Acadia Trip Report Part I – Around the Park Loop Road

The rock coastline and tidepools are just some of the many attractions at Acadia National Park.
The rock coastline and tidepools are just some of the many attractions at Acadia National Park.

“Daddy, can we go look for sea snails and barnacles again?”

After just one day in Acadia National Park, those were the words of my four-year-old, the Toothy T-Rex, which I would hear often during the rest of our week there.    Acadia National Park is a great family-friendly National Park for families with young children, and even after one week there in July 2015, we left already thinking about when we would be able to return.

The heart of Acadia National Park is located on Mount Desert Island, which many locals pronounce Mount Des-er-et, in eastern Maine.  Its about a 3.5 hour drive from the New Hampshire border, or a little over an hour south from the Bangor, Maine airport.   The island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and the national park itself only has about half the land on the island – as well as some land on a few surrounding islands and the Schoodic Peninsula.

For those collecting Passport cancellations, the addition of a new stamp in Setember 2015 means that Acadia National Park now offers 13 cancellation locations.  Of those, 8 are located along or around the Park’s loop road, which takes visitors around the eastern half of Mount Desert island and represents the core of the park:

  • Thompson Island
  • Bar Harbor, ME
  • Village Green
  • Sieur du Monts Nature Center
  • Thunder Hole
  • Blackwoods Campground
  • Jordan Pond
  • Cadillac Mountain

I’ll talk about the other locations in Part II.

The first three locations are all places to plan your trip to Acadia.  The Thompson Island information station is located right on Highway 3 as you cross the bridge over the Mount Desert Narrows from the mainland, and is the best place to stop if you are heading to the less-visited west side of the island.   Bar Harbor is the famous gateway community for Acadia, and is the original Passport stamp for this park going all the way back to 1986.  Ironically, this stamp is located at the park’s Hull’s Cove Visitor Center,  the main visitor center for the park, and which is located one town to the north of Bar Harbor in Hull’s Cove.   Finally, the Village Green stamp can be found at the small National Park Service information station located right on the Village Green in the center of downtown Bar Harbor, and is also the convenient terminus for the free Island Explorer shuttle buses that can take you just about anywhere on Mount Desert Island.   The buses are a great option for planning one-way hiking or biking trips, or simply to avoid the cost and hassle of finding parking in the hustle and bustle of Bar Harbor.

At low tide, you can walk on the ocean floor on the sand bar that gives Bar Habor its name.
At low tide, you can walk on the ocean floor on the sand bar that gives Bar Habor its name.

The town of Bar Harbor takes its name from the large sand bar that connects the town to Bar Island at low tide.   Thus, one of the real highlights of any visit to Acadia is a sand bar walk out to Bar Island.   The sandbar becomes walkable around 1.5-2 hours before low tide,and remains passable until 1.5-2 hours after low tide.   The National Park Service Information Station at the Villlage Green will contain the latest advisories on when to plan your walk – and most importantly, when to plan your return, lest you be stuck on Bar Island until the next low tide.

As it turns out, Bar Island is owned by the National Park Service, and so is part of the National Park itself.  On the island, there is a short one mile hiking trail to the highest point of the island, which provides views looking back on the town of Bar Harbor and the rest of Mount Desert Island.  Or, if you are travelling with young children, you can just spent your time on the sand bar and on Bar Island looking for sea snails and barnacles, as we did.

The Sieur du Mont Spring in the foreground and the Spring House in the background is referred as the "heart of Acadia" by the National Park Service.
The Sieur du Mont Spring in the foreground and the Spring House in the background is referred as the “heart of Acadia” by the National Park Service.

Just south of Bar Harbor on Highway 3 is the Sieur deMonts Nature Center.  Like most nature centers, this stop is primarily geared towards kids – with exhibits on the flora and fauna of the park.   For adults, however, two highlights are to see the natural freshwater spring and the nearby spring house structure.  The spring house was built in 1909 by George Dorr, who would go on to became Acadia National Park’s first superintendent when the park was established in 1916.  Because of the role Dorr and other Mount Desert Island landowners played in getting Acadia established as the first U.S. national park east of the Great Lakes (*), the National Park Service calls the area around the Sieur de Monts spring the “heart of Acadia.”

