On Mount Desert Island in the Gulf of Maine, Acadia National Park protects the tallest mountains on the Atlantic coast. Though the park is only about 75 square miles, it packs a big punch of scenery, with glacially carved granite domes, rocky headlands, and forests of spruce and fir. Popular activities include scenic driving tours, hiking, camping, and bicycling on the park’s unique system of carriage roads. Sea kayaking, climbing, and winter sports like cross-country skiing are also possible.
Seeing record visitation of just over 4 million visitors in 2021, Acadia National Park in Maine is one of the most popular national parks in the country. Most visitors come from roughly May through October when the weather in Acadia National Park is warmer. Rain, however, is possible any day of the year, so visitors should be prepared for sudden downpours and temperature drops. For those who don’t want to brave the elements and camp, hotels at Acadia National Park can be found in the nearby town of Bar Harbor.
Scenic Drives and Campgrounds Acadia National Park
The 27-mile Park Loop Road is the top scenic drive on the island. The road starts at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, where visitors can obtain information and access the Island Explorer, a free shuttle servicing many park destinations and trailheads.
Highlights along the road include Sieur de Monts, a nature center and spring, and the nearby Wild Gardens of Acadia, displaying over 400 native plant species from throughout the park. One of the busiest spots is Sand Beach, the park’s only sandy ocean beach. Swimming is possible, though water temperatures are frigid, ranging from about 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
The nearly 2-mile section of road between Sand Beach and Otter Point is one of the most popular and congested areas in the park, often referred to as Ocean Avenue for its rocky cliffs and stunning views. Jordan Pond is one of the park’s pristine mountain lakes, resting in a glacial valley. Finally, a 3-mile spur road off the main loop leads to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak in the park. Between late May and late October, vehicle reservations are required to drive on Cadillac Mountain Road
There are four campgrounds inside the park, with two of them located on Mount Desert Island. These campgrounds are typically open from May through October, with exact dates available online. All campsites require reservations, which can be made online up to two months in advance.
Located near the Park Loop Road, Blackwoods Campground has around 280 sites, mostly tent-only with some open to RVs. Seawall Campground is located on the west side of the island, offering around 200 sites, about half of which are walk-in tent sites, while others are drive-up. The other two campgrounds are located in satellite units of the park, one accessible by vehicle on the mainland and the other boat-in only, on the Isle au Haut.
Hiking Acadia National Park
Hikes in Acadia National Park are plentiful. There are over 150 miles of trails in the park. Options for hiking can be found along the coast, around lakes, through forests, and up to mountain summits. One of the most popular coastal hikes is the Ocean Path Trail, with a mix of surfaces, including concrete, gravel, and uneven bedrock. Running for 2.2 miles from Sand Beach past Thunder Hole to Otter Point, this easy trail sees heavy use. Finding parking can be challenging, so the park service recommends taking the Island Explorer shuttle to the trailhead.
Another easy trail is the Jordan Pond Path, a 3.3-mile loop around the shores of the lake. A more challenging trail nearby is the Jordan Cliffs Loop, a 5-mile hike with steep slopes and iron ladder rungs that leads up Sargent Mountain above Jordan Pond.
Best Hikes at Acadia National Park
In fact, some of the best hiking in Acadia leads to the mountain tops, many of which offer remarkable coastal views. Perhaps the most popular trail in the park, the Beehive Loop Trail is an adventurous hike to the summit of the Beehive, a granite dome. While the trail is only 1.4 miles round trip, it’s considered strenuous due to an elevation gain 500 feet of elevation gain, rock scrambling, and climbing cliffs with iron rung ladders.
There are several options for hiking around Cadillac Mountain. For those driving to the summit, the Cadillac Summit Loop is a partially paved 0.5-mile walk near the parking lot. Another option is to hike the summit of Cadillac Mountain, which does not require a reservation. The shorter option is the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, 4.4 miles round trip, with two trailheads located on the Park Loop Road. A longer but more scenic option is the Cadillac South Ridge Trail, 7.1 miles round trip, with plenty of ocean views along the way.
Carriage Roads and Other Areas
One of the most unique features at Acadia is the 45 miles of unpaved carriage roads that wind throughout the park. Over several decades during the early 20th century, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller financed and oversaw construction of the paths as a gift for the new national park, established in 1919. Rockefeller, who had a summer house nearby, was an avid horse rider who had opposed the introduction of automobiles to Mount Desert Island. In response, he designed an extensive network of broken stone paths, for motor-free travel by horse and carriage, that passed through valleys, around mountains, and along lake shores.
Today, the carriage roads are maintained for use by pedestrians, cyclists, and horse riders. The paths are open for use from typically May through fall. During winter, the snow-covered carriage roads are groomed for cross-country skiing. During spring mud season, usually March and April, the roads may close to all traffic.
While most visitors focus on the eastern half of the park, where most of the popular highlights discussed above are found, there are other parts of the park to consider. The western half of Mountain Desert Island, to the west of Somes Sound, is a quieter and more secluded area, offering opportunities for hiking, swimming, paddling, and camping.
To the west of Mount Desert Island, the Schoodic Peninsula is the only portion of the park on the mainland. This minimally developed area sees few visitors while offering a smaller dose of comparable scenery and offerings. There is a 6-mile one-way loop road following the coastline, 8 miles of cycling paths, several short hiking trails, and a campground.
To the southwest of Mount Desert Island, the Isle au Haut is a small and rugged island that can only be reached by private boat or passenger ferry from the mainland town of Stonington. The ferry runs year-round, and once on the island, activities include 18 miles of hiking trails and 12 miles of cycling on paved and unpaved roads. Camping is possible at a small NPS campground, typically open from mid-May to mid-October, with reservations required. Other than a small store with limited hours, there are no services on the island. Camping on the Isle of Haut is definitely roughing it, but for your efforts, you’ll be rewarded with a secluded experience like no other!
Lead photo: The summit of Bald Peak. Adobe/Samuel