If you’re first-time visitors to Acadia National Park this year, you’ll soon see why generations of families, artists, millionaires and even presidents have been lured by the magnificent scenery.
The first national park east of the Mississippi, and still the Northeast’s only such park, Acadia boasts about 155 miles of hiking trails, from easy ocean walks to strenuous cliff climbs; 45 miles of carriage roads for biking, walking and riding in a horse-drawn carriage; scenic Park Loop Roads; a lighthouse; and the amazing contrast of deep blue sea and pink granite shores.
There’s plenty to see and do for first-time visitors to Acadia, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. But there will also be plenty of company too, with the park counting about 3.5 million visits a year.
Here are the top 5 things to see and do for first-time visitors to Acadia National Park, as well as some insider tips on avoiding the crowds during the busy summer and fall foliage seasons. And be sure to check out our 5 tips to beat the crowds while visiting Acadia National Park, and the park’s official Web site to help you plan your trip:
1. Soak in the panoramic view on Cadillac Mountain
The highest peak in Acadia, and the first place to see the sun rise in the United States during certain times of the year, Cadillac is a must-see stop. From here, you can see all of Frenchman Bay, the distinctive Porcupine Islands and down to Bar Harbor.
Helpful wayside exhibits point out landmarks, from distant islands to mainland highlights. The paved 0.3-mile Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, partly accessible for wheelchairs and baby strollers, takes you around for the 360-degree views.
You can drive up a 3.5-mile road to the top, or take one of the guided bus tours with permits to operate in the park, National Park Tours or Oli’s Trolley. A couple of things to keep in mind: The fare-free Island Explorer bus doesn’t go up Cadillac and the park is planning to begin a vehicle reservation system in 2021 that will include parking on the summit with a test of the system proposed for certain times in October of 2020.
For the fit and adventurous, Cadillac can also be hiked up via a number of hiking trails, such as the Cadillac South Ridge Trail or Cadillac North Ridge Trail. And it can be biked up via the summit road, although be advised that it’s a steep, narrow and windy route. Gift shop and restrooms are available at the top.
Insider tip: To avoid the crowds during the busy season, visit the top before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., or even at night to see the amazing star-filled sky. If you plan on hiking or driving up to see the sunrise, be aware that Cadillac is the first place in the United States to see it only from Oct. 7 to March 6. At times during the summer, even at sunrise, the road to the summit is sometimes closed because of traffic congestion including 58 times during 2019.
2. Tour the scenic Park Loop Road
The 27-mile road on Mount Desert Island starts at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. The one-way section of the road takes you to Wild Gardens of Acadia at Sieur de Monts; Sand Beach; Thunder Hole; and Otter Cliff. The two-way section of the road takes you along Jordan Pond and up Cadillac Mountain.
But don’t just drive the road. You can stop at the many pullouts or even in the right lane of the one-way section of the loop road where permitted. Get out of the vehicle to see the sights, hear the sounds and smell the ocean air. Tour the Wild Gardens of Acadia. Dip your toes into the frigid waters off Sand Beach.
Time your stop at Thunder Hole after a storm and as high tide approaches if you don’t want to go away disappointed by hearing just a gurgle instead of a thunderous clap.
As part of preparations for the Acadia Centennial, park officials rehabilitated 30 historic vistas along the Park Loop Road, restoring them to their former expansiveness. Take the time to enjoy the newly reopened views.
Insider tip: Drive early or late to avoid the crowds, or take the fare-free Island Explorer’s Loop Road line, or buy a ticket to one of the guided bus tours. Or take a ferry from Bar Harbor over to the Schoodic section of the park, and ride the Island Explorer around the scenic Loop Road around that less visited area.
3. Have tea and popovers with a view of Jordan Pond and the Bubbles
The Jordan Pond House, the only dining facility in Acadia National Park, continues a tradition that began in the 1890s, of offering afternoon tea and popovers on the lawn, with the pond and the distinctive twin mountains known as the Bubbles as the backdrop. Lunch and dinner are also served in season. The lawn received a rehabilitation in 2018.
