Acadia National Park Travel Guide

In early June the sun starts to rise over Mount Desert Island, Maine at 4:15 am. By 5, morning rays stream beyond the highest elevation on the American shoreline — Cadillac Mountain — and Acadia National Park is bathed in sunlight.

Here, intentions of waking up early for coffee and a daybreak hike manifest all on their own as your body corrects course to its natural surroundings: early birds darting through the forest, deep waters whipped up by a lively morning wind, brisk air and endless trails to explore.

Whether you’re looking for a full week of adventure or a quick weekend away in the woods, Acadia is a surreal place to find yourself from late May to early June, before temperatures and seasonal crowds swell for the summer months.

About Acadia National Park

Initially known as Sieur de Monts National Monument, Acadia spans nearly 50,000 acres across Mount Desert Island. As the oldest designated national park east of the Mississippi and only national park in New England, the area presents a storybook experience that pairs a remarkably rich history with old-growth forests fostering a diversity of plants and wildlife.

Four centuries after Samuel de Champlain first sailed past the island — and its original inhabitants, the Wabanaki people — and 101 years after attaining federal conservation status, the flora and fauna of Acadia remains essentially unchanged today.

What to do

The Acadia National Park Service offers extensive programming that ranges from historical, cultural, and wildlife walks to island cruises, seaside stargazing, and guided hiking and biking expeditions.

There’s also plenty to do and see at your own pace:

Hike the Jordan Pond loop and have a hot popover. A gentle 3.3-mile loop hugs the edges of this glacier-formed tarn, whose pristine contents provide drinking water for many of Mount Desert’s residents. Walking counter-clockwise from the trailhead, a flat path winds its way past little coves of seabirds and nurseries of frog eggs resting in adjacent Bubble Pond before working up to a final hopscotch set of wooden planks atop granite boulders. Watch your step here — rocky outcroppings can be home to the occasional shy, sunbathing snake.

The Jordan Pond trail loop ends at the 1890s-established Jordan Pond House Restaurant, famous for piping hot popovers — “Yorkshire Pudding for Americans” as one English gentleman there for tea-time put it — as well as its bucolic view of The Bubbles, a duo of peaks rising just beyond the far water’s edge. Grab a seat on the patio or deck and enjoy a seasonal ale, fresh lobster roll, and farmers market veggie soup while you rest up and take in the view.

Find some quiet time at Echo Lake and scramble up Beech Cliff Trail. Sit a spell on the peaceful southwest shore of Echo Lake, dip your toes in the water, then put on your hiking boots for a breathtaking trek to take it all