UPDATED 9/8/15: New information about Beech Mountain fire tower and Bass Head Harbor Light open houses, see #5 below.
Even if you’ve visited Acadia National Park many a time, there are still plenty of things to discover and experience in the Northeast’s only national park, so that even long-time visitors can feel like a newbie again.
Here are some off-the-beaten-track things to see and do if you’re a veteran Acadia fan, whether you’re into bagging peaks, taking easy low-tide strolls or leisurely biking the carriage roads.
This “Top 5” is a nice complement to the recent guest blog post we did for L.L. Bean, “The Top 5 things to see and do for first-time visitors to Acadia National Park.” In fact, we like the idea of “Top 5” so much, we’ll be adding a page to link the various “Top 5” posts together, whether it’s “Top 5 hikes for dogs” or some other theme. What “Top 5” would you like to see? Let us know!
Top 5 off-the-beaten-path activities in Acadia National Park
1. Hike at low tide to an island other than Bar Harbor’s well-known Bar Island – Perhaps the news stories every year of first-time visitors seeing their cars swamped by the incoming tide or having to be rescued by the harbormaster have turned you off to Bar Island during the peak season. Why not try hiking at low tide to small islands off of Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut instead? You won’t see any of these hikes in official park literature, and maybe not even in hiking books. But on Schoodic Peninsula, a low-tide walk brings you to Little Moose Island, and on Isle au Haut, to Western Ear. The Schoodic Chamber of Commerce features the hike to Little Moose on its Web site. Although the park doesn’t have official parking across from the island, you can find Little Moose on the park’s Schoodic map. You can ride your bike to the start, walk from the Blueberry Hill parking lot, or ask the Island Explorer bus driver to drop you off nearby if it’s safe. It’s a fragile habitat, so stay on the official paths or hop along the island’s granite. Over on Isle au Haut, Western Ear is nothing more than a rocky knob off the Western Head portion of the island, and you have to coordinate your hike not only with the tide, but also with the Isle au Haut mail boat schedule. You also have to factor in about a 2-mile hike one way to reach the crossing point, and the return hike to catch the last mail boat back to Stonington from Duck Harbor Landing. The mail boat goes to Duck Harbor only from June through September. Whether you try Little Moose or Western Ear, remember you have about 1-1/2 hours on either side of low tide to make it across and back (use the Winter Harbor tide chart for Little Moose Island, and the Isle au Haut one for Western Ear). And if you don’t time it right, remember the next low tide is in about 12 hours. Don’t rely on cell phone coverage or emergency officials for rescue.
2. Get to your hiking or biking route without a car – If you’re used to driving to trailheads or carriage road parking lots, why not try walking from village to park, or taking the Island Explorer Bicycle Express to the Eagle Lake carriage road entrance in season? During busy times, it can be frustrating to fight the traffic and look for parking. But the park and the nonprofit Friends of Acadia have worked together to expand non-car options for visitors, whether they come off-season or during the height of the summer and fall foliage seasons. Whether you hike a village connector trail from Bar Harbor or Northeast Harbor into Acadia, or take your bike on the Island Explorer to the carriage roads, it can be a new, more environmentally friendly way of experiencing the park. From Bar Harbor, you can take either Schooner Head Path or Great Meadow Loop into the park, just like the rusticators of the late 19th, early 20th century did. And from Northeast Harbor, you can take the Asticou & Jordan Pond Path. Watch for a Friends of Acadia map of village connector trails and access points that’s being developed, or check out our Hiking Acadia National Park book, which describes some of these historic trails. (NOTE: See sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site.) And if you’re looking for alternate ways to get to the carriage roads for a bike ride other than on the Island Explorer, you can walk your bike along the Duck Brook Connector that begins next to Acadia Inn on ME 3, just north of the College of the Atlantic. The more adventurous hikers and bikers can also get car-free to the trails of Schoodic Peninsula during the peak season, by taking the Bar Harbor to Winter Harbor ferry, and then hopping on the Island Explorer to the Schoodic Park Loop Road. The Island Explorer is fare-free (remember to buy a park pass to help cover the cost of the bus), but there’s a separate charge for the Winter Harbor ferry, and an additional charge for bringing a bike on board.
3. Pick wild Maine blueberries along Acadia’s hiking trails – While the park prohibits the removal of rocks and other natural features, you are allowed to pick blueberries. Ripening in July or August, depending upon the weather, the blueberries can be found along low bushes dotting the landscape, whether along the North Bubble Trail, atop Conners Nubble, or along virtually any hiking trail, carriage road or even sections of the Park Loop Road. The first time our nieces Sharon and Michelle ever had fresh-off-the-bush wild blueberries was along a hike to Day Mountain. City dwellers, they were hesitant to sample the fruit at first until they’d seen us pick, eat and live to tell about it. Later that same visit, they had virtually become connoisseurs, with Michelle able to tell that the sunnier exposure atop Conners Nubble led to sweeter fruit than those along the woodsy trail to Day Mountain. And we’ve seen whole families picking blueberries on the North Bubble Trail, just north of the summit. You’ll want to remember to bring a container to put the blueberries in, and perhaps some water to rinse them off before eating.
4. Bag as many of Acadia’s 26 peaks as you can in one hike, or one season – The beauty of Acadia’s compactness is that the most serious of mountain climbers can string together a series of summits in one long day hike. Maybe it’s not as strenuous as doing the Presidential Traverse, but you don’t get a view of pink granite or the Atlantic Ocean in the White Mountains like you do in Acadia. The other thing that makes Acadia so special is that there are various ways up the summits, from easy to moderate to difficult, that even families with children can take on the goal of bagging peaks over the course of a season, such as a family we ran into on the Cadillac West Face Trail one time. If you’re hiking when the Island Explorer is running, between late June and Columbus Day, you can cover even more ground by taking the bus between trailheads. Remember to have a copy of the Island Explorer schedule in your day pack; your smartphone may not have Internet access on the trail to allow you to access it online.
5. Visit Bass Harbor Head Light or Beech Mountain fire tower during an open house – Normally closed to the public, both structures may be visited during occasional open houses. This year, as part of Maine Open Lighthouse Day on Sept. 12, Bass Harbor Head’s light tower will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The lighthouse remains an active Coast Guard navigation aid, although its light is now automated. President Obama and his family got a special tour of the lighthouse when they visited in July 2010. Acadia has another lighthouse on Baker Island, which can be visited on a 4-1/2 hour ranger-narrated cruise during the season. Beech Mountain has Acadia’s only fire tower, a remnant of the days before satellite technology came into being for forest fire detection. While wildfires in Eastern states are not unheard of, they are nowhere near as prevalent as they are in Western states. Read here for more on what it is that causes such devastation in this region. It’s occasionally open some October weekends, but this year, it’s been open a few times a week in season; check with the park service by calling (207) 288-3338, or check the park’s online calendar of ranger-led activites. But if you don’t happen to visit the lighthouse or the fire tower during an open house, you can still get iconic views of Bass Harbor Head Light from the rocks below, and of the surrounding mountains from the landing below the cabin of the Beech Mountain fire tower.