Cadillac Mountain may be the best spot for sunrise in Acadia National Park, or maybe even the entire US. Just try to get a ticket to the show – it can be as hard as scoring an entry to a Taylor Swift concert.
A $6 reservation is required to drive a car up Cadillac summit from late May to late October and virtually 100 percent of the tickets were sold out over the online reservation system for sunrise during 2021 and 2022. The demand for a parking spot on Cadillac during sunrise is so intense that tickets can “literally sell out in seconds,” the superintendent of the park told the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission last year.
In 2022, for example, NPS statistics show that there were 21,895 tickets available for sunrise on Cadillac and 21,882 were sold.
Leah Bullard was one of the lucky ones to land a ticket for the best spot for sunrise in Acadia. The Alexandria, Va., woman said she set an alarm for the 10 am start of availability for advance purchase of tickets at recreation.gov for a May 31 sunrise on Cadillac, and then kept refreshing the page once the tickets became available. In about two minutes, she got one.
“Everyone told me, ‘The one thing you need to do in Acadia is see the sunrise from Cadillac’,” Bullard said in an interview. “It was beautiful.”
Cadillac sunrise is a must-do when in Acadia National Park
While Bullard hit the jackpot, many other fans are shut out when they log on to buy tickets for the best spot for sunrise in Acadia.
A Leicester, England, couple, Maureen Murray and her husband, Michael Murray, said they tried four times to get tickets for sunrise at Cadillac, but on each attempt, the tickets were gone in seconds, she said.
At the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, a ranger recommended Otter Cliff as an alternative for the best spot for sunrise in Acadia, she added.
On May 31, the Murrays watched the rising sun at 110-foot-high Otter Cliff, one of the highest headlands along the Atlantic coast, and located off the Park Loop Road. “I loved it,” Maureen Murray said. “It was really, really beautiful.”
Sunrise, sunset inspire awe, UK study says, and so does Cadillac
While sunrise tickets are often sold out for Cadillac, the summit may also be the best place for sunset in Acadia National Park, with motor vehicle reservations that can be easier to obtain.
In fact, according to a new study by researchers in the UK, people appreciated a beautiful sunset more than any other natural event, even though both sunrise and sunset can improve people’s emotional well-being.
Gabriel Langevin, a traffic technician from Quebec City interviewed while watching the sunset from Cadillac in May, would agree. “I like the change of colors,” said Langevin, as he saw the sun set over Eagle Lake and the Mount Desert Narrows from a seat off the West Lot. “It gives you a feeling of peace.”
The online study by the UK researchers, called “Beyond Blue Sky Thinking” and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in January, noted that sunsets and sunrises can be awe-inspiring and can increase feelings of amazement, wonder and joy in people.
The study, offering computer graphics and images to 2,509 participants, looked at how people respond to fleeting changes in weather and the daily rhythms of the sun. The study found people enjoyed sunrises and sunsets more than a blue sky, a thunderstorm with lightning, a rainbow or night time with a prominent moon and stars. When measuring the effects of nature on mental health, most prior studies used only calm blue skies, the study said.
“Our research indicates that getting up a bit earlier for sunrise or timing a walk to catch sunset could be well worth the effort – the wow factor … might unlock small but significant bumps in feelings of beauty and awe, which could in turn have positive impacts for mental well[-]being,” stated Alex Smalley, lead author of the research.
Leanne Letendre, a physical therapist from Hudson, NH, who experienced both sunrise and sunset atop Cadillac, couldn’t agree more. She hiked up Cadillac on July 17 for sunrise to celebrate her 50th birthday that week and then drove up the same day for sunset with her husband, Paul, calling it “a perfect day” to do both.
Letendre and her daughter, Kylie, hiked the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, starting at 3:15 am and arriving at 4:45 am for sunrise. She told us via Facebook that the sunrise was awesome and that it was incredible to be among the first people to see it that day.
“I definitely would not have had the same feeling if I drove up for sunrise,” she told us. “I was relieved we made it on time and the hike down was just absolutely gorgeous.”
Cadillac is first place sun hits in US from October to March
What sets apart Cadillac for the best spot for sunrise in Acadia? It’s not just the breathtaking colors spreading across the horizon or the spectacular views across Frenchman Bay and scores of islands. Or just the opportunity to sit high above the rising sun or the clouds. It’s also the chance to be among the first to see the sunrise in the continental US.
“We came specifically to see the sunrise,” said business owner Mike Prior of Richmond, Va., during an interview at sunset atop Cadillac, on his first trip to Acadia with his wife, Taryn, in May. “It’s a very special sunrise.”
At 1,530-feet, Cadillac is the highest point on the US eastern seaboard and it is the first spot the sun hits each day in the continental US from Oct. 7 to March 6.
That attracted Huong Nguyen, who lives in New Castle, Del., and is originally from Vietnam. She said she and her friends chose Cadillac in mid-October because they wanted to be the first to see the sun rise in the US.
“It turned out fantastic,” she wrote to us in a Facebook message. “It was really, really great. It was my first time seeing sunrise in America.”
