Travelling by horse and carriage is always seen as a thing of the past but in Acadia National Park it’s one of the best ways to get around.
Four legs are better than four wheels when it comes to Acadia’s famous carriage roads. This may seem incredibly antiquated but horse power scores over the automobile big-style.
Taking a half day trip by horse and carriage is not only relaxing, you get to see parts of the park not open to gas-guzzling motor cars.
This isn’t a quick tour around the sights, it’s a proper road trip. It feels like you’re on a mini-adventure!
Acadia National Park is unique with its extensive network of car-free carriage roads which cover 57 miles of countryside.
The carriage roads were the brainchild of John D. Rockefeller Junior, a rich philanthropist, who was worried about the impact of the motor car on the countryside.
He was a nature lover and early conservationist whose dream was to create Acadia as a national park with car-free roads.
This was a vast enterprise which involved the construction of gravel roads, 17 stone bridges and a well-designed loop network which took place between 1913-1940.
Rockefeller donated his own land, bought up and assembled other landowners’ holdings to create the carriage drives which can be enjoyed today.
On the horse and carriage ride you get an excellent and entertaining commentary about Rockefeller’s roads as well as ambling along the highways at a leisurely pace.
My journey started at Wildwood Stables in Acadia, a well-run equestrian centre, which offers drives on board the horse-drawn carriages.
There’s a variety of trips but I opted for the Rockefeller Carriage Roads Drive, a two-hour excursion through the park’s scenic by-ways with great views of its pretty bridges and woodland.
At first I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but found myself loving every minute as I hung onto the back seat for dear life!
As I made friends with my fellow passengers, I realised that this is a slow experience in which you soak up and enjoy the local flavours and landscape without speeding ahead at a mad pace. So no need to cling on!
Our knowledgeable guide, Morgan, told us about the history of the roads, throwing in entertaining anecdotes as we meandered along. It was a perfectly pitched commentary and a fun experience.
As we hit the open roads, we learned that the horses were Suffolk Punch, best known as dray horses from eastern England.
The stables also use other big breeds like Percheron and Belgian draught horse to pull the carriages, the crew and eight travellers.
The horses walk at a gentle 3 mph and there’s no trotting or cantering so it’s a safe to say that you’re in for an easy and smooth ride.
As we left the stables we went up a bit of an incline and gradient but the horses coped brilliantly. Apparently they love their work and the challenges it brings so this is all in a day’s work for them.
Our carriage driver told us that today they were chomping at the bit to put on their working gear and get out on the roads. You almost get a sense that they could make this trip without a driver.
But then you forget that carriage driving is a real skill. Avoiding ditches, negotiating tricky bends and keeping the horses focused is trickier than I thought. Apparently, the horses do get distracted by stuff along the route!
So how did the carriage roads come about? After all, this must have been a huge and expensive undertaking.
It was the result of John D. Rockefeller’s fantastic vision which still shines brightly today. But the story behind the roads is even more remarkable.
John D. Rockefeller Junior’s father was the wealthy head of the Standard Oil Company, whose fortunes were inextricably linked to the motor car.
He joined the family business as a young man but after a few years decided that it wasn’t for him. At the age of 36, he retired from the business and decided to dedicate his time and money to philanthropy.
John Junior had bought a house at Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Islands in 1910 as a summer retreat from New York. He loved the great outdoors and the simple pleasure of travelling by horse-drawn carriage.
It was this that gave him the idea for creating a public network of carriage roads.
He was also keen that the roads were made to the highest standards. Each of the bridges was hard-crafted by local stonemasons using the island’s famous granite stones.
The use of native materials helped the roads blend into the natural landscape. Rockefeller made sure that the roads followed the contours of the land and he made the most of scenic views. This is evident when you’re riding along today.
The carriage roads were designed to cope with Maine’s wet weather with built-in stone culverts, ditches and layer-upon-layer of rock to ensure good drainage.
He also graded the roads so they weren’t too steep or sharply curved for horse-drawn carriages. After all, you wouldn’t want to end up in a ditch!
Rockefeller wanted everything to celebrate the landscape of Mount Desert Island so the roadsides were landscaped with native vegetation including blueberries and ferns.
John Junior was hands-on in the construction of the roads and bridges, and paid attention to the most minute details. He also spent a sizeable chunk of his personal wealth on creating the carriage roads.
He also financed 16 of the stone bridges. We stopped at one of the prettiest bridges and dismounted from the carriage, taking a walk down the bank to look at its stunning craftsmanship (see above).
The setting was simply gorgeous and so quiet that it felt like you’d walked back in time 100 years. No buzzing of traffic, no coughing of engines and no air pollution from cars. Pure peace and quiet.
Today you can see the labours of his dedication with many beautiful bridges spanning streams, waterfalls, road, and cliff sides.
One of the prettiest sections is around Jordan Pond, the deepest body of water on Mount Desert Island, which is surrounded by the hills of the Bubbles.
Another gorgeous area of carriage roads traverses the countryside around stunning Eagle Lake. It’s well worth returning here by bike or on foot to complete the circular loop.
On the return route, we were told an amusing anecdote about the carriage road that runs past the Jordan Pond Gatehouse, a French-Romanesque style villa built as a checkpoint to keep automobiles off the route in the 1930s.
Rockerfeller had this sumptuous villa specially designed to give the architecture of the park a touch of class and style. He also wanted it to blend in perfectly with the rustic countryside setting.
The bells in the gate posts next to the house were designed to alert the person living in the gatehouse to open the way for the horse-drawn carriages.
But local children would ring the bells so many times (and then run and hide as a jolly jape) that the angry tenant tore them off their plinths and threw them into Jordan Pond where they still lie today.
As we came within sight of the Wildwood Stables on our return leg, the carriage had to perform a tricky manoeuvre to get back inside the compound.
Once again, it demonstrated how this horsing around business can be harder than you think. Just as well we were in safe hands with our expert carriage drivers.
This may be a very slow and laid-back way to see the countryside of Acadia National Park, but it’s a fascinating throwback to an earlier age when four legs dominated the roads.
Thank goodness that one man had the vision to create and preserve this idyllic countryside and its horse-drawn carriage roads. Best of all – there’s not a single car or motorbike in sight.
Tammy’s top travel tips – Acadia’s carriage roads
The horse and carriage rides depart from Wildwood Stables in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island which is located in northern Maine.
To reach the stables take the free Acadia National Park Shuttle Bus from Bar Harbor Town Green or drive the National Park Loop Road. The regular bus shuttle service stops directly next to the carriage departure point.
There’s a choice of rides including Mr Rockefeller’s Bridges, the Day Mountain Summit (with great views), Day Mountain Tour and Jordan Pond House. Private charters are also available. The trips cost between $20-$26 per adult.
Most of the carriage roads are also open to bikes. All are available to walkers and hikers. Cycling is hugely popular on these routes so why not pick up a carriage roads map to make the most of your trip.
Take a hat, sunscreen and suitable outdoor clothing. Weather conditions can change quickly and the carriage has no cover.
If you head out on the morning ride, why can combine your trip with a visit to nearby Jordan Pond House, famous for its ‘popovers’, a kind of fluffy dessert which is a mix between a scone and sweet Yorkshire pudding.
Pop up the road (walk or use the shuttle bus) for a ‘popover’ in the Jordan Pond restaurant. But don’t eat too many like me – they are more filling than you think!
Where to stay? Try the nearby town of Bar Harbor which has a wide range of hotel and cottage accommodation down the road from the park entrance.