Acadia National Park, located primarily on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, was quite literally a gift. John D. Rockefeller Jr. had bought up much of the island in the early 20th century as a summer retreat. In 1916, he and others donated an expansive 5,000-acre tract to the American people, and three years later, the first national park east of the Mississippi was born.
Rockefeller’s generosity had an unintended beneficiary: the two-wheeled tourist. Opposed to the introduction of automobiles to the park, he financed the creation of dozens of miles of carriage roads across the two halves of the island, working with Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the son of the visionary landscape architect behind Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, to create a rolling, twisting, carefully curated tour through some of the most iconic vistas in America. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else,” says Jonathan Hoffmann, an avid cyclist who works at Southwest Cycle (southwestcycle.com, 207-244-5856), a bike shop located just outside the park. “It offers a wonderful variety of terrain for everyone from beginners to lifelong riders.”
In keeping with Rockefeller’s vision, automobiles are still prohibited from the lattice of carriage roads crisscrossing Acadia, making it a kind of Valhalla for bikers, pedestrians, and equestrians. At 50,000 acres, the park offers abundant opportunities for more challenging rides as well as hiking and camping, but the carriage roads are the park’s crown jewels, featuring 17 bridges crafted from local granite and designed to individually complement the surroundings. The routes are hardly flat — this is the coast of Maine, after all — but Hoffmann notes that, having been designed for carriages, the climbs and descents are gradual and not too punishing.
This is perfect terrain for gravel bikes, a relatively recent category of cycle that combines the drop bars of the road bike with the wider, knobbier tires used on mountain bikes. But any bike with wider tires, including most commuters or cruisers, will work fine. “The road surfaces are gorgeous,” says Hoffmann. “The park service keeps them really well maintained.”
The island hosts numerous shops for bike rentals, including electronic bikes for anyone more interested in the sights than in breaking a sweat. Maps of the carriage road system are available at any bike shop as well as at the ranger stations posted near each entrance to the park. (Note: the carriage roads are typically closed to cycling during the “mud season” in March and April and open later in the spring; check the park’s website for more information.)
Most people will enter the park through Bar Harbor, and it’s certainly possible to park in town and access the carriage roads from there. It’s better, however, to attach a bike rack to your car and drive to one of the handful of parking areas sprinkled throughout the park. This lets you choose your own adventure “without having to put in a lot of extra miles on your bike just to get back to your car,” notes Hoffmann.
There are options for every age and skill level, but Hoffmann recommends kids and beginners start with the routes on the northern side of the park. The Witch Hole Pond Loop is 4.7 miles and offers stunning views of Bar Harbor and the mainland beyond. The road around Eagle Lake is only a tad longer, at 5.9 miles. Besides the frequent vistas, both weave through majestic stands of balsam fir and spruce and offer plenty of tantalizing rest stops to admire the island’s flora and fauna. You might even catch sight of a moose. The Jordan Pond and Tri Lakes loops are only a little more ambitious, at 8.6 and 10.9 miles, respectively, and pass through much of the same terrain.
As you move into the southern and western parts of the system, the routes get a little steeper and more challenging, according to Hoffmann. The Amphitheater Loop is short at 4.4 miles, but anyone not using an e-bike will feel their heart racing. The views, of course, will make it feel all worthwhile. At the far western side of the carriage system lies the Around the Mountain Loop, an 11.3-mile course circumnavigating the 1,200-foot Penobscot Mountain.
Nothing in Acadia National Park rivals the famous Pyrenees or Alpine climbs of the Tour de France, but Hoffmann says that experienced riders in fighting trim can tackle either of the rideable ascents in the park.
The Day Mountain road splits off the Jordan Pond road and climbs in altitude over three miles, ending with spectacular views. The road up to Cadillac Mountain is not technically part of the carriage road system, and so riders share the pavement with automobiles, though the park recently started requiring drivers to reserve spots to keep traffic to a minimum. Mount Cadillac, the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, offers, on a clear day, views of Mount Katahdin and Nova Scotia more than 100 miles away.
The carriage roads can get crowded in summer months, with horse-drawn carriages (as one might expect), pedestrians, and horse riders all sharing in the natural beauty, so exercise courtesy to your fellow travelers. The park service employs a simple rule of the road: Everyone yields to the horses, and cyclists yield to everyone.
Hoffmann says most bike shops can accommodate walk-in customers, but he recommends reserving rental bikes ahead of time to ensure you can secure the type and size you want. E-bikes, which are generally in shorter supply, should always be reserved in advance.
There are also several options for guided tours. These can last as little as two and a half hours, like one offered by Acadia Bike (acadiabike.com, 800-526-8615) in conjunction with park rangers; or as long as the six-day journey run by VBT Bicycling Vacations (vbt.com, 800-245-3868).
Acadia, the park, was a gift, and its benefactors intended that everyone, of any age or ability, should be its recipient. There’s no better way to accept that gift than on two wheels.
Jeff Howe is a journalism professor at Northeastern University and is at work on his third book. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This file has been updated to correct an earlier version of this story, which stated that Frederick Law Olmsted helped design Acadia National Park. It was his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who contributed to the park’s creation.