the location you’re at.
If you opt out of the tour option, Bar Harbor has countless eatery choices and almost all serve the famous Maine Lobster dish in every form you can think of. Refer to the previously mentioned guide for tips on where to go for your own self-guided tour.
Other activities in Bar Harbor include: Yoga By The Bay at Bar Harbor Inn & Spa, endless unique shopping, and, of course, boat tours with everything from history and lighthouses to whale watching.
PARK LOOP ROAD:
Park Loop Road is possibly the most famous activity in Acadia. This road makes one giant loop along the “Bar Harbor” side of the park and hits almost every “Top 10” item. Going clockwise, the road leaves the southern end of Bar Harbor and rides along the shoreline. You’ll ride parallel with Ocean Path, from Sand Beach to Otter Cliffs. Once you break from the shoreline, shortly after Otter Cliffs, you will head inland toward Jordan Pond or the more famous Jordan Pond House. After that, you ride up and around Cadillac Mountain and back down towards Bar Harbor.
The most popular, and almost exclusive, direction to do this loop road is clockwise, as mentioned above. And rightfully so, as many parts of the road are one-way in the clockwise direction. The main methods of transportation are car, bus or bike.
By Car: Start as the sun is rising. Keep in mind you are on the ocean, so the light during sunrise is great. Often, the professional photos you see of the famous spots you’re about to visit in Acadia, are taken during sunrise. The other reason to start early is that parking is extremely limited on this road and crowds can be overwhelming, even for the traveler who doesn't mind a crowd. Don’t be fooled, you will be far from the only one up this early to beat the crowds, but at least you won’t fight for a parking spot. The best starting point is from Bar Harbor making your first stop at Sand Beach. From here you can walk Ocean Path before continuing towards Jordan Pond and Cadillac Mountain.
By Bus: The Island Express is a multiple route bus system that picks you up at campgrounds, visitor centers, and throughout downtown Bar Harbor. The first pickup time at Blackwoods Campground is after 11am—a scary time to try and park on Park Loop Road, but no big deal if your only worry is hop on and hop off. This leaves tons of time for a late risers, or to master those campfire pancakes.
If staying at Blackwoods Campground, a route we planned out is as follows:
- Pink bus from Blackwoods to Otter Cliffs.
- Walk from Otter Cliffs to Sand Beach via Ocean Path.
- Orange Bus from Sand Beach to Jordan Pond House.
- Blue Bus from Jordan Pond House to Downtown Bar Harbor.
By Bike: This is the route we took during our visit. When traveling, we tend to be early morning people, so waiting for the bus seemed like days away. The thought of parking Big Red on Park Loop Road was a scary one. So grab the helmets.
The route we took was 4.7 miles with 279 ft. of elevation Gain and 151 ft. of elevation loss from the center of the campground to Otter Cliffs. From the entrance of the campground, we turned right on Route 3 towards Bar Harbor. Not a road I would bring kids on, but a perfectly fine road for cycling. After ~2.5 miles, we turned right onto Otter Cliff Road, a very quiet, very beautiful road that leads to the ocean and Otter Cliffs. We tied our bikes to a post and took off.
From here, much like the bus route mentioned above, you can walk Ocean path “backwards” from Otter Cliffs to Sand Beach. Another bonus: we had the whole pathway to ourselves. This section of Park Loop Road is one-way only. We started early enough that the crowds were only just reaching Sand Beach on the opposite end of Ocean Path, while we explored Otter Cliffs. It wasn’t until we got to the middle point where we saw them come crashing in like waves. We arrived at Sand Beach mid-day and got to enjoy it in the hot sun. The way back to the campground is much quicker. Remember the well maintained trail in Blackwoods Campground that leads you across the street to the ocean? That's only a short ride from Otter Cliffs. Since Park Loop Road is one-way, you can’t take this shortcut to Otter Cliffs there but you can take it home…
BEEHIVE LOOP TRAIL:
This hike is 1.4 miles (roundtrip) with 488 ft. of elevation gain. A walk in the town park right? Sure, if your town park often has you hanging onto steel rebar on a perch half way up a cliff. This trail starts out as a nice hike through the woods. Shortly after the trail head you come to an intersection—left is up the back side, right is up the cliff side. There are a couple of sign postings here warning hikers of the exposure and heights to follow on the cliff side. The back side is a two-way trail; however, the cliff side is a one-way, up only. That doesn’t stop a few panicked hikers from turning back halfway though. On the cliff side, the trail starts gaining elevation and getting narrower very quickly. Before you know it, the steel rebar “helpers” show up and you're walking along a section on the cliff that only offers a couple feet of flat ground. For those willing to do the thrilling hike, the views of Sand Beach and the ocean are incredible.
JORDAN POND HOUSE:
After Ocean Path and everything it includes, this is the next major attraction on Trail Ridge Road. Jordan Pond has a beautiful trail that circles it, starting and ending at the Jordan Pond House yard. For the athletic hikers, you can add in the two Bubbles, which are small mountains that sit on the far side of the pond and are often only viewed from the Jordan Pond House balcony. You may have already read, these trails are the secondary reason people visit the Jordan Pond area. The main reason being the popovers! You read that right, Jordan Pond House is famous for its popovers. You can even buy the mix in the attached gift shop to re-create a park favorite when you get home. Since this area is often visited during lunch time by the wave of visitors flowing Park Loop Road, lunch reservations are mandatory. Reservations are often made weeks in advance and even then, you will wait an additional hour or more for your table.
We decided to skip the crowds and bypass the Jordan Pond House. As mentioned above, after Ocean Path, Park Loop Road conveniently offers a shortcut (for cyclists) to Blackwoods Campground where we spent the afternoon relaxing and cooking lunch. We finished the second half of Park Loop Road in the evening with Big Red and were happy to see it almost empty. We rolled into Jordan Pond House around 6pm, immediately sat at an outdoor table and ordered a couple drinks, along with four, amazingly delicious and well worth the effort, hot out of the oven, popovers. Mmm.
Cadillac Mountain is one of three places in Maine that claim to see the “first light” of sunrise in the United States. To grab your spot in the “Cadillac Mountain Sunrise Club'', it’s a simple feat. Grab a chair and a blanket, and hop in the car a couple hours before sunrise. This will give you an hour or so to drive up the winding, mountain road to the summit, and an hour there to witness first light—the time at which the sun is not yet visible but its glow starts to light up the sky. You will want to make sure you’re there an hour before because watching the sun rise from start to finish over the ocean horizon is a sight you’ll never forget. Check out our Lobster Guide to Acadia National Park (Coming Soon!) for info on where to get a post sunrise Lobster Omelette.