Acadia Part II – Going Beyond the Park Loop Road

The Toothy T-Rex and the Little Stegosaurus explore a tide pool on the Schoodic Peninsula.
The Toothy T-Rex and the Little Stegosaurus explore a tide pool on the Schoodic Peninsula.

Acadia National Park has far more to offer than just the Park Loop Road, which I covered in Part I of my Trip Report.  Mount Desert Island is divided into two lobes by the deep waters of Somes Sound, with Bar Harbor and the Park Loop Road located on the eastern lobe.  Acadia National Park also includes the western half of Mount Deseret Island, as well as a number other outlying islands, and also the Schoodic Peninsula, which is located across Frenchman Bay from Bar Harbor.

The Passport cancellations for these areas include:

  • Seawall Campground
  • Schoodic Peninsula
  • Schoodic Woods Campground
  • Isleford Historical Museum
  • Isle au Haut

If you plan your own visit to Acadia National Park, the Parkasaurus family would certainly recommend staying on the west side of the Mount Deseret Island, which is far removed from the crowds of Bar Habor and the iconic destinations of the Park Loop Road.   If you are inclined to camp, the Seawall Campground places you very near some of the less-visited ocean beaches in the Park.

For our trip, which included both grandparents and two little children, we went with a house rental in the town of Southwest Harbor.  This provided us with the perfect “home base” from which we could spend the rest of the week exploring the park.

Southwest Harbor is also known as the home of the famous Beal’s Lobster Pier restaurant, which as the name suggests, is literally located on a pier overlooking the ocean.  For many visitors, it is simply the place to enjoy a fresh Maine lobster as part of their visit.   If you are in Southwest Habor in the morning, however, be sure to check out the Common Good Cafe.  This unique establishment serves a simple menu of oatmeal with all the fixings and fresh Maine popovers, straight out of the oven, served with jam.  Only a free will offering is asked for as payment, and all proceeds go to benefit the operations of a soup kitchen during the winter months after most of the tourists have gone away.

Sunset at the Wonderland area on the less-visited west side of Mount Desert Island.
Sunset at the Wonderland area on the less-visited west side of Mount Desert Island.

Of course, our little ones were not terribly interested in tasting lobster or trying the popovers.  What got them excited, above all things, was exploring the tide pools to look for sea snails and barnacles.   Fortunately, the west side of the park was exactly the place to be for that sort of thing, with four separate areas to explore the Maine coastline.  These areas are the Seawall picnic area, the Wonderland trail, the Ship Harbor trail, and Bass Harbor Head trail.   The first of these is directly accessible from Route 102A, whereas the other three all require a short easy hike  of a half mile or less in each case to reach the ocean.   We happened to spend a good amount of time tidepooling at both the Seawall and Wonderland areas on our trip, and we particularly enjoyed our evening at the Wonderland area, which is featured in the sunset photo above.

In addition, it is worth noting that the Bass Harbor Head area is also a must-stop destination for visitors to Acadia.  The lighthouse there has become perhaps the iconic symbol of the Maine North Atlantic Coast in general, and of Acadia National Park in particular.   This lighthouse is still actively operated by the US Coast Guard,  so the interior is not open to the public, but it is still worth seeing this iconic structure in person.

The iconic Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was featured on the 2001 National Parks Pass.  The National Parks Pass was the precursor of the present-day America the Beautiful Pass.

There are a number of other notable places on the west side of Mount Desert Island.   Acadia National Park maintains a sand beach on Echo Lake, which provides a much more comfortable swim than the frigid ocean waters of the north Atlantic.   Located just across Route 102 from the Echo Lake Beach is the Carroll Homestead site, with a few interpretive exhibits on the life of early settlers in the area.

Additionally, although there are no carriage roads on the west side of the Park, but there are plenty of hiking trails.  To the west of Echo Lake are several  hiking trails, including one to the Beech Mountain Fire Tower.  The Fire Tower is periodically open to visitation, check at the park visitor center for details.  To the east of Echo Lake Beach, across Route 102, there are also  a number of hiking trails.   We took a short loop hiking trail up the relatively small Flying Mountain – just 284 feet in elevation.   There are a few bare patches at the top which provide some nice views across Somes Sound to the eastern part of Acadia National Park and the small village of Northeast Harbor.

Standing atop Flying Mountain, I was able to catch this view of the NPS concessionaire tour boat that takes visitors to Islesford and up Somes Sound.
Standing atop Flying Mountain, I was able to catch this view of the NPS concessionaire tour boat that takes visitors to Islesford and up Somes Sound.

If you take Route 102 north to the top of Somes Sound, you can connect to Route 198 and then take Route 233 to  head towards the main part of the Park and Bar Harbor.  Route 233 will take you past the Park Headquarters, which doubles as the Park’s winter season visitor center when the other park facilities are closed.   It is also provides the closest access to the carriage road system for anyone coming from the west side of the Island.

