How I Spent 3.5 Days Scampering in Acadia National Park
Upon receiving my cousin’s wedding invitation, I turned into a cartoon villain. Fingers and brows tented, I smirked. “Excellent,” I said. With that invitation, I had reason to go to Maine, the only state east of the Mississippi River I’d never set foot in and home to Acadia National Park, an almost 50,000-acre wonderland of rugged and rocky Atlantic coastline, woodlands, lakes and ponds. Excellent, indeed.
Acadia National Park sits mostly on Mount Desert Island, near Bar Harbor, Maine. It was first designated as Sieur de Monts National Monument by President Wilson in 1916 with around 6,000 acres, and then, in 1919, Congress redesignated it as Lafayette National Park and it became the first national park east of the Mississippi. In 1929, it was renamed Acadia National Park after a 17th century French colony that included the park’s land. Over the years, the park grew in acreage, largely due to private land donations.
I knew I wanted a few days in the park. The deeper I get into my quest to visit all 400+ U.S. National Park units, the more intent I am on spending at least a few days in every one of the areas I visit. I flew out early on a Tuesday morning, landing in Boston before half of my friends had even rolled out of bed and getting up to Acadia that afternoon after pitstops in Portland and Bangor to pick up snacks and supplies. Then, I wasted absolutely no time getting my scamper on.
DAY 1 || SEAWALL CAMPGROUND, WONDERLAND + SHIP HARBOR TRAIL + THE BASS HARBOR LIGHTT
After consulting a few friends and staring at never-great campsite photos online, I decided to stay at the Seawall Campground, on the southwest portion of Mount Desert Island. It’s about 35 minutes from Bar Harbor and is less centrally located than the Blackwoods Campground, but it’s a little quieter and the campsites are a little less exposed. I managed to pack everything I needed into one of Patagonia’s black hole duffle bags, which still feels like a small miracle. After my stops, I headed straight to Seawall, checked in and set up camp before heading out for my first scamper.
I’m a Virginia girl, y’all, and these views are like nothing I’d ever seen before. My Atlantic coastline is soft and rolling, sand dunes and boardwalks and the coast of Maine is not that. It’s rocks and cliffs and salty air, sea spray and conifers, vibrant green forests, moody gray skies and devastatingly beautiful views. The two trails proved a perfect, easy introduction to the park and as the skies shifted from blue to gray, I headed to the Bass Harbor Head Light, the first of seven lighthouses I’d visit during my time in Maine.
Built in 1858, the lighthouse sits at the mouth of the Bass Harbor. There’s a wood stairway that leads down to the rocks which will allows for an excellent harbor-side view of the light.
After the exploring the trails and the lighthouse, I headed back to camp, started a fire and had just enough time to make dinner and enjoy the sight of night creeping its way through the forest before the rain started. I curled up in my tent, happy to be away from the heat and humidity that was plaguing Virginia in my absence.
DAY 2 || BEEHIVE, GORHAM MOUNTAIN + OCEAN PATH LOOP, JORDAN POND + THE SCHOODIC PENINSULA
When I woke to steady rain, I wasn’t sure what to do with my day. I’d hike, of course. A little rain wasn’t going to keep me from the trails of Acadia, but I’d spent entirely a lot of time plotting and scheming which trails to hike, eventually settling on a few that would show me some of the most lovely parts of the parks along with some of the best views, views that I knew wouldn’t be visible on such a rainy, foggy day. The forecast promised clearer weather the next day, so I layered up, pulled on my rain jacket and fastened my rain cover to my backpack and set out.
There are a few trails within Acadia that require hikers to navigate iron rungs and the Beehive Trail (1.4 miles) is arguably one of the most popular in the park. It was repeatedly recommended to me by friends who had visited the park and, being me, I decided to add on part of the Gorham Mountain Trail and the Ocean Path to make a 3.5 mile loop that would have me scrambling up iron rungs, over rocks and alongside the ocean.
Given the rain, I had the trail to myself and while navigating iron rungs is discouraged in wet or icy conditions, I took my time going up, making sure I was solidly grounded on each rung before pushing up and off to the next. It was exhilarating, especially being up there alone in a dense fog that made the ground beneath me indiscernible. The rungs were a little slick, but not unnavigable.
From the Beehive Trail, I passed by the Bowl and then continued down the Gorham Mountain Trail to the Ocean Path, which, as you might suspect, runs next to the ocean. The rain was intermittent, alternating between stopping completely and thoroughly dousing me in full buckets of rain. By the time I made it back to the car, I was soaked and after a brief break, the rain returned with an irritating vengeance. I needed some indoor time, so I went to the Jordan Pond House for a popover (it’s a whole thing) and a beer and then briefly contemplated walking around the pond (3.4 miles), before realizing I was cold and very wet and in absolutely in no mood for such a thing. Instead, I headed for the Schoodic Penninsula.
