Seems like Acadia is the place to be this summer – everyone is going there! The National Park Service ran a great marketing campaign for their 100th anniversary, and so the Parks seem to be busting at the seams this year. I’m glad that more people are getting outside and enjoying these gems, but it does add a bit of work in order to not to get too caught up in the crowds. So here are some hints if you’re planning to visit Acadia during peak season (it’s probably very different during off-season).
First, if you, like me, have been recently enjoying the massive, epic National Parks and Monuments out West (Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Staircase Escalante, etc), make sure you adjust your expectations accordingly. Acadia is comparatively quite small, and it’s carved into and out of the towns on Mount Desert Island. This smallness means that you won’t be able to lose yourself in a 13-mile strenuous hike where all you see is wildlife and the occasional grubby adventurer. No, you will see people no matter where you go. Embrace this, and you’ll have a much better time overall.
That’s not to say there aren’t some chances for peace and quiet. There are – you just have to work for them. Here’s what we did on our recent visit, which turned out to be a lovely mix of populated and not. FYI: Acadia is located near Bar Harbor, Maine, about 5.5 hours by car from Boston – a long but doable drive.
The first thing to note is that Acadia is spread out throughout Mount Desert Island (and beyond) in several large chunks of land, mostly separated by sounds and peninsulas. It’s an ISLAND, and so you’d think it would be easy to get from A to B, but getting anywhere does take some driving. This is not a walkable park, though once you get to attractions, there’s plenty of walking to be done. There is a shuttle, which we didn’t use, but it will likely be helpful if you don’t want to worry about parking.
We stayed at Blackwoods Campground, the only official campground within the main confines of the Park. It’s perfectly fine – clean and well kept, good sources of firewood nearby, and a very short walk from a lovely ocean view:
Blackwoods, while nestled within the most populous part of the Park, is not easily accessible via the Park Loop Road, which is your main method of getting around. This is a strange sometimes-one-way-sometimes-two-way road that I’m sure has some grand design behind it, but I found it confusing and had to consult my park map quite a bit. But if you want to be close to the action of the park, this is a good place to stay.
Our first night, we were chasing a sunset, so we headed to another part of the park to see the Bass Head Lighthouse. It was small, but still fun to see.
After a night spent listening to the nearby church group sing by guitar and firelight, we woke, breakfasted, and then drove up to the Hulls Cove Visitors Center (not very impressive, to be honest, but it’s always good to watch the park movie and hear the rangers’ spiels). After determining – alas –that we would not be able to see moose on the island, we set out for Sand Beach and Ocean Path, some of the most popular parts of the park. I can confirm that at the end of August the Atlantic ocean is freezing, and that even when it’s cloudy, the coast of Maine is awe-inspiring.
I highly recommend simply spending a few hours tromping over the rocks and breathing the salt air – you are never far from your car no matter how far down the path you go. You will see lots of people of all ages and mobilities at this part of the park – and most everyone will be smiling. One of my favorite sights was a bunch of senior citizens dragging their camp chairs out onto the rocks for a good old fashioned contemplation-of-the-ocean session.
By the time we got back to the campground and relaxed a bit, it was getting late in the day, and we decided to take a hike on the South Cadillac Mountain Ridge trail, which happened to start at Blackwoods campground. Here, we found quiet and solitude on a moderate hike that, had we been so inclined, would have taken us to the top of the famous Cadillac Mountain. However, it was getting late, and the shuttle does not run to Cadillac, so we had to remember that anything we hiked out, we had to hike back, so we turned around at the 2-mile mark. But we still saw some lovely views, got our legs in motion, and enjoyed some peace and quiet. I’d like to do this hike in full (about 8 miles out and back) someday.
Hint when camping: invite friends who like to cook, are not intimidated by campfire cooking, and who have relatives who cook for you. Thanks to my companions, when we got back we feasted on Indian food, delicious vegetables, and banana-boat s’mores and can I just say…yum.
On Day 3, we rose at dark to make the drive up to Cadillac Mountain where we joined several hundred of our closest friends to watch the sun come up. It was glorious.
Next, three of our merry band departed, leaving two of us to enjoy, finally, a beautiful 70-degree sunny day. We decided to hike the Beehive, which was rated “strenuous” and promised ladders, bridges, and rungs to help us up the hard parts. This short and awesome little hike did indeed deliver on the mountain-goat factor; it was a blast!
It was as close to Angels Landing as I’ve gotten since, though it’s nowhere near as exposed. But you still have to be cool with heights and in relatively good shape to do this hike, because once you start up there’s no other direction to go. We saw a young girl get stuck on a bridge in utter terror, which reinforces that kids really shouldn’t do such hikes. But she made it up eventually, as we all did. The bonus to being at sea level is that you don’t have to get very high to get views.
After the Beehive, clamoring up and down a few more boulders will lead you to the Bowl, a gorgeous little pond tucked between the hills. We stayed here for a long time, dangling our feet in the water and soaking up the sun and generally enjoying the quiet and the wind. It was pretty close to perfection.
Then, a relatively easy trek back to the trailhead. Without breaks, this whole hike could probably be done in a little over an hour. But the stops are so worth it. I don’t actually know how long this took us, because I wasn’t watching the clock – a rare and wonderful little break from reality.
Our next destination was Echo Lake, a good 45 minutes away from the main park, and the only public swimming spot available. It was incredibly windy, so we only swam for a bit, but I was determined to swim and we did! Brrrr. This is a pretty little beach that is a wonderful place to read and relax.
Our final stop on day 3 was Jordan Pond, where the park restaurant and gift shop are located. The restaurant is famous for its popovers and views. Seeking to get a few more miles under our legs, we set out to walk around the Pond, about a 3 mile loop that took us about an hour, with a few little stops. The path is mostly flat, but one whole side is made up of “bogwalks” – boards that allow you traverse above the ground, so you have to watch your feet. And there was some climbing over boulders on the far side of the pond. But the flat gravel path was well maintained and gave me a chance to just walk without worrying about rolling my ankle, which is a big deal when I’m out in the woods. Such a pretty place; the pink granite is gently reflected in the water which makes everything feel a bit magical.
We encountered very few people on this walk, which was confusing because it’s so pretty and easy. The park rangers do say that most of the activity in the park is from 10-4, and guess I guess this proves them right.
We finished off the day with a nice meal at the restaurant – confirming that the popovers are indeed yummy and that wild blueberries are mighty tasty.
The next morning, on my way out of the park, I stopped for one last look at the ocean, which, for me, will remain the reason to come to Acadia.
All in all, Acadia is a lovely, lovely place. It’s wonderful for families and seniors in particular given how many easy hikes and rambles there are. If you are seeking grand-scale adventures, you won’t find them here, but you’ll find plenty to keep you inspired and get your heart pumping.
What are your favorite Acadia memories? Share in the comments below.