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Acadia National Park, ME

Best Attractions in Acadia National ParkIn a national park with dozens of attractions and points of interest, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

By Frank Swanson

Although not a large park by National Park Service standards, AAA GEM Acadia National Park preserves more than 50,000 acres divided among three districts: Schoodic Peninsula, Isle au Haut and the largest, Mount Desert Island. It's enough territory to be daunting, so your first stop should be the Hulls Cove Visitor Center to acquaint yourself with Acadia's boundaries and what they contain. A 12-minute video provides an overview, and a three-dimensional topographic model of Mount Desert Island will help you get your bearings. Rangers are happy to answer your questions, and between June and October, you can pick up a copy of the ranger-led program schedule.

The visitor center is on Park Loop Road , a 27-mile scenic drive highlighting Acadia's beauty: forests of evergreens mixed with hardwoods, tranquil ponds, rounded hills and rocky shoreline cliffs. A spur off the main loop leads to the top of Cadillac Mountain , the highest point on the U.S. Atlantic coast and a wonderful observation point.

Another stop just off Park Loop Road is the Sieur de Monts Spring area, where you'll find a Nature Center with exhibits describing the park's natural history, and next to the center, the Wild Gardens of Acadia, a sampler of Acadia's various plant communities packed into less than an acre. Nearby is the original Abbe Museum at Sieur de Monts Spring , a small, tile-roofed, octagonal building completed in 1928 and filled with local Native American artifacts, some dating back 12,000 years. The Abbe Museum Downtown , a much more expansive branch, opened in downtown Bar Harbor in 2001.

If you'd like a tour of the park's highlights without having to do the driving yourself, board the green-and-white bus in Bar Harbor run by Acadia National Park Tours . During the excursion, the driver will tell you all about subjects ranging from the park's history to the fine points of distinguishing one lobsterman's traps from another's, and you'll make stops at Jordan Pond, the Thunder Hole and the summit of Cadillac Mountain along the way.

To learn more about the lobstering trade and the area's sea life, visit the Mount Desert Oceanarium Bar Harbor , which includes a lobster hatchery, the Maine Lobster Museum and a guided tour through a salt marsh.

Your best bet for seeing the amazing finback, humpback and minke in the flesh, so to speak, is during a whale watch cruise out into the Gulf of Maine. Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. speeds passengers to nearby whale grounds aboard catamarans while an onboard naturalist narrates the journey. Other tours focus on puffins, seals, lobster fishing and lighthouses.

While a fast catamaran might be an exciting way to explore the bays and islands surrounding Acadia, nothing better evokes the romance of a sea journey than a cruise aboard a sailing ship. If you spend any time at all gazing at the boat traffic in Bar Harbor, odds are you'll spot a four-masted schooner plying its waters. Margaret Todd Windjammer Cruises departs three times a day for tours of Frenchman Bay. The morning excursion is best for wildlife viewing, while the popular sunset cruise often includes live music. If you choose the afternoon cruise, be prepared for rougher seas, although if you want to help the crew hoist the sails, this is your chance.

For an even more intimate experience of Maine's maritime heritage, hop aboard a ferry leaving from Southwest Harbor or Northeast Harbor to Islesford on Little Cranberry Island. Exhibits in the Islesford Historical Museum portray daily island life through historical photographs and interactive activities. The Park Service conducts tours to Little Cranberry Island and the museum that include a side trip into Somes Sound, the scenic fjordlike bay that nearly bisects Mount Desert Island. Check the latest edition of the ranger-led program schedule.

If you're visiting the national park during high summer and the crowds are getting you down, drive to the opposite side of Frenchman Bay, about an hour's drive from Bar Harbor, to explore the park's secluded Schoodic Peninsula district. A scenic drive follows the shoreline and passes through thick stands of fir trees before reaching Schoodic Point , a scenic headland marked by heaps of boulders and broad, flat expanses of light gray rock edging the sea.

On your way to Schoodic Point from Mount Desert Island you'll pass Stanwood Homestead Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary (Birdsacre) . Hundreds of bird species can be found within the shady forests and gardens preserved here, and the bird rehabilitation center is home to a variety of injured owls and hawks that can't be returned to the wild. You can visit the nature center and take a close look at its collection of mounted animals or tour the historic Stanwood house, built in 1850.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Acadia National Park, ME

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