There’s a gift shop and restrooms, and a number of hiking trails and carriage roads that intersect at the Jordan Pond House. You can work up an appetite first by taking the easy to intermediate loop trail around Jordan Pond, or work off some of the calories afterward on trails such as the Jordan Stream Path. The easiest part of the Jordon Pond Path is on the eastern shore of the pond, or to the right as you’re facing the Bubbles.
Insider tip: Take the Island Explorer to the Jordan Pond House when the bus is running from late June through Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to avoid having to circle around looking for parking. The Jordan Pond bus line can be picked up at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, where there’s plenty of parking, as well as at the Bar Harbor Village Green. And if you can’t get a reservation at the Jordan Pond House, you can have a meal at the nearby Asticou Inn, overlooking scenic Northeast Harbor instead of Jordan Pond and the Bubbles.
4. Bike, walk or take a horse-drawn carriage ride on carriage roads
The 45 miles of carriage roads and the 16 stone bridges along those roads, funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and donated to the park, are another of Acadia’s unique features.
Built between 1913 and 1940, the carriage roads gracefully follow the natural contours of the landscape, around valleys and mountains, providing scenic vistas along the way. Each bridge is unique, with names such as Cobblestone Bridge or Deer Brook Bridge. A new carriage road map was released in 2019.
Horse-drawn carriage rides are offered through Carriages of Acadia at Wildwood Stables, south of the Jordan Pond House.
Among the popular starting points for bicyclists and pedestrians: Hulls Cove Visitor Center, Eagle Lake parking on ME 233, Jordan Pond House, Brown Mountain Gate House and Bubble Pond parking.
Insider tip: Take the Island Explorer from Bar Harbor Village Green to the Eagle Lake carriage road starting point, or one of the other Island Explorer lines to Jordan Pond House, Brown Mountain Gate House or Bubble Pond. You can also walk or bike to the carriage road system via the West Street Extension in Bar Harbor, or via Duck Brook Path that connects ME 3 to Duck Brook Road and the carriage road system. (The trailhead for Duck Brook Path is at the southern edge of the Acadia Inn parking lot, kitty corner from the College of the Atlantic campus. You need to walk your bike about half a mile on the path, to Duck Brook Road.) And if you have time, drive or take the ferry from Bar Harbor to the Schoodic section of the park, and try out the new bike paths there.
5. Travel on the trails of Acadia history
Imagine walking the same trails as late 19th century and early 20th century rusticators, artists, tourists and summer residents. Or picture yourself following in the footsteps of presidents and presidents-to-be.
Many of the century-old village connector trails, allowing you to stroll from Bar Harbor to Sieur de Monts and beyond, or Asticou in Northeast Harbor to Jordan Pond and beyond, have been restored to their former glory as part of the park’s Centennial efforts.
Great Meadow Loop and Schooner Head Path are two well-graded routes within walking distance of Bar Harbor. The Asticou & Jordan Pond Path that had been an important connector between Northeast Harbor and Jordan Pond in the late 1800s got a major overhaul recently as part of an $800,000 federal grant.
And if your tastes in history lean more toward presidents than rusticators, here are some of the places visited by President Barack Obama during his family July 2010 trip: Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, Ship Harbor Trail, Bass Harbor Head Light and the carriage road system around Witch Hole Pond.
Other sitting presidents who’ve visited the area, before Acadia became a national park: William Howard Taft, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison. A young Theodore Roosevelt, drawn to the area by the landscape paintings of Mount Desert Island by Frederic Church and Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School, hiked Cadillac, which was then known as Green Mountain.
Insider tip: Visit Bass Harbor Head Light in Southwest Harbor and take a photo while standing next to one of the most photogenic of of Maine’s 60 or so lighthouses. The light also provides views of Blue Hill Bay and Swans Island. Constructed in 1858, the light has a red beacon that guides boaters into Bass Harbor.