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Acadia National Park, ME

RecreationBiking, swimming, backpacking, fishing, hiking—whatever your interest, make sure you experience these recreational highlights, as chosen by AAA editors.

By Frank Swanson

With more than 125 miles of hiking trails blazed across the face of Mount Desert Island, you have plenty to choose from. A good choice is the Jordan Pond Path, a 3.3-mile loop around the pond and through evergreen forest that begins near the Jordan Pond House.

Several other trails begin at Jordan Pond, including the Penobscot Ridge Trail, a moderately strenuous path up 1,194-foot-high Penobscot Mountain that rewards hikers with spectacular views, particularly of Jordan Pond below and the two rounded hills known as the Bubbles. And if want an even higher vantage point, continue just a mile farther on to reach the top of 1,373-foot Sargent Mountain. By the time you return to the Jordan Pond House , you'll have worked up quite an appetite; reward yourself with the restaurant's traditional tea and fresh popovers (you deserve it).

Of course, the mother of all Acadia's summits is 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain , the highest point on the U.S. Atlantic coast, and in fall and winter, the first spot in the country to be illuminated by the rising sun. You can take it easy and drive to the top and limit your walking to the .4-mile Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, or you can tough out the strenuous 7.4-mile (round trip) Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail, which begins at Blackwoods Campground off Blackwoods Road. Although at trail's end you'll find the same scenic views as those who rode to the top in air-conditioned tour buses, you'll have had the pleasure of hiking through some lovely forested terrain, not to mention the bragging rights.

Two other trails worth mentioning are Beehive Trail, which begins near the parking lot for Sand Beach, and the Great Head Trail, which begins at the eastern edge of the beach itself. Although less than a mile round-trip, Beehive Trail challenges hikers with a steep climb that includes ladderlike iron rungs embedded in rock. Although the trail is not recommended for anyone afraid of heights, the view from atop the 520-foot granite formation is breathtaking.

The Great Head Trail is far less exhausting (and scary) but offers a beautiful hike through evergreen forest and leads to the top of dramatic sea cliffs from which you have a wonderful view of Sand Beach and the Beehive. There are a couple of stretches where you'll have to scramble up the island's distinctive pink granite rock, so the park service labels this trail as moderately difficult.

If you want easy, you won't find a less difficult “hike” on the island than Bar Harbor's Shore Path, a gravel trail extending along Frenchman Bay for nearly a mile. The more-than-a-century-old path starts at the town pier and as you stroll south, you'll have seaside inns and historic mansions converted to bed and breakfasts on your right. On your left will be Frenchman Bay and the hunched backs of the aptly named Porcupine Islands bristling with trees. A large boulder canted at an unlikely angle on the shore stands opposite Balance Rock Inn , a lavish “cottage” built by an early 20th-century railroad magnate. Balance Rock survived a massive 1947 fire that swept the island and destroyed dozens of other elaborate vacation homes.

Fortunately that devastating conflagration did far less damage to the park's 45-mile-long carriage road system, a network of gravel roads that philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. financed and designed between 1913 and 1937. Thanks to Rockefeller's largesse, you can enjoy some of Acadia's prettiest scenery from your bicycle seat, and thanks to his skill as a designer, the grades are gentle, the views dramatically highlighted and the meandering roadway pleasingly integrated into the landscape. Granite blocks act as guardrails, and concrete bridges—rendered picturesque with rough stone facades—span streams and waterfalls.

One of the most popular carriage roads circles Eagle Lake near the park's headquarters on SR 233, which along with the Hulls Cove Visitor Center is where you can pick up a carriage road map. The general souvenir map the park distributes clearly shows the roads as well. If you haven't brought your own bike, you can rent one in Bar Harbor, and from late June through early October you can reach the carriage roads aboard one of the free Island Explorer shuttle buses, all of which are equipped with bike racks.

Since the carriage roads are closed to motorized traffic, you won't have to compete for your share of the road with cars and RVs, but you will need to yield to pedestrians, horses and horse-drawn carriages. They're not called carriage roads for nothing. And if you're interested in touring Acadia's carriage roads the way Rockefeller intended, visit Carriages of Acadia, a half mile south of the Jordan Pond House. This park concession offers a variety of carriage tours from late May to mid-October; phone (207) 276-5721.

Winter snows might preclude a carriage tour, but Rockefeller's scenic roads remain open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing during the coldest months when annual snowfall in the park averages almost 72 inches. While the entire carriage road system is open in winter, you might want to focus on those sections that are groomed, although only on a somewhat regular, volunteer basis. These roadway segments include the west side of Eagle Lake, west from Eagle Lake to Aunt Betty Pond, around Witch Hole Pond just south of the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, and just west of Jordan Pond leading around Sargent Mountain. You can check grooming status at park headquarters or on the park's website.

