But there’s something special about Acadia National Park…a unique combination of natural beauty and rich history…the wild Atlantic contrasted with tranquil ponds…trails climbing steep granite mountains and trails winding gently through cultivated gardens. Woven throughout are reminders of those who have come before…the indigenous Wabanaki…the early tourists known as “rusticators”… and the wealthy elite turned conservationists. I think there is no other place quite like Acadia.
We spent 10 days exploring the park in late September of 2019. It was an idyllic time of perfect weather and the brief lull that occurs between the rush of summer vacationers and fall leaf-peepers.
The Schoodic Peninsula
We started our explorations of Acadia National Park on the Schoodic Peninsula, a remote and lesser visited section of the park. Some people say that this is the best part of the park. We don’t agree. It’s beautiful, but if you’re wanting to do anything in the main part of the park on Mount Desert Island (and there’s far more to do there in terms of hiking and culture), you’ll have a long drive of an hour or more each way.
There’s no question that the Schoodic Woods National Park Campground is superior to the national park campgrounds on Mount Desert Island (the sites are spacious, all have electric hookups, and some have water and electric hookups). But we found three nights was plenty for doing what we wanted to do. Of course, if simply relaxing is what you’re after, this is a good place for that.
The Main Part Of The Park: Mount Desert Island
In 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain was sailing down the coast of Maine and came upon an island of picturesque shoreline capped by mountains with bare granite summits. He aptly named it “The Island of the Desert Mountains.” This was the land of the Wabanaki, the “People of the Dawnland.”
In the mid-1800s, artists and journalists painted and wrote about the ethereal beauty of Mount Desert Island and captured the imagination of city people hungry for nature. Tourists came by train, carriage, and boat; stayed with local fishermen and farmers; and were known as “rusticators” for the rustic lifestyle they embraced. By the late 1880s, Mount Desert Island had become a summer retreat for some of the most affluent families on the East Coast.
Fortunately, there were some conservation and civic-minded folks among the wealthy elite, and they banded together in the early 1900s to donate the land for Acadia National Park. Their efforts not only laid the groundwork for the national park, but left a legacy of unique and beautiful sites just outside of the park for everyone to enjoy.
The Scenic Park Loop Road
The 27-mile Scenic Park Loop Road is a good introduction to the eastern side of Mount Desert Island. Many of Acadia’s most popular attractions are located along this road, including trailheads. (Note, though, that you need to get out of your vehicle if you want to see much of anything.)
The first major stopping point is Sieur de Monts, often referred to as the “Heart of Acadia.” Here, we found a sweet nature center, the Wild Gardens of Acadia, the interesting Abbe Museum (which houses historical artifacts of the Wabanaki), and access to several walking trails. It’s a gentle introduction to the park.
One of the most well-known places along the loop road is Jordan Pond. The walk around the pond is lovely, and trailheads for several popular trails are located here. See the Bubbles in the distance? One of our hiking adventures was to the top of South Bubble.
Cadillac Mountain is perhaps the most well-known attraction on the Loop Road. It’s the highest point on the eastern seaboard and offers fantastic views. The short, paved Cadillac Summit Loop Trail is an easy way to enjoy the top of the mountain. You will not be alone, no matter what time of day you choose to visit. This was one of the few places in Acadia where we encountered a lot of people.
Hiking Adventures In Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park offers a variety of hikes, from easy strolls to challenging climbs that involve iron rungs and “exhilarating exposed views.” Um, no. Just no. I love hiking. I do not enjoy being terrified.
We followed the excellent guidance of Joe’s Guide to Acadia National Park for the best hikes in Acadia, and did all of the easy-moderate hikes and a couple of the longer strenuous day hikes.
~The Ocean Path Trail
An easy stroll along the Ocean Path Trail (4.5 mile round-trip) is a perfect way to experience the rugged beauty of the coast.
~Gorham Mountain and Cadillac Cliffs
The Gorham Mountain and Cadillac Cliffs Trails are just across from the Ocean Path Trail. It’s a short trail (2-mile loop) with moderate effort for wonderful views. The half-mile Cadillac Cliffs spur is a worthwhile side trip with interesting rock formations and just a little bit of challenge.
The 3.5 mile trail around Jordan Pond is easy, rustic, and beautiful, with idyllic views of the pond and the Bubbles in the distance.
~South Bubble Mountain
One of the most iconic images of Acadia National Park is looking across Jordan Pond to the twin mountain peaks of the Bubbles (it’s the header image of this post).
On a beautiful blue sky day, we hiked to the summit of the South Bubble. We took the easy South Bubble Trail to the top, where we had an excellent view of enormous Bubble Rock perched precariously on the edge of a cliff.
