Acadia National Park is one of those awesome places that crams a lot of stunning scenery into a relatively small space.
This beautiful park has everything from mountains and gentle hills to a rocky coastline and an archipelago of islands.
I was lucky enough to visit the park this summer but was surprised by the lack of British and European travellers. Most Brits tend to head to Boston and south to Cape Cod or inland to New Hampshire.
Perhaps it’s simply a question of discovering Acadia’s wilderness which is a huge hit with Americans.
So if you’re looking for somewhere different for a Stateside vacation, why not get wise to Maine’s fabulous scenery, a few hours north of Boston.
Here’s my guide to 10 great things to do in Acadia National Park if you’re planning your itinerary.
Day one – Acadia Park Loop Road Scenic Drive
The Loop Road is one of the most beautiful drives in any North American National Park. It’s also a great reconnaissance trip for your first day.
The Acadia Loop Drive is a 27 mile circular route which twists and winds through the eastern park’s various habitats. From forests, lakes and ponds to the rugged coast, this is a must for every visitor to Mount Desert Island.
There are several ways of doing the trip. You can drive the loop in your own car or take the free Island Explorer Shuttle, hopping on and off at different stops. There are also guided bus tours.
The loop road car parks tend to be very busy during summer months so the ‘jump on, jump off’ bus is a better option, although the shuttle doesn’t take the route to the top of Cadillac Mountain.
There are numerous stop-off points including the popular Thunder Hole where visitors can take a short walk to this narrow rock crevice which booms dramatically when the waves hit it.
But remember you’ll only see the spurting burst of spray in its full glory at mid-tide on days when the waves are restless.
Drive on, stopping off at the vertiginous Otter Cliffs, popular with rock climbers, and then pop down to the cobblestone Little Hunters Beach.
Stop for lunch at Jordan Pond House and enjoy ‘popovers’, a Maine speciality, a cross between a souffle and a scone. If you’re not too stuffed, take the circular walk around the lake and admire the rounded hills of the Bubbles in the distance.
Complete your trip via pretty Eagle Lake – saving the Cadillac Mountain drive for later – and return to the park entrance to complete the loop drive.
Day two – Cadillac Mountain hike and sunset
Cadillac Mountain is one of the park’s most spectacular high points. At 1,530 feet in height, it’s not a giant-sized mountain but it’s a dramatic climb to the top with spectacular views across Mount Desert Island from every twist and turn.
Get up early and take the park’s free shuttle bus to start one of two hikes to the summit.
Seasoned hikers might opt for one of the longer routes starting at the Wildwood Stables. My partner Tony started from here (as I enjoyed a carriage ride), and followed a slightly sketchy path over The Triad before joining the Canon Trail and hitting the South Ridge approach to the summit.
Half a mile before the summit on the South Ridge Trail look for a precariously perched boulder, probably a glacial erratic that’s been there for 10,000 years or more.
Those looking for a slightly gentler climb should head for the popular North Ridge Trail, a 5.7 miles round trip which takes about 3-4 hours.
Less active visitors can drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain and take in the panoramic views over the Porcupine and Cranberry Isles.
The road is dramatic with hairpin bends and sensational views as it winds its way to the summit.
Once at the peak you can take the short Summit Trail with its fragile and rugged landscape. It can be incredibly windy, as I found to my cost, so wrap up warm.
Why not save the best to last? A wonderful trip is the evening drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain at sunset when there are stunning views as the sun drops over Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles.
This is also the first place where the sun sets on the east coast of the USA prompting cheers from those watching this daily spectacle from the Blue Hill Overlook on the mountain!
Day three – Bar Harbor and whale watching
Bar Harbor is the main town on Mount Desert Island where you can admire the boats, take a trip on the water or simply shop or relax in one of its many bars and restaurants.
This became our vacation base and I’d recommend this town to anyone staying on the island because of its proximity to attractions, transport and facilities.
Take a trip on one of its whale watching boats to see the Maine coast’s spectacular marine life, one of my favourite excursions.
There are also puffin cruises plus outdoor activities like sea kayaking and sailing. The Margaret Todd schooner makes daily trips around the bay, although the people we spoke with had mixed views about this experience.
Back on dry land, take a walk across to Bar Island – which is connected to the town by a sand bar at low tide.
There are great views of Bar Harbor although I never managed to time the tides right to enjoy this impressive sight!
In the evening head to one of the town’s restaurants for fresh lobster and fries or corn on the cob, another Maine speciality.
Soak up the atmosphere on the Village Green every Monday and Thursday night when summer concerts by the town’s band provide a fun diversion.
Day four – Carriage road rides
Acadia National Park is unique with its extensive network of car-free carriage roads which cover 57 miles of countryside.
Four legs are better than four wheels when it comes to these famous carriage roads. Taking a half day trip by horse and carriage is not only relaxing, you see parts of the park not open to gas-guzzling motor cars.
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. It’s a brilliant adventure for those looking to escape their automobiles.
Start your journey at Wildwood Stables in Acadia, a well-run equestrian centre, which offers drives on board the horse-drawn carriages.
If you prefer two wheels to horse power, why not hire a bike and cycle along the carriage roads. It’s a hugely popular way of getting around Acadia National Park. Bikes can be hired in Bar Harbor – and can be taken on the shuttle buses.
Day five – Bass Harbor and lighthouse
Bass Harbor is one of the most famous lighthouses on the Maine coast guarding the entrance to Blue Hill Bay. This brilliant white structure set on a rocky mound flashes its distinctive beacon every four seconds.
Take the steps down to the far side of the lighthouse for the best views from the rocks but be aware that mist can descend quickly here, creating poor visibility.
On our trip, a pea-souper appeared like a huge veil, enveloping us and providing an atmospheric, if murky, experience.
After your trip, head to nearby Bass Harbor with its authentic fishing village, lobster shacks and colourful buoys. Its ferry also makes this a good jumping-off point for Swan’s Island and Frenchboro.
In the evening try the local lobster at Thurston’s in nearby Bernard, one of the best places to enjoy this Maine delicacy. There are also great views over the bay from the lobster shack.
Day six – Island hopping
For a different perspective on Mount Desert Island, why not take a day trip to the nearby offshore islands.
Drive to Northeast Harbor, take a stroll along its upmarket high street and then catch a ferry to the Cranberry Isles from where you can hop between Great Cranberry and Isleford.
Alternatively catch the Cranberry Cove ferry shuttle between Southwest Harbor and the Cranberry Isles to discover a slower, more relaxed pace of life.
We missed out on the islands because torrential storms (a seasonal hazard at Acadia) hit the coastline for two days. But locals told us that the islands are idyllic, if you have sunny weather.
There are also boat trips to the impossibly scenic Isle Au Haut, 15 miles south-west of Mount Desert Island but this requires careful planning as it’s a hard place to get to.
Day six – Sea kayaking adventure
If you’re looking for water sports, you’ve come to the right place. Mount Desert Island has great opportunities for sea kayaking and sailing.
Most trips start from Bar Harbor where you can join a group – of mixed abilities – and take a leisurely tour around Frenchman Bay.
Basic training is given, and you don’t have to be super-fit to enjoy the experience. Tony’s professional guide kept his group entertained with stories of the rich and famous who own the mansions lining the shoreline, including apparently the family behind Campbell’s soup.
Some folk prefer the quieter western shoreline where you are less likely to be swamped by the wash from a whale watching boat.
Day seven – Nature and bird watching
Acadia is a nature lover’s dream. One of the easiest ways of seeing the wildlife is to go on a National Park warden’s walk from Sieur de Monts Spring.
Alternatively, take a trip to The Precipice on the Park Loop Road where peregrine falcons nest in the spring and summer months.
With the help of the wardens and their telescopes, we were lucky enough to see one of these super-speedy birds of prey jetting across the skyline. What a thrill to watch this bird whizzing along at 80 mph!
After your bird watching trip, head along to Jordan Pond House for afternoon tea and a traditional Maine ‘popover’.
There’s also a great birding walk around the lake next to the restaurant so take your binoculars and look out for warblers and waterfowl in spring and summer.
At dusk keep your eyes open for the island’s white-tailed deer or visit Beaver Dam Pond where you can wait patiently for beavers to come out of their lodge.
We spotted their lodge but never saw these elusive master-builders on the water. Your best bet is to go beaver watching at dawn or dusk. Beavers are nocturnal so don’t generally come out during the daytime.
Day 8 – Drive back in time at Seal Cove
For a day out with a difference, drive to Seal Cove to the west of Mount Desert Island, the quieter side of Acadia National Park.
Classic car lovers are in for a treat with a surprisingly good historic collection of the brass and steam age at the Seal Cove Auto Museum.
Be dazzled by the brass and flash of Benzes, Buicks, Cadillacs and Model Ts from yesteryear in a display that is immaculately presented.
After your trip to the museum, drop into Pretty Marsh for a picnic amongst the woods and scramble down to the shoreline for picturesque views.
Why not combine this trip with a run out to Somesville, a small town with white clapboard houses which became the first permanent settlement on Mount Desert Island after Abraham Somes landed from Massachusetts in 1761.
We were too late for the Strawberry Festival in July and too early for the Blueberry Festival in August but its small museum provides a distraction if you’re looking for a leisurely stroll.
Tammy’s travel tips – Acadia National Park
With stunning scenery and so much to do, why not book your trip to Acadia? It’s the perfect antidote to modern, fast-paced life with its sleepy, small towns, picturesque harbours and car-free carriage roads.
There are many lovely hotels on Mount Desert Island including The Bluenose Inn and Bar Harbor Inn.
I’d also recommend booking a self-catering cottage for a week. Bar Harbor Acadia Cottage Rentals provides a long list of properties catering for couples to larger family parties, designed for a variety of budgets.
We stayed in a cottage just outside Bar Harbor, managed by the rental agency, which was a brilliant base for exploring the whole of Mount Desert Island.
Our cottage was beautifully furnished with great views of the woods and sea from its attractive deck.
There are also holiday cottages at Ellsworth, the biggest town on the mainland, but this is an hour’s drive from Mount Desert Island.
In my view Ellsworth is in a poorer location if you want to be in the thick of the action and scenery at Acadia National Park. Remember the old saying – location, location, location.
Alternatively, why not stay in a cabin or wood cottage in the National Park? Or hire a RV and stay on one of the island’s camp grounds, but be sure to book well ahead, especially in peak season.
If you’re travelling to Acadia, I can recommend buying James Kaiser’s beautifully illustrated and well-researched travel book called Acadia – The Complete Guide.