Continuing south on the Loop Road is the very popular Precipice Trail – a short, but challenging climb up Champlain Mountain using chains, iron hand-holds, and ladders.   At less than one mile in length, it is one of the shorter trails in the park, but is certainly not for the faint of heart!  Unfortunately, during our visit, the trail was closed due to nesting Peregrine Falcons, which is often the case for a good portion of the summer.  However, when the trail is closed, National Park Service Rangers provide a spotting scope for viewing the nesting Falcons, making the location worth a stop regardless.

Next up is the Sand Beach – one of the few sandy beaches available on the island.  Sand Beach is also the northern end of the 1.6 mile Ocean Trail.  This is a good place to get out of the car and explore the tide pools, although on our trip we preferred to explore tide pools at some of the more out-of-the-way beaches away from the crowds on the Park Loop Road.

The area around Thunder Hole on a foggy day. Come a few hours before high tide to hear the water "thunder."
The area around Thunder Hole on a foggy day. Come a few hours before high tide to hear the water “thunder.”

The next stop around the Park Loop Road is the location known as Thunder Hole, where the waves associated with an incoming tide can produce a loud sound.  According to the National Park Service, the best time to hear the “thunder” is about two hours prior to high tide.  Unfortunately, we did not time out trip so precisely, so only encountered a little gurgling of water.  The location is so iconic, however, that on a summer day, you can expect to find a decent crowd here at  any tide level.

The Park Loop Road begins to turn to the west once you reach Otter Point.  This is also the southern end of the Ocean Trail, which will take you back to Sand Beach.   Additionally, if you are a completist in pursuing the Passport cancellations, you can exit the Park Loop Road here to reach the Blackwoods Campground.  The Blackwoods Campground is the most-popular campground in the Park as it places you close to all the activity of Bar Harbor, as well the Park Loop Road.  However, the Blackwoods Campground is not directly accessible from the Park Loop Road, you can only reach it from Route 3 south of the Sieur de Monts Nature Center, from the Otter Cliff Road at Otter Point, or from Route 3 heading west from the village of Seal Harbor.

The Park Loop Road continues west from Otter Point and passes just north of Seal Harbor.  Here you can access the Wildwood Stables, which is the only authorized vendor of carriage rides within Acadia National Park.   The carriage roads are perhaps Acadia National Park’s most-unique feature.   Park benefactor John D. Rockefeller, Jr. envisioned carriage rides as an ideal form of outdoor recreation.   Thus, he supervised the construction of carriage roads, with no motorized vehicle traffic allowed, between 1913 and 1940, and then donated them to the federal government for inclusion in Acadia National Park.

Our horses, Blossom & Thumper, for our carriage ride.
The Parkasaurus family with our horses, Blossom & Thumper, for our carriage ride.  The Toothy T-Rex is wearing his pony shirt from Assateague Island National Seashore.

In the present day, however, you’ll see far more bicycles on most of the carriage roads than actual carriages.   However, in the vicinity of Seal Harbor, where the Rockefeller Estate is located, there is still a section of carriage roads that remains outside the National Park boundaries, and which are reserved for the exclusive use of horse-drawn carriages – no bicycles allowed!

Just as iconic as the carriage roads is Acadia’s beautiful Jordan Pond, and the nearby Jordan Pond House restaurant.   The small pond and the nearby “North Bubble” and “South Bubble” that so strikingly accent the scenery are both legacies of the sculpting power of glaciers on the landscape during the last ice age.   During our week in Acadia  we did not find a prettier scene than standing on the south shores of Jordan Pond on a sunny day.   In fact it was remarkable how on some days, even when the coast was wrapped in a layer of scenery-killing fog, the air was nonetheless bright and sunny just a short ways inland at Jordan Pond.

