Part of our awesome fall trip to Maine was spending a couple days exploring Acadia National Park (if you haven’t read about our trip, check out our whole itinerary). Located on Mount Desert Island near the town of Bar Harbor, Acadia is one of the few National parks in the Northeast U.S., and the only one in New England. Because of this, Acadia is very popular with tourists and New England locals alike. It gets very busy in the summer and fall seasons, so it’s best to go in with a game plan.
Explore Acadia by Car
If you’re looking for a scenic drive, Acadia is accessible by car through a loop road that offers stunning views of the coastline, great woodland features and plenty of turnoffs and parking areas to stop and take in the view. To take the drive, you’ll need to pay the park entrance fees and abide by the park’s operating hours (more info here).
If you find yourself near the park when it is seasonally closed, part of the loop road is open throughout the year, even when the rest of the park isn’t open. In addition to cruising the park roads to access a number of hikes, we also did one of the more famous scenic drives in the park.
Sunrise at Cadillac Mountain
Cadillac Mountain is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and sees the first light of sunrise before anywhere else in the U.S. the majority of the year. Naturally, this makes it quite the draw for tourists wanting to catch first light photos. If you ask park staff about seeing the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain, they may suggest other places to watch the sunrise and discourage you from heading to Cadillac Mountain because of the crowds. We really enjoyed our experience seeing the sun rise at Cadillac, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
We mean early… We were staying near the park, and set an alarm for two hours before sunrise to make it to the top of Cadillac Mountain just over an hour before the sun came up. You may be able to get there later if you’re there on a weekday (we were in Acadia over a weekend), but if you’re not willing to get there well before sunrise it’s best to catch the sunrise from another spot on the coast.
Parking is in Short Supply
Why arrive so early you ask? In a word, parking. There is a substantial parking lot at the top of Cadillac Mountain, and parking is allowed along the roadside on the road up to the top but it fills up quickly. When we left (about 20 mins after sunrise), there were a line of cars still waiting to get up to the parking area. Sitting in this gridlock before sunrise, in a national park, on vacation looked miserable – so get there early and take as few cars as possible if you’re traveling in a group.
Once we settled in on a comfortable rock with a good view, people really began to fill in. Over the next hour, we were surrounded by a couple hundred people anxiously awaiting the sunrise. By the time the sun came up, the place was abuzz with people chatting and wandering around. While this didn’t make for the most serene experience, it was fun to see that many other people anticipating an event that happens every day without us giving it much thought.
Get Out and Hike
If you want to get more up-close and personal, the park offers an incredible number of hikes, ranging from short, flat, easy loop trails to outright scrambles like the famous precipice trail, which winds up a steep cliff face using a combination of natural shelves and iron rungs, ladders and handrails. During our trip, we were able to check out several of the unique hikes within the park which we’ve detailed below.
We started our day with the most rigorous hike, climbing the 1,000 vertical feet up the eastern face of Champlain Mountain on one of Acadia’s most famous and challenging hikes. It certainly lived up to its reputation. We parked at the base of the the Precipice Trail and climbed to the top of Champlain Mountain. This hike is not for the faint of heart. Hikers are very exposed along the trail as you navigate the iron rungs, ladders and rocks to get to the top. I would not recommend this trail for anyone afraid of heights.
After the hour and 15 minute hike up, we took in the ocean views before hiking back down on the North Champlain Trail, which connected to the black/orange trail. The trail ended at the road we drove in on leading us back to our car. Altogether, the trip down back to the car took about 45 minutes.
Our next stop was less a hike and more a stop off the road. Thunder hole is a unique rock structure along the coastline known for making a very loud noise when the tide crashes in. It’s best heard at afternoon tide (around 1-2pm), which is when we turned up to check it out. It’s a great area for a picnic lunch along the coastline.
Jordan Pond Trail
The trail around Jordan Pond is a level and persistent path that makes for a relaxed hour and 15 minute walk around the pristine pond. The Jordan Pond House is a quaint restaurant (the only one in the park) located on the south end of the trail.
Bubble Rock Trail
With a reputation as the most well-known rock in the entire state of Maine, Bubble Rock is a very interesting sight to behold. Precariously perched on the edge of south bubble peak, there are two routes to access bubble rock: 1) Bubble Rock Trail parking area 2) Bubble Divide trail off the Jordan Pond trail.
We had started an easy hike around Jordan Pond and happened upon the trail, so we took the second option. From talking to other hikers, it sounds like this is the harder trail, although it wasn’t too strenuous.
When we arrived at the top of south bubble peak, we were initially confused because we couldn’t find the rock we came for. After wandering around for a few minutes, we found the short switchback to bubble rock. In short, if you aren’t sure if you’ve found bubble rock, you haven’t yet! In total, the round trip hike to bubble rock took us an hour from the Jordan Pond Trail.
Carriage roads crisscross through many portions of the park. They are open to bikers, hikers and also host historic horse-drawn carriages. We took a 30 minute walk on one of the carriage roads from Jordan Pond to a cobblestone bridge.
Several bridges connect the network of carriage roads, with the cobblestone bridge being the oldest in the park and constructed in 1917. We enjoyed the short off-the-beaten-path experience of seeing some of the infrastructure that made Acadia famous when it first opened.
Located apart from the rest of Acadia, Bar Island sits off the northern side of the town of Bar Harbor. It is connected by a natural gravel land bridge that allows you to walk to the island during low tide. It’s only a 20 minute walk across to the island, but you’ll need to plan to be off Bar Island before the tide comes back in!
Tide charts are posted on both sides of the land bridge so you can time the hike appropriately. When you get to Bar Island, there is a 1 mile hike to the highest point of the island, which allows you to take in views of Bar Harbor.
Tips for a great trip
- The park gets very busy during the summer and fall. There is often a line to purchase park passes at the park ranger station. However, you can avoid the line by purchasing your park pass in advance online or at a number of local businesses.
- If you want to make the most out of your park pass, plan to spend more than one day in the park. There’s so much to see and do in Acadia. We only scratched the surface on our trip!
- There is only one food option (Jordan Pond House) in the park, so we packed a picnic lunch and ate on the coast near thunder hole which allowed us to avoid the lunchtime crowds.
- Nearly all roads throughout the park are one-way. Plan your hikes in the order you’ll drive to them so you don’t have to make multiple loops. The hikes we listed above are in the order you’ll see them on the roads if you decide to take a page from our itinerary.
- Download the Acadia National Park phone app by Chimani for trail descriptions, maps and more.
Acadia was at the top of our list of things to do in Maine, and it did not disappoint. We left feeling that we had seen so much but that there was even more to explore in the park. Have you considered a trip to Acadia National Park? What are you most excited about?