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DESTINATIONS: MAINE



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Acadia National Park – A Nature Lover’s Paradise

By Cliff Calderwood
Publisher

Nothing typifies Maine better than do a rocky shore, evergreens and a lighthouse.
Take a 500 million year old ancient ocean, 100,000 years of glacial activity and throw in major tectonic plate action and you have Acadia National Park. The only piece of land in New England part of the national park system, Acadia receives about 3 million visitors a year making it one of the ten most popular national parks in America.

From the top of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island – the highest point on the east coast north of Brazil – you can be the first in the summer to see the sun rise in the U.S. You can paddle in Somes Sound the only fjord on the U.S. east coast, and you can bike on miles of car-free carriage roads laid down by John Rockefeller Jr. over 70-years ago.

Acadia National Park is located on the upper rocky coastline of Maine in a region known as Downeast. The park encompasses three distinct destinations: the Schoodic Peninsula, Isle au Haut, and the centerpiece of the park – Mt. Desert Island.

Those visiting Acadia National Park do so for the hiking, biking, paddling, backpacking, birding, camping and rock climbing, and these activities should give you a big hint this is a paradise for outdoor types and nature lovers.

If I’m helping people plan a vacation in New England and they want to include a visit to Maine I always try and convince them to spend time at Acadia – I know they won’t be disappointed. If you’re reading this article and have never visited Acadia and are looking to see Maine this year then let me convince you to put this beautiful national park on your itinerary.

In this article I’ll introduce you to this park and give you a flavor of what to expect.

Mt. Desert Island and Bar Harbor:

Most enter the park via Route 3 onto Mt. Desert Island and head straight for the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. Here you can watch films, pick up trail maps and books, and discuss your plans with a park ranger. The town of Bar Harbor is the commercial hub on Mt. Desert, and sits on the shoreline just outside the park boundary. For those not camping in the park it offers lodging, and you’ll also find restaurants, shops and other attractions such as whale watch cruises, and canoe and kayak rentals.

A short drive away back on the mainland is the larger town of Ellsworth which also makes a good base for the area with more variety of accommodation and shops, and some historic sections to visit. I’ll be discussing more "where to stay" options later. Mt. Desert is about 40 miles east of Bangor, Maine, and a 5-6 hour drive from Boston.

Spend some time planning your visit and activities on Mount Desert Island and here’s some of the more popular options to consider:

The Park Loop Road:

The 27 mile Park Loop Road is a scenic drive around the eastern side of the park. The road starts from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and connects Acadia’s lakes, ponds, shoreline and mountains. Much of the road is one-way and a fee is required, but take my advice – pay it and do the drive. A sub-section of the loop road takes you to the summit of Cadillac Mountain – the highest point on the east coast of America.

Take some time with this drive as there are plenty of stopping points along the way to get out and experience the park. Worth a pause for photos and walk are Thunder Hole, Otter Cliff, Sleur de Monts Spring and Wild Gardens of Acadia.

Hiking and Walking:

Hiking is the main draw to the park with many trails of varying difficulty, and plenty of scenic views. As with all hiking a good trail map is a friend and so is your survival kit of knife, whistle, compass, etc. You can pick up trail maps at the Hulls Cove Visitor center or purchase them beforehand from AMC.

This is a brief selection of trails just to get you going, but there are many more. Remember you can’t camp outside the designated campgrounds so backpacking is not allowed, and you must schedule all your hikes and walks to get back to base before darkness.

Easy trails for families and young children include: the two hour round trip Ocean Path which starts at Sand Beach and hikes around Otter Cliffs and Thunder Hole and back, and with lots to explore. Another great family walk is Jordon Pond Loop Trail, and this 90 minute trip takes around the scenic shore of Jordon Pond. I’d also mention not to ignore the network of carriage roads – see next section – for easy walking, as they provide a pleasant alternative to hiking trails.

For those that want to "earn" the stunning view from the summit of Cadillac Mountain the hiking trail starts near the entrance to Blackwoods Campground. This is a moderate degree of difficulty and not a loop so you return the same way but great views on this hike are not just reserved for the summit. This is a 7-mile and 4-hour round trip hike. Another moderate trail with great wildlife viewing is the Huguenot Head and Champlain Mountain hike. The views from the summit look over Frenchman Bay and if you have binoculars this would be a good walk to bring them along – big hint!

On the strenuous hiking side are two climbs with spectacular views, and they’re the Bubbles and Norumbega Mountain. The Bubbles is short but you’ll be puffing a bit and rewarded with an outstanding view of Jordon Pond – the hike starts a mile from Bubble Pond on the Park Loop Road. The Norumbega Mountain Trail is 3.5 miles round trip and offers majestic views of Somes Sound – the only Fjord on the east coast of America. The trail starts at the parking lot at Route 198.

Biking:

I have a friend who adores Acadia National Park and he tells me when he visits he’s either hiking or he’s biking. For him it’s one or the other, and there’s no other reason to go to the park. The point is Acadia offers outstanding biking paths.

Two options exist for biking in Acadia National Park. The gravel carriage roads built in the 1920s and 1930s by John Rockefeller Jr. on the eastern side of Mt. Desert Island were originally for foot and horse traffic, but today they are used mostly by bikes. They make an ideal surface and the majority of the 57-miles of paths are easy to ride. The western side of the island has dirt fire roads that can be used as bike trails, but bikes cannot use hiking trails in any part of the park system.