The Toothy T-Trex exploring the rocks around Jordan Pond. (Note: wading is not permitted in Jordan Pond, as it is part of the water supply for Seal Harbor.) The North Bubble and South Bubble are in the background.
The Toothy T-Trex exploring the rocks around Jordan Pond. (Note: wading is not permitted in Jordan Pond, as it is part of the water supply for Seal Harbor.) The North Bubble and South Bubble are in the back left.

The food at the Jordan Pond House is almost just as much part of the experience as the stunning views.   The current structure dates back to 1982, after the original Jordan Pond House was destroyed in a fire in 1979 – but travelers have been served here going back all the way to 1896.  In particular, the signature item here is a local treat called the “popover.”  Popovers are a puffed pastry, with about the consistency of a croissant, that are best served straight out of the oven and with a side of jam.   As you might image, Jordan Pond House can be extremely popular, especially during meal times on warm sunny days.   However, a good option for getting the Jordan Pond House experience outside of traditional meal times is to visit for “afternoon tea,” where they will serve you a personal pot of tea and a pair of popovers.

The final stop of the Park Loop Road tour is Cadillac Mountain, which includes a spur road that takes your car all the way to the top.  At just 1,500 feet above sea level it is in some respects barely even a mountain at all.   Nonetheless, it is the highest point on the Atlantic Coast, and thanks to a quirk of ecology that has left the summit large tree-free, it is able to provide breath-taking views in nearly every direction.   Additionally, thanks to the 3.5 mile summit road, some of the best times to visit are either just before sunset, or better yet, just before sunrise – one of the first sunrise visible in the United States.   As we were travelling with two young children, we opted for a sunset view, but even still we were not disappointed.

A sunset view from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a great cap to any day in Acadia National Park.
A sunset view from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a great cap to any day in Acadia National Park.

Continue the Adventure in Part II: Visiting sites further afield in Acadia National Park.

(*) – Update 30 January 2016 – This post originally stated that Acadia National Park was the first national park east of the Mississippi.  An alert reader correctly pointed out that several Canadian national parks were established between Yellowstone in 1872 and 1916.  Additionally, Mackinac Island in Michigan was briefly a U.S. national park between 1875 and 1895 and Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucy was actually established as Abraham Lincoln National Park just one month before Acadia on July 17, 1916.   It wouldn’t lose the “national park” designation until 1939 when it went through the first of three name changes, before reaching its current name in 2009.  The post has been updated to reflect this. 

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4 thoughts on “Acadia Trip Report Part I – Around the Park Loop Road”

  1. Calling Acadia the first national park east of the Mississippi is popular, but not correct. It was the seventh. And it is the third. Huh?

    Following Yellowstone in 1872, Michigan’s Mackinac Island was the second national park created, and the first one east of the Mississippi River. It was established in 1875, and given to the state 20 years later. Thousand Islands NP was established in 1904 (first called St. Lawrence Islands NP). Following that, Fort Howe NP was created in 1914. It was a historic site in St. John, NB, later redesignated a NHS, and eventually transferred to the city. Like Fort Howe, Abraham Lincoln NP was set aside for historic reasons. It was created in 1916 and later redesignated a NHP (then a NHS, and back to a NHP). Another historic site, Fort Anne National Park, was made in 1917. Lastly, Ontario’s Point Pelee NP was created in 1918. Acadia came along the following year as Lafayette NP. So it was the seventh national park east of the Mississippi:

    Mackinac 1875
    Thousand Islands 1904
    Fort Howe 1914
    Abraham Lincoln 1916
    Fort Anne 1917
    Point Pelee 1918
    Acadia 1919

    If it was the seventh, how is it the third? Because today, two existing NPs east of the Mississippi predate it: Thousand Islands and Point Pelee. The others have either been abolished (Mackinac) or redesignated, and no longer carry the NP moniker, or both (Fort Howe).

    Toronto, ON

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