Acadia National Park, the first national park established east of the Mississippi River, is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. It encompasses woodland areas, lakes, mountainous terrain, beaches, rocky coastline, and the only fjord on the east coast of the United States. According to Park Statistics, Acadia protects over 47,000 acres, primarily on Mt. Desert Island.
Tip #1: Consider Visiting Outside the Peak Tourist Months
Although most visited in the summer months, the park is open year-round and each of the four seasons offer its own unique rewards. While some shops and restaurants do close down off season, you will avoid most of the crowds by visiting before July or after September.
John D. Rockefeller and his family had over 45 miles of carriage roads constructed between 1913 and 1940. These roads serve as hiking and biking trails in the warmer weather but also provide a network of snowshoeing or cross-country ski paths in the winter. The roads are well marked and maps can be found at one of the Acadia National Park Visitor Centers. The fall offers some of the best opportunities to view the spectacular foliage for which New England is famous. The wildflowers of Mt. Desert Island come alive in the spring and the wildlife is at its most active. You may just see a beaver at work, deer or even an otter. While you may have to battle some mud on the carriage trails, you will have those trails virtually to yourself. You may also consider planning your off season visit around a particular event or festival.
Not only is lodging significantly less expensive off season, the park entrance fee itself is discounted 50% in the late spring and early fall and free of charge November through April.
Tip #2: Consider the Time of Year When Choosing Your Lodging
Bar Harbor is a small town by most standards but it is the largest town on Mt. Desert Island. Bar Harbor has a number of shops and restaurants open year-round but it is a quiet town if you avoid the peak tourist season and it can make for the perfect base for your outdoor adventures. The Seacroft Inn is not quite as fancy as some of the more posh bed & breakfasts in the area, but it is priced accordingly and the location between the center of town and the famous Shore Path cannot be beat.
However, if you are visiting in July, August or perhaps even September, Bar Harbor can feel overcrowded. In peak months, you may want to consider staying in one of the smaller towns on Mt. Desert Island, such as Southwest Harbor on Acadia’s “quiet side”. Campgrounds are also an option. The park runs Blackwoods Campground, not far from Bar Harbor, and Seawall Campground, near Bass Harbor. But I recommend avoiding the campgrounds during peak mosquito and black fly seasons!
Tip #3: Plan Ahead to Take Advantage of the Superb Dining Options and Save a Few Dollars
Bar Harbor is noticeably more expensive than many of the surroundings towns. If your schedule allows, go for an early bird special. Most restaurants have them and they can save you as much as 50% on dinner. I wanted to be out on the trail during the day so it worked well to grab a substantial breakfast (my favorite breakfast spot was Cafe This Way), a light lunch (for example, a sandwich at Adelmann’s Deli, 224 Main Street) and then an early dinner. That also allowed for an after dinner walk on the Shore Path or Eagle Lake (see below) and still enough time for an ice cream before bed. CJ’s Big Dipper (150 Main St.) may have the best chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream I have ever tasted!
The Jordan Pond House is a must when visiting Acadia. The famous popovers of this historic institution will not disappoint. After my last visit, the lobster bisque is also on my “must eat” list! It is best to reserve ahead, and plan enough time for a walk around Jordan Pond (1.5 – 2 hours) before or after your meal. The Jordan Pond House also has a great gift shop. Though do not feel overwhelmed by all the gift shops in Bar Harbor, as the majority of the shops have the same owner and sell more or less the same merchandise. If you’ve seen one (well, two or three), you’ve seen them all!
Tip #4: Get Off the Beaten Path and Choose Hikes that Offer the Best Variety
Acadia has over 120 miles of hiking trails. These are just some of my favorites:
- The 1.5 to 2 hour walk around Jordan Pond (see above) with a view of the famous Bubbles (mountains).
- The Shore Path covers only about a half mile but it starts in the center of town and makes for a wonderful introduction to Bar Harbor or a relaxing evening stroll with your ice cream cone.
- The Gorham Mountain trail offers spectacular views without requiring too difficult a hike. Park at the Gorham Mountain trailhead just beyond the Thunder Hole area, climb the mountain and continue on until you hit the Bowl Trail junction. Follow the signs for Sand Beach, which will take you down to the Loop Road. The foot trail parallels the road as you head back by Thunder Hole to your car. During the summer season, Park buses give you even more flexibility for start and end points.
- The trail along Otter Cliffs offers some of the most breathtaking coastline. You can walk for 5 minutes and turn around or keep going for as much time as you have.
- Sand Beach at Great Head is a great spot for a walk, picnic, or just some sunbathing if the weather cooperates.
- If you are looking for more of a challenge, hike up Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the Eastern seaboard and the first spot in the U.S. to see the sun rise every morning. If you are not as keen on walking, you can drive up.
- While not a long trail, the ultimate challenge in vertical climbing (without the need for technical gear) is the Beehive, known for its cliff scramble with the help of a series of iron rungs. The Beehive is not for those with a fear of heights!
- Eagle Lake is about 6 miles around, but you can also just walk a section of it. I highly recommend parking at the northern end about an hour before sunset and walking along the eastern side of the lake. Do not forget your camera!
- The carriage roads (see above) are perfect for a full day’s excursion or just for a quiet evening stroll.
Tip #5: Try Something for the First Time
Acadia is a wonderful place to expand your horizons and experience the natural and culinary wonders of Maine. There are several locations in Bar Harbor to rent mountain bikes or to sign up for a kayak tour, lobster boat excursion or whale watching tour. Take climbing lessons or a scenic flight over Mt. Desert Island. Visit one of the Park Visitor Centers and join a guided ranger walk to learn more about the geology or the history of the region. Try a blueberry beer. And if you have never eaten lobster with your bare hands, this is the place to try it! …lobster ice cream, anyone?
Abby Gordon lives in Paris, France and enjoys exploring and photographing every corner of the city, as well as visiting new regions of France and Europe. When back in the United States, she visits her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts and tries to spend as much time as possible in Maine. Abby maintains a photography website, a blog about exploring Paris and beyond at www.ParisWeekender.com and also a guide to Boothbay Harbor, Maine at www.BoothbayHarborRental.com.