Anything but Barren: Acadia National Park

In 1604 French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed along the coast of today’s central Maine and noted an island that he called “Isle des Monts Deserts” because of the barren appearance of its mountains. Craved by glaciers, the granite mountains looked devoid of any vegetation from a distance. Today, Mount Desert Island (pronounced “Dessert” as in cake) is the centerpiece of Acadia National Park. Different from the wide open spaces we were used to seeing in the national parks of the west, we found Acadia not to be a barren place, but a delightful patchwork of forest, mountain, lake, and seashore.

Before visiting Acadia, we spent three days at the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. We based ourselves on the northern portion of the cape, in North Truro, where we camped within walking distance of the Head of the Meadow Beach. The Atlantic Ocean facing beach was almost deserted, and we spent leisurely mornings eating our breakfast there while watching seals frolic in the waves in front of us. 

Looking down the Head of the Meadow Beach
Darren enjoying breakfast on the beach
Watching seals in the ocean from the shore

We also made it a priority to visit the four lighthouses in the area. The Highland Light was a short walk from a parking lot, but the other three involved hikes along the beach. We walked to the Race Point Light from Race Point Beach and visited both West End Light and Long Point Light (on the very tip of Cape Cod) via a hike from Herring Cove Beach. 

Short walk to Highland Light
Race Point Light
West End Light
Long Point Light

There was also time to visit the town of Provincetown and enjoy the food at a couple of excellent restaurants, including a delicious lobster dinner. 

Commercial Street in Provincetown
Enjoying a lobster dinner in Provincetown

Our drive from Cape Cod to Acadia took us along the coast of Maine to Mount Desert Island. Interspersed with quaint towns and villages, about 60% of the island has national park status. In the mid to late 1800s Mount Desert was a playground for the wealthy, who built what they called “cottages” (in essence small mansions) in scenic places. 

By the early 1900s some residents began to work together to preserve the area from any further development. Among those were New England textile heir George Dorr, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, and wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The land that they and others donated to the federal government provided the basis for Lafayette National Park, established in 1919 as the first park east of the Mississippi River. Changed to Acadia in 1929, in honor of the former French colony that once included Maine, the park continued to acquire land, growing to its present size of 50,000 acres.

Even though we visited Acadia before the peak summer season, we knew that it would still be crowded. In 2016, Acadia had 3,303,393 visitors, ranking it 8th out of the 59 national parks. We timed our visit on the weekdays and tried to get early starts to our hikes in the busier sections. 

Sand Beach is a popular swimming destination (even though the water temperature rarely rises higher than 55 degrees F), and the hike to Otter Cliff was an easy walk of 1.5 miles each direction along the coastline. We started early and saw just a few people as we walked. Numerous short spur trails provided us with the option of rock hopping along the pink granite cliffs to see some of Acadia’s 40 miles of rugged coastllne. About halfway down the trail we reached Thunder Hole, which makes a roaring sound when water flows in to and out of a cavern during high tide. It was a couple of hours after high tide when we arrived, but we still observed some of the effect.

Ocean view along the trail from Sand Beach to Otter Cliff
Ocean view along the trail from Sand Beach to Otter Cliff
Looking into Thunder Hole
Ocean view along the trail from Sand Beach to Otter Cliff
Ocean view along the trail from Sand Beach to Otter Cliff

The glaciers that sculpted Acadia’s rocks also caved narrow valleys filled with lakes and created ocean inlets. Jordan Pond is another highly visited portion of the park. Beginning at the end of June a free shuttle bus takes visitors around the island. But since it wasn’t running yet, we drove. We arrived there in the early afternoon and had to spend a few minutes to find a parking spot. But as soon as we began to hike around Jordan Pond, we left the crowds behind. The 3.2 mile loop took us past the Bubbles, two small mountains that rise above the pond. As we reached the south side of the pond, the level forest hike turned into a scramble along the rocks and then a walk on a boardwalk for the remainder of the path. 

Jordan Pond and the Bubbles
Level path along Jordan Pond
Rocky path along Jordan Pond

At the conclusion, we rewarded ourselves with popovers with butter and jam at the Jordan Pond House, a tradition dating back to the 1890s. 

Popover with butter and jam

Another popular destination in the park is Cadillac Mountain, Acadia’s tallest mountain at 1,530 feet. Our plan was to hike one of the trails to the top, but the weather turned windy and rainy, so we opted instead to drive up the curving road. And it was windy up there; a couple of times we thought we might fall over as we walked. But even with the gusty conditions, we still had spectacular views of the park and the Atlantic Ocean islands to the east of us. 

View from Cadillac Mountain
View from Cadillac Mountain

After two days camping on the eastern side of the island, we drove to the less visited western portion of Mount Desert. Our drive took us around a long inlet called Somes Sound that looked like a fjord without the steep cliffs around it. We camped at the Seawall Campground and completed several hikes. 

Two of our hikes originated at Long Pond. One took us along the pond and up and over a notch, providing us with nice lake and forest scenery. 

Long Pond view from the trail
Path through the forest
Beautiful ferns along the hike

The second Long Pond hike took us in the opposite direction to Beech Mountain (elevation 839 feet). An extremely rocky and steep one mile path had us huffing and puffing to the top of the mountain. It was well worth the effort, as we could see both the Atlantic Ocean and Long Pond from several different viewpoints. Darren climbed up some stairs of a closed fire tower to get even better views. 

Beech Mountain trail along Long Pond
Long Pond view from Beech Mountain
Darren climbing up the fire tower
Ocean view from Beech Mountain

Another hike up to the top of Flying Mountain gave us a clear vista of Somes Sound and some of the villages on the western side of the island. We combined a couple of trails together to create a 1.4 mile loop, taking us down to the water at Valley Cove before ending up back at our car. 

Flying Mountain Somes Sound vista

Our final hikes were back on along the shore, and provided us with the opportunity to observe the ocean at low and high tide. The Ship Harbor and Wonderland paths took us out on the rocks, where we sat and stared out at the ocean. It was relaxing to close our eyes and smell the sea spray while listening to the waves lapping on the rocks.

Ship Harbor trail ocean views
Ship Harbor trail ocean views

In addition to our hikes in the forest and mountains and along the ponds and seashore, we also took some time to visit the towns of Southwest Harbor on the west side and Bar Harbor on the east side. And we couldn’t resist exploring one last lighthouse on the Atlantic Coast, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, built in 1858. It is the only lighthouse on Mount Desert Island. 

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse

As we left Seawall Campground for the final time, we turned our Toyota 4Runner west, leaving the easternmost park we will be visiting on our journey. Over four days we had explored the vast majority of the park on Mount Desert Island, yet we left wishing we had more time to visit the other two smaller sections of Acadia, on the Schoodic Peninsula and the Isle au Haut.

Our 19th national park and next stop on our Trekking the Planet NPS trip is Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio. 

Related Posts

2 thoughts on “Anything but Barren: Acadia National Park

    • Sandy Post authorReply

      Thanks, David. Glad you enjoyed the story! Sandy

Leave a Reply