Swimming in Acadia is limited due to the rugged coastline, rough seas and chilly saltwater temperatures, and many of Mount Desert Island's lakes and ponds are used by local communities for drinking water and are therefore off limits to swimmers. One exception is Sand Beach on the island's eastern edge, which is staffed by lifeguards in summer, as is Echo Lake Beach on the western half of the island.

While the island's famously craggy coast discourages swimming, it compensates with picturesque coves, narrows and islets that you can explore while sea kayaking. Most tour companies offer half-day and sunset excursions, but some give you the option of shorter jaunts as well as multi-day journeys. A few specialize in wildlife viewing and focus on the quieter, western side of the island; most have at least one trip highlighting the local fauna, which includes harbor seals, porpoises, bald eagles, cormorants and ospreys. In Bar Harbor you'll find Coastal Kayaking Tours and National Park Sea Kayak Tours , and in Southwest Harbor there's Maine State Sea Kayak . Because these tours are both popular and limited to small groups, you should make reservations well in advance.

A huge variety of birds nest on the islands surrounding Acadia, so a kayaking tour is a real treat for birders. Bird-watching in Acadia, however, doesn't require that you head out to sea. There are more than 300 species that have been spotted in these parts, and some of the most impressive, including endangered birds of prey, can be seen from the park's trails, carriage roads and shorelines.

After peregrine falcons nearly became extinct due to heavy use of pesticides, they were reintroduced into the park in the 1980s, and breeding pairs have returned to Acadia every year since 1991. One of the best locations for falcon viewing is the Precipice Trail parking lot in spring and summer, although during nesting season, the trail itself is closed to protect the birds. Soaring sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels and ospreys can be spied from the summit of Cadillac Mountain. Elsewhere you can see ravens, black-capped chickadees, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, loons and warblers among many others.

flickr/Ryan Hyde
Peering into tide pools along the shore reveals even more natural wonders—or oddities, depending on your inclination. Twice a day the retreating tides expose barnacles, mussels and starfish. One of the most accessible areas is the gravel bar exposed at low tide between Bar Harbor (at the end of Bridge Street) and Bar Island. You can even drive out onto the bar and park, but don't lose track of time. You wouldn't be the first visitor to return from a leisurely stroll to find their car under water. Ship Harbor and Wonderland, near the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse on the island's west side, are other good locations for tide pooling. In summer, park rangers conduct nature walks.

Of course, with Acadia being on an island, you'd expect the fishing to be good, and you'd be right. You can catch bass, trout and salmon in the park's lakes and ponds and fish along the seashore for striped bass, bluefish and mackerel. Try Bubble Pond for brook trout; Eagle Lake for brook trout, lake trout and landlocked salmon; and Jordan Pond for landlocked salmon and lake trout. Ice fishing is allowed January through March. Good spots for ocean fishing are from Sargeant Drive on Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island and Frazer Point in the park's Schoodic Peninsula district. Freshwater fishing requires a state fishing license; ocean fishing does not.

While backcountry camping is not allowed in the park, there are campground options. Duck Harbor is in the park's Isle au Haut district. To get there you'll have to leave your car or camper behind and take the mail boat from Stonington. With just five lean-tos, Duck Harbor will appeal to campers who are willing to trade comfort and convenience for the relative solitude of Isle au Haut. Those wanting more amenities can check with the campgrounds just outside park boundaries: Bar Harbor Campground , Bar Harbor Oceanside KOA , Hadley's Point Campground , Mt Desert Narrows Camping Resort and Smuggler's Den Campground .

If you're just looking for a place to enjoy an alfresco lunch, the park maintains several areas with picnic tables, fireplaces and restrooms. Bear Brook and Fabbri are on the eastern side of the island; Bear Brook is near the Sieur de Monts Spring entrance and Fabbri is on Otter Cove not far from Thunder Hole and the Gorham Mountain Trailhead. Seawall is on the southwestern part of the island near the Seawall Campground, Pretty Marsh is on the western side of the island, and Thompson Island is off SR 3 where the road crosses from the mainland to Mount Desert Island. Frazer Point is on the Schoodic Peninsula on the way to Schoodic Point .

More and more visitors come to Acadia to rock climb, with the sea cliff at Otter Cliff being one of the most popular places for the sport. Not many other sites on the East Coast offer both scalable granite walls and an oceanfront setting. The Precipice challenges with a more than 200-foot sheer rock wall, while the South Bubble near Jordan Pond is a better spot for beginners.

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Acadia National Park, ME

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