The carriage roads are connected by stone bridges that pass by waterfalls, and cross streams and gorges and take you through relatively flat evergreen forests or climb to great views of the surrounding peaks and lakes.

The dirt fire roads on the western flank of the island take you through boreal forests untouched by the fire of 1947 which devastated the forests on the eastern side. Far from the loop road and human traffic here you can find yourself alone and almost back in the wilderness.

Bikes and helmets and associated equipment can be hired in Bar Harbor if you come unprepared.

Paddling and Sea Kayaking:

The ponds and lakes of Acadia provide plenty of opportunity for quiet paddling in the park. Echo Lake, Long Pond, Eagle Lake, Jordon Pond and Little Long Pond all offer excellent and safe canoe and kayak experiences. This is a wonderful way to experience the wildlife and shoreline vegetation of Acadia.

While these are all inland waters windy days can nonetheless still create challenging conditions if you’re not prepared or an experienced canoe or kayak user. Staying close to the shoreline tends to offer the best chances of experiencing wildlife and the plants and fauna of the banks and is safer. Most of the land surrounding these waters is private property so ensure when you stop for a break you keep to park property.

Jordon Pond provides scenic views and Echo Lake allows swimming with Eagle Lake deep and cold enough to support salmon and trout.

A whole different world can be experienced by sea kayaking around the coastal waters. If you’ve never done this before you’re in for a treat but you should take some classes before doing this on your own.

Maine's beaches are among the most beautiful anywhere, but the water is often very cold.

Popular excursions include the irresistible fjord of Somes Sound, Frenchman Bay and Porcupine Islands, Mt. Desert Narrows, and the many islands within striking distance of the coast.

Kayaking rentals and guided tours are offered by a number of shops in Bar Harbor.

Wildlife & Forests:

The fire of 1947 changed the forest makeup on the eastern side from the typical spruce and fir boreal state to more of a northern hardwood forest. So as birch, aspen and maple took root they brought a splash of fall foliage color to Acadia that is more subdued on the western side. This change in the forest structure also impacted the wildlife.

You’re more likely to encounter moose and black bears in the interior of Maine than in Acadia but they do exist on the western side - these are large animals and keeping your distance is a must for their protection as well as your own. The white-tailed deer is a more common sighting along with beaver and the river otter.

Birders are drawn to Acadia because of the variety that can be seen, especially the fabulous peregrine falcons which nest and can be seen usually around the cliffs of Champlain Mountain. The forests and the seasons also attract gray jays, chickadees, finches, grouse, woodpeckers, and warblers. The freshwater ponds and swamps attract frogs and turtles, and seeing a snake sunning itself on one of the carriage roads is not uncommon- be calm no poisonous types exist in Acadia.

The inland and coastal waters of Acadia are home to loons, cormorants, harbor seals and porpoises and further out from the coast in deeper waters can be sighted the whales.

My advice if you don’t own binoculars is go beg borrow, or buy a pair – you’ll just get to see so much more.

Isle au Haut:

About half of the mountainous and small island of Isle au Haut is included in Acadia National Park. Boats leave from Stonington a 45-minute drive from Mt. Desert Island. If you’re looking to experience a Maine island during your trip then this 6 miles by 3 miles island 7 miles from the mainland will not disappoint.

There are a few things to consider if you decide to include a visit as part of your Acadia experience: the park limits visitors so plan ahead and ensure you arrive in plenty of time to secure a spot on the ferry, and camping is not allowed except at a few primitive sites which are usually gobbled up and reserved by mid-April.

Most people visit the island for a day trip – taking the boat over from Stonington and arriving at Duck Harbor by 11:00am and returning on the 6:00pm ferry ride. Hiking is the main activity for visitors, and while the highest peak is only 500 feet, the various trails and peaks offer spectacular views of the island and the coastal shoreline of the mainland.

The Schoodic Peninsular:

On the eastern side of Frenchman Bay is the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park, an area of the park less traveled than Mount Desert Island but just as scenic and wildly beautiful. The national park area on the peninsula is part of the larger East Hancock County which has quiet and secluded fishing villages. Most people visiting the peninsular are day trippers from Mt. Desert about an hours drive away, and come wanting to explore the wildness of the area, but this region can be a vacation in its own right.

Start by taking the park road which hugs the coastline offering stunning views across the bay and will eventually take you to Schoodic Head where you can witness the true power of the sea. Here the land is open with no islands to break up the storms that batter it during the winter. It is both magnificent and foreboding.

There are not many trails in the park for hiking, and sea kayaking is too dangerous, but you can walk to the 440-foot summit of Schoodic Head for outstanding views of the ocean and Frenchman Bay. The trail head is about three miles from the park entrance on a rough gravel road.

Where to Stay:

There are two campgrounds in the Mt. Desert park section: Seawall which is seasonal and open Memorial Day through September, and Blackwoods which is year-round and takes reservations – 800-365-2267, and the Isle au Haut has primitive camping available. There are also private campgrounds in the area and you can find them here. If you’d like to stay under a roof rather than canvas then Bar Harbor and Ellsworth have many hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts from which to choose.

Resources:

Discover Acadia National Park: Jerry and Marcy Monkman – This is an AMC book and worth its weight in gold – comes with a pull-out map. More >>>here.

The national park service site for Acadia covers additional planning and the latest information about trail closures and you can find it here.

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