One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson set aside 5,000 acres of Maine’s Mount Desert Island as a national monument; three years later, he established it as Acadia National Park — the first of its kind east of the Mississippi. With its towering sea cliffs, pink granite mountains, and pristine glacial lakes, it was also the first national park created from donations of privately owned land. Spread over 50,000 acres, Acadia offers an abundance of activities, historical sites, and scenic vistas galore. You can’t see it all in one visit (or in 10!), but here are five ways to start.
Stop at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center off Route 3 in Bar Harbor to pick up a detailed map of the park and surrounding area (207-288-3338, nps.gov/acad).
The park’s most scenic driving route begins here, too. “It’s an absolute must to drive the Park Loop Road,” says John Kelly, a management assistant for the park. The 27-mile road twists around lakes and mountains and along the rocky coastline, with several scenic turnouts. Be sure to stop at Sand Beach, tucked into a protected inlet, surrounded by ragged cliffs. Stroll the 1,000-foot, ironically named strip — Sand Beach is actually made mostly of crushed seashells. If you’re feeling adventurous, go for a dip, but make it quick, because the water temperature rarely climbs above 55 degrees, even in the dog days of summer. Or carve out a little time to walk the easy 2-mile Ocean Path from Sand Beach to the soaring Otter Cliff, passing boulder fields, tide pools, and rocky coves along the way.
No introductory visit to Acadia is complete without a trip to the top of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain, the centerpiece of the park and the highest peak along the North Atlantic seaboard. “On a clear day, it provides spectacular views,” says Kelly, “and really gives you a sense of what Acadia is all about.” Join the inevitable crowds that head to the summit at daybreak to catch the first light of sunrise over the Atlantic.
Rather not drive? Hop on a tour bus for the 2½- to three-hour narrated National Park Tour along Park Loop Road, with stops at the summit of Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole (a cavern where crashing waves roar), and either the Jordan Pond House or Wild Gardens of Acadia ($17.50-$30, 207-288-0300, acadiatours.com).
Acadia offers more than 120 miles of hiking trails, from flat beach saunters to soaring cliff climbs. “The Cadillac Mountain hike is one of my favorites,” says Tom St. Germain, author of A Walk in the Park, a complete guide to hiking trails in and around Acadia. St. Germain recommends taking the Kebo Brook Trail from the Cadillac Mountain North Ridge parking lot connecting to North Gorge Path, about a 2-mile moderately difficult descent following pink granite steppingstones through the deep gorge. “The descent back down the North Ridge of Cadillac also offers great views of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands,” St. Germain says.
Other popular hikes include the easy to moderate 2-mile round-trip Gorham Mountain Trail, with sweeping views of Otter Cliff and Sand Beach; the family-friendly 3-plus-mile Jordan Pond Path; and the challenging Ladder Trail, one of the park’s oldest trails, with hundreds of stone steps leading up Dorr Mountain — it’s about a 3½-mile loop that’s best left to expert hikers.
While mountain-to-sea vistas abound, the park’s pristine interior is crisscrossed with 45 miles of historic, car-free carriage roads. Rent a bicycle from Acadia Bike and pedal through forested valleys, dotted with glacier-formed lakes and ponds, streams, and small waterfalls ($18-$23, 207-288-9605, acadiabike.com). Try the loop around Witch Hole Pond — the one President Obama and his family cycled when they visited the park. It’s a 3.3-mile ride through marshlands and around two pretty ponds that’s great for the whole family.
For unusual views of Mount Desert Island, scale those cliffs! “To climb with the Atlantic lapping at your feet is pretty wild,” says Eli Simon, owner of Atlantic Climbing School, which offers courses ($72-$105, 207-288-2521, climbacadia.com). Anyone is welcome to join the four-hour Experience Course — they’ve had folks as young as 3 and as old as 81 — where you’ll learn to climb granite cliffs and rock faces while hanging above the Atlantic Ocean.
Unplug your devices and let the wind be your guide aboard the 1899 Alice E, the oldest working Friendship sloop in the country. Sail through dramatic Somes Sound, around outlying islands and Bear Island Lighthouse, on a two- to three-hour Sail Acadia cruise out of Southwest Harbor ($50-$75, 207-266-5210, sailacadia.com). While on board, keep your eyes peeled for seals, osprey, and a variety of waterfowl.