I was able to take two short bicycle trips on the carriage roads during my visit, both departing from the parking area near the Park Headquarters and the northern end of Eagle Lake.   The first was a bicycle ride to the north up to the Breakneck Ponds.  This was an easy, relatively flat bike ride that would be suitable for almost any skill level.  The Breakneck Ponds have several beaver dams in them, and if you are lucky, maybe you can spot one!   The only caveat to this trip is that the carriage roads are paved with fine gravel, rather than hard asphalt, which may give some bike riders trouble.

My second bike trip was a loop trip to the south around Eagle Lake.  It should be noted that this loop trip includes an elevation gain of several hundred feet, so is moderately physically exerting.  The highlight of this loop, however, is that it provides access to the short hiking trail to the top of Connors Nubble, on the southwest corner of Eagle Lake.  At 588 feet, Connors Nubble is one of the smaller peaks in the park, but its location right on the edge of Eagle Lake provides some sweeping views from the top.   Despite its short length, the trail is moderately difficult, and includes some rock scrambles.  However, the view at the top was worth it.   As an added bonus, even though I visited on a beautiful midweek summer day, I had the top all to myself.

The view from the top of Connors Nubble is best accessed by a bike trip down the carriage roads.
The view from the top of Connors Nubble is best accessed by a bike trip down the carriage roads.

Besides Acadia National Park’s hiking trails, another way to escape the crowds of the Park Loop Road is to visit the Schoodic Peninsula.   The Schoodic Peninsula is located across Frenchman Bay from Bar Harbor, and was originally set aside to protect the scenic views across the Bay from Mount Desert Island.   It takes a little over an hour to drive around the north end of Frenchman Bay to reach the Schoodic Peninsula, or you can take a ferry  from Bar Harbor across the Bay to the town of Winter Harbor , and then use a special Island Explorer Bus Route to travel around the Peninsula.

Up until 2002 the U.S. Navy operated a radio communications station on the Schoodic Peninsula.   The National Park Service has now repurposed this facility as the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC).  In addition to long-term research and education programs, a number of interpretive ranger programs for park visitors are held there as well.  One of the buildings houses a small touch tank, and the Ranger Program there was a big hit for the Parkasaurus family kids, who were aged 4 and 22 months at the time of our visit.  Also worth a visit is the newly-rennovated Rockefeller Hall,  which is now the welcome center for the SERC.   When the U.S. Navy was operating here, it was surely one of the most architecturally-impressive buildings on any military base in the country.

Magnificent Rockefeller Hall is the starting point for visitors to the NPS' Schoodic Education and Research Center
Magnificent Rockefeller Hall is the starting point for visitors to the NPS’ Schoodic Education and Research Center

The real joy for us on the Schoodic Peninsula, however, was enjoying the scenery of the Maine coastline  and taking an empty stretch of that coastline for ourselves to spend more time looking for sea snails and barnacles in the tidepools.   Of course, it also helped that our day on the Schoodic Peninsula also brought some of the sunniest and warmest weather of our entire trip, but the relative quiet and emptiness certainly helped the experience as well.

Finally, Acadia National Park also includes some island locations that are only accessible by boat.  The National Park includes a number of hiking trails on Isle au Haut, which is located well to the south of Mount Desert Island.  Access to Isle au Haut is by a passenger ferry from Stonington, ME, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive to the south from Bar Harbor.  Unfortunately, given its remoteness, we didn’t have an opportunity to visit Isle au Haut on this trip, so we’ll have to save a spot in our Passport Books for Isle au Haut on our next trip.

The Islesford Historical Museum tells the story of lobstering on the Cranberry Islands, right off the coast of Acadia.
The Islesford Historical Museum tells the story of lobstering on the Cranberry Islands, right off the coast of Acadia.

Also part of the park is the Islesford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry Island.   A number of boats operate from Mount Desert Island to Little Cranberry Island, including a tour guided by a National Park Service Ranger that operates out of the town of Northeast Harbor.   A visit to the Islesford Historical Museum adds a dash of history and culture to any visit to Acadia National Park, which is ordinarily dominated by the spectacular scenery.  Both Little Cranberry Island and nearby Great Cranberry Island maintain a year-round population of lobster fishermen.  The Islesford Historical Museum tells the story of lobstering on the Cranberry Islands, which is a story that I’m not sure can be found anywhere else in the National Park System.  In addition, if you take the NPS Ranger guided tour you may have the opportunity to see a seal colony, as we did, and we also get a guided tour up Somes Sound between the two lobes of Mount Desert Island.

Well, after seven days in Acadia National Park we had certainly found plenty to see and places to explore, from sunset at the top of Cadillac Mountain to the tidepools of the Schoodic Peninsula.  Even as we packed up to leave Acadia, we knew that there were still many more places to explore.   Acadia is far enough away from our home in the Mid-Atlantic that we know that we can’t easily predict when we’ll be able to come back – but whenever that trip comes, we are already looking forward to it.

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

Yes, we #FoundOurPark in Acadia.

Final Shot: Sunset from the Wonderland area.
Final Shot: Sunset from the Wonderland area.
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