We could have returned the way we came, but chose instead to hike a hellacious trail down to Jordan Pond. It’s steep, rocky, and treacherous, and there were a few times that we were basically ricocheting from tree to tree as we careened down the trail. But the reward at the end is beautiful Jordan Pond (which we could have driven to, and we had already hiked the trail around the lake on a previous day). So why did we hike down to the pond? I do not know. LOL.
~Pemetic Mountain Hike
We enjoyed all of our hikes in Acadia, but the Pemetic Mountain Trail was our favorite of all. The six-mile trail (round-trip) starts off gently, and then becomes more interesting as you hike 1000 feet up a steep granite mountain. There’s a bit of climbing involved, but nothing too difficult.
The Quiet Side Of Mount Desert Island
The western side of Mount Desert Island is known as “the quiet side,” and we made several trips there for different adventures: A cruise to the Cranberry Islands, a sunset walk to Bass Harbor Lighthouse, and visits to a rusticator’s exquisite cottage and a couple of gorgeous gardens.
~The Cranberry Islands
On a calm autumn day, we embarked on a nature cruise to Islesford, a hamlet on Little Cranberry Island. We learned about history and lobstering from the very good interpretive guide, and then we were turned loose for about an hour to wander the island. There’s not a lot there, but what there is, is unique.
There’s the Islesford Neighborhood House, an attractive rustic community center that was built as a gathering place in 1913 and is still used today for community events.
The Islesford Congregational church, built in 1898, is lovely, especially inside. In one corner, a collection of stained glass art panels made of beach glass was a gift from long-time beloved resident Ashley Bryan. Bryan, an African-American who grew up in Harlem and taught at Dartmouth, was a well-known artist, storyteller, and writer who was actively engaged in creating art well into his 90s.
And at the local post office for the tiny island, we met postmaster Joy Sprague, who in 1977 at age 21 was the youngest postmaster in the United States. She’s known around the world for the vast array of stamps she offers.
`~Asticou Terraces, Thuya Gardens, & The Curtis House
Sometimes I come upon places in our travels and think, “I’d love to live here.” That’s how I felt about Thuya Lodge and gardens, the home of Joseph H. Curtis, a Boston landscape architect and “rusticator” who found refuge on the island. When he died in 1928, he left his home and 140-acre property to the residents of Mount Desert Island for all to enjoy.
Walking up Asticou Terraces to reach the house is a stunningly scenic half-mile approach to the simple lodge. Along the way, you can stop to admire views of Northeast Harbor far below.
The interior of the lodge is cozy, simple, and beautiful.
Outside, the gardens beckon. Even in late September, they were filled with flowers.
~Asticou Azalea Garden
The Asticou Azalea Garden is just a half-mile from Asticou Terraces. It’s an enchanting garden that incorporates traditional Japanese elements into the coastal Maine setting. The combination works well in this environment. Like Thuya Garden, it’s a free gift to the people of Mount Desert Island and all who visit.
~Bass Harbor Head Trail & Lighthouse
Catching the sunset at the Bass Harbor Head Light Station is one of the most popular activities in Acadia National Park. We actually didn’t realize how popular it is until we tried to find a place to park, but this is the most photographed lighthouse in Maine. It was worth the effort.
Built in 1858 and still using the original Fresnel lens installed in 1901, the lighthouse appeared on the America the Beautiful quarter in 2012 and the NPS centennial postage stamp in 2016. It really is a beauty.
The Town Of Bar Harbor
Bar Harbor is the largest town on Mount Desert Island, and is known as the “gateway to Acadia National Park.” Although the population is only about 5,000 people, the town can be overwhelmed by the four million visitors that visit Acadia National Park each year.
We did only a few things in town, and again, I think we were lucky in being there during a less tourist-crazed time of year. The Abbe Museum has a contemporary museum of the Wabanaki in the center of town. A Smithsonian affiliate, the Abbe collaborates with the Wabanaki so that they can share their stories in their own words.
We enjoyed a couple of meals in town, including meeting up for the first time with fellow bloggers and avid travelers Janie and Russ. They’ve since come to visit us here in Eastpoint, so it’s fun to look back to our first meeting. On another evening, Eric and I visited Atlantic Brewery for a flight, and had an excellent dinner, tapas style, at Ciao (local seafood, meats, and veggies, very creatively prepared).
Where We Stayed
Given the popularity of Acadia NP, this sounds like an insane choice, but we stayed at a first-come first-served campground in Bar Harbor. The closest private park to Acadia NP, Bar Harbor Campground offers every kind of campsite you can imagine, from tent sites to full-hook up sites. When you arrive at the campground, you drive around, pick out your site, and then go back to the office and pay. Somehow, it works. The sites are spacious, we had a view of the water, and we loved it.