The Schoodic Peninsula is located on the mainland, a little more than an hour from the more popular parts of the park. It’s far less crowded, especially on a rainy Wednesday. There’s a six-mile, one-way loop road that makes the peninsula easy to explore, and there’s a few trails there, too, ranging in distance from a half mile to a little over three miles. I took my time exploring, popping in and out of the car to wander around at scenic overlooks and marvel at the ocean smashing into the rocks and cliffs that line the coast. It felt less chaotic there, and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to get away from the crowds in the main part of the park. It’s just as lovely, but much quieter.
On the way back to my campsite, I stopped at Mainely Meat BBQ at Atlantic Brewing Company for a beer and a full pile of meat. I left when the rain stopped and was curled into a nest inside my tent before the sun finished setting.
DAY 3 || CADILLAC MOUNTAIN NORTH RIDGE TRAIL, THE GORGE TRAIL + THE PARK LOOP
When I woke to the sound of rain my tent again, I fully realized weather forecasts in Maine are lying liars that cannot be trusted. This was my last full day in the park and after thinking about maybe waiting to hike until later in the day, I decided there was no time like the present to climb Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the Eastern seaboard. You can hike or drive to the top and, given the fog, I figured I could just do the latter if my climb to the top didn’t yield any views.
There are a lot of ways to hike Cadillac Mountain and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t spend an absurd amount of time debating which route I wanted to take. I knew I wasn’t going to come down the way I went up, but still, there were a lot of options: the Cadillac North Ridge Trail (2.2 miles), the Cadillac South Ridge Trail (3.5 miles), the Gorge Path (2 miles), the Cadillac West Face Trail (1.5 miles), plus a few smaller trails that can be linked together to lead you to the top. Ultimately, I decided to take the North Ridge Trail up and come down via the Gorge Path, which is also on the north side of the mountain and which ends just east of where the North Ridge Trail begins.
The Cadillac North Ridge Trail is rated as moderate, and I’d say that’s an accurate assessment. It’s rocky at times and does require some occasional easy scrambling, but it’s well-marked and not crazy steep. At the top, I could see mostly nothing, just fog, so I didn’t stay up there for too long before finding my way to the Gorge Path and starting my descent.
The Gorge Path is wild, especially after a bunch of rain. It’s rocky and steep and unlike any other trail I’ve ever hiked. From the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the Gorge Path requires a decent amount of scrambling, almost right from the start. Then, the trail follows a rocky stream down the mountain. I’m assuming it’s less of a stream during dry weather, but I was feeling exceptionally thankful for my waterproof hiking boots as I made my way down the trail. The fog and mist added to the moody feeling of the forest and by the time I made it back to my car, I knew the Gorge Path would be a new addition to my list of favorite trails.
After making it down the mountain, I went to Bar Harbor, had a beer at Geddy’s and wandered in and out of a few shops before heading back into the park. Since the sun was out, I drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain where I learned the sea had been visible mere minutes before I got up there, but was once again shrouded in fog. I headed back to drive more of the Park Loop Road, a 27-mile scenic loop of the park. Generally, there are parking lots near the main attractions along the Park Loop Road, like Thunder Hole, and then there are a bunch of pull-outs. Personally, I tend to enjoy myself more when there is limited parking and unnamed scenery and I found a mostly deserted spot by the ocean to perch by for a while. It proved the perfect place to gaze at the ocean while enjoying a beer, which I did until a group of kids who were either cult members or college students showed up and started annoying me.
On the way back to camp, I drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain yet again to find that it was still foggy and then stopped at the Upper Deck in Southwest Harbor for a drink and some chicken wings. I was immediately accosted by locals who were shocked I had climbed to the top of Cadillac Mountain in the fog and who told me they really hate it when cruise ships stop in in Bar Harbor, how the area had changed over the years and the differences between tourists from the U.S., Canada and Europe (it has a lot to do with tipping).
Back at camp that last night, I got in a very serious fight with my campfire. It was uninterested in doing much more than smoking and putting itself out after three solid days of damp, wet conditions, but I forced it to cook my dinner and then headed to bed.
DAY 4 || 2 CATS RESTAURANT + CADILLAC MOUNTAIN
It was, of course, still foggy when I woke up on my last day in Acadia. Undeterred, I made coffee, packed up and headed back toward Bar Harbor, figuring I could get breakfast at the place my cousin recommended and then try to catch the view from Cadillac Mountain one last time. As I parked outside 2 Cats Restaurant, blue sky started to push at the clouds. I got a table, ate an incredible pile of food and by the time I made it back outside, the sun was out. Maybe, I thought, I’d get lucky, so I drove up the winding mountain road one last time to see what I could see.
Third time’s the charm, I guess.
From there, I headed south, back to Portland by way of a lighthouse. The rain was frustrating at times, but I know it kept the crowds down and it made every forest I wandered through a little extra magical, which is pretty impressive considering how magical Acadia already is.
Acadia National Park is open every day of the year, with visitor center hours varying by location and season. Entry into the park is $30 per non-commercial vehicle, and all vehicles must show a park pass at all times or they’ll be ticketed. L.L. Bean runs a free shuttle service throughout the park, which can be especially helpful for those looking to do a point-to-point hike. As always, be sure to check the park website before visiting to make yourself aware of any closures or hazards that may be affecting the park.
Sources: Mental Floss; Wikipedia; National Park Service