Want to see bald eagles? Visit a lighthouse? Or simply cruise around Maine’s gorgeous Down East archipelago? Sea Ventures Custom Boat Tours will design a trip around your interests, timetable, and budget ($120-$180, 207-412-0222, svboattours.com). Captain Winston Shaw’s specialty is spotting bald eagles — he spent more than three decades as the director of the Coastal Maine Bald Eagle Project — but he’s knowledgeable about all things Acadia and loves to share his enthusiasm for its watery wilderness.
The picturesque bays, coves, and inlets surrounding Acadia National Park are considered some of the most scenic kayaking waters in the country. And sitting at sea level gives you a different view of Acadia’s soaring cliffs and pink-hued mountain peaks. Island-hop among the Porcupine Islands in Frenchman Bay on a guided 2½- to four-hour excursion with Coastal Kayaking Tours ($39-$49, 207-288-9605, acadiafun.com). Paddling instruction is included, and no experience is needed.
“Acadia is so family-friendly that it would take me forever to list all the things there are to do,” says Aimee Beal Church, editor of Friends of Acadia Journal. Some of her own family’s favorite activities are hiking along the shores of Jordan Pond and swimming in Echo Lake. “No high-power boats are allowed on the lake, and the water is sparkling clear,” Church says. “It’s a magical place to swim.”
Check out the free park programs by picking up a calendar of events at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center or online (nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/calendar.htm). Ranger-led events are offered throughout the summer and fall and may include owl prowls, hawk watches, guided hikes, tide pooling excursions, and boat cruises.
If your kids love boat rides, don’t miss the entertaining Dive-In Theater boat cruise ($16-$42, 207-288-3483, divered.com). Hop aboard the Starfish Enterprise for a two- to 2½-hour trip into Frenchman Bay, where fun-loving “Diver Ed” takes a camera into the water, capturing footage of life under the seas that passengers can watch on a large-screen TV. Diver Ed also brings up sea creatures, like lobsters, sea cucumbers, starfish, and crabs, for all to see and touch.
Landlubbers can pack a picnic and head to the Hunters Beach trailhead located off Route 3 near the town of Otter Creek. The easy-peasy 0.6-mile round-trip trail follows a brook as it wanders through a thick pine forest ending at the ocean. The small cove is filled with waterworn stones and smooth granite ledges. Perch on a sun-warmed slab as the kids rock-hop and search for sea critters among the pools. Another great place for tide pooling is the small rock-strewn outcropping at the end of the Wonderland Trail, located on the less-visited side of the island near the town of Bass Harbor. Follow an old gravel road to the shoreline to explore pockets of seawater filled with sea stars, anemones, mussels, barnacles, crabs, and sometimes tiny lobsters.
Just minutes from bustling Bar Harbor, the Wild Gardens of Acadia, on Route 3 at Sieur de Monts area, is a serene and lush haven designed to showcase plant habitats found in Acadia (free, friendsofacadia.org). Meander the quiet landscape and explore the 12 discrete environments, which include more than 400 native plant species. This is a popular spot for birding, too, with several ranger talks and guided walks available. Nature lovers will also enjoy the Japanese-style Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor (free, 207-276-3727, gardenpreserve.org). Mature hemlocks, flowering azaleas, and rhododendrons frame nine garden “rooms” linked by snaking paths and stone benches.
Look up! The dark sky above Acadia National Park makes for some of the most unforgettablestargazingon the East Coast. There are several ranger-led star watching programs, or simply head to Sand Beach at night, since Acadia is open 24 hours a day, and cast your eyes toward the sky. “There’s nothing around and little light pollution,” says Kelly. “It’s an unforgettable encounter that most people don’t get to experience.”
THERE’S MORE . . .Diane Bair and Pamela Wright are frequent contributors to the Boston Globe and authors of several New England guidebooks. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because of a design error, a previous version of this story included incorrect caption information on a photo. The photo shows the rocky coast of the Atlantic.