Maine is always the first state the sun touches each day, according to a chart by the US National Weather Service in Caribou. The 1,748-foot Mars Hill, located near the Canadian border in Aroostook County, Maine, takes the “first place for sunrise” title for most of the rest of the year, including the summer, according to the weather service. During about the time of the two equinoxes, West Quoddy Head Light in Lubec, is first for sunrise.
Many vehicle reservations go unused for Cadillac sunrise
Weather is key for viewing sunrise. Even if they get a vehicle reservation on Cadillac, some people may not use it, possibly because of poor weather, such as heavy fog.
The “no show,” rate, or the number of reservations not used and not canceled, was 27 percent in 2022 for sunrise at the Cadillac Summit Road Entrance Station. It was 22 percent during the “daytime” reservations, which covers all times other than sunrise, according to NPS statistics.
Others are denied entrance and turned around at the station, either because they did not have a reservation or arrived too early or too late. The “turn-around” rate – which tends to increase during the day – was 8 percent at sunrise and 18 percent the rest of the day in 2022. Those arriving early likely returned at the correct time, so a portion of the turn-aways had a valid reservation that they used a later time, according to John Kelly, management assistant in the superintendent’s office at Acadia.
As word gets out about the reservation system on Cadillac, the NPS expects the turnaround rate to drop over time, Kelly added.
In order to increase awareness of the reservation system, the park this year distributed 37,500 informational rack cards to local lodgings and chambers of commerce, according to Kelly. As in past years, the park was also set to provide a supply to the Maine Tourism Association for 7 state visitor information centers.
Other efforts to promote the reservation system include six road signs on state highways approaching the park from the north, south and west including one in Bar Harbor, four in Ellsworth and one in Dedham, the one farthest away, or 35 miles from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. The MaineDOT installed the signs in the summer of 2022, according to Kelly.
The NPS established the vehicle reservation system to manage traffic on Cadillac, which has about 150 to 160 parking spaces. Before the system was created, Cadillac was often clogged with vehicles during the busy season, causing illegal parking, jeopardizing access for emergency vehicles and undermining the experience for people.
Sunrise on Cadillac was popular before the reservation system started, sometimes drawing about 300 cars, or double the parking spaces, Kelly said. A Cadillac sunrise is an iconic experience similar to seeing Old Faithful erupt in Yellowstone National Park, Kelly said.
Social media is a big factor in promoting Cadillac as the best spot for sunrise in Acadia, he added.
“Social media platforms drive a lot of the interest and demand for experiences … across national parks and probably across the world for everything,” Kelly said. “Certain photos become the thing to do for people. So getting that sunrise photo and having that experience is part of it.”
Of the $6 the NPS charges for a vehicle reservation, $4 goes to the park to pay for infrastructure and fee collection for the reservation system and $2 goes to consultant Booz Allen, Kelly said. The consultant contracts with the federal government to operate recreation.gov the website for reserving camping and other services on federal lands.
New private shuttle starts for Cadillac Mountain
The sell-outs for sunrise tickets also helped spawn a new private service, the Cadillac Mountain Summit Shuttle, which started the second week of June. The 14-passenger shuttle, based at 317 Main St. in Bar Harbor and approved by the NPS, costs $10 for a one-way ticket and $20 for roundtrip with priority to round-trip purchases.
It starts at 4 am and operates through sunset on Cadillac on a first-come, first-serve basis. Passengers do not need a vehicle reservation but do need an entrance pass to Acadia.
“I totally saw the need,” said owner Ellen Finn, who uses a 2023 Mercedes Sprinter and offers half price to residents of Mount Desert Island, workers on the island and MDI students including those attending College of the Atlantic.
She said her routine is to depart Bar Harbor every hour on the hour, with a mid-day break. She drives to the summit in about 20 minutes and departs from the summit every hour on the half hour.
The shuttle also fills a longtime need for people who have hiked up Cadillac and might be looking for a ride down since the Island Explorer, the park’s fare-free shuttle, does not go up Cadillac. You can hike or bike the mountain without a reservation to reach the best spot for sunrise in Acadia.
Alternatives also exist for best spot in Acadia for sunrise
People said the alternatives can be as beautiful for sunrise as Cadillac.
Jennifer Chambers, of Virginia Beach, Va., a claims supervisor for a major insurance company, said she loved driving to Cadillac for sunrise, but was looking for another high point to see the day break above the islands and the great bay without the crowds of Cadillac.
In July of 2020, she chose sunrise at Champlain Mountain, the closest mountain in Acadia to the ocean. She and her wife and two children, 11 and 18, used flashlights to hike the north ridge of Champlain, their first night hike.
“We maybe saw 2 people the entire time and the views are just as stunning as Cadillac,” she told us.
Rachel Ziegler, a dental hygienist from Toledo, Ohio, said a Maine sunrise was a “must do” on her vacation in 2022 with her fiancé, Jake Bures, and their dog, Kamen, a German shepherd and husky mix.
She said they were delighted with a sunrise at the Seawall picnic area, recommended by a local after sunrise at Cadillac was booked on the day she wanted.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” she told us in a Facebook message. “It was just me, my fiancé and our dog, so it couldn’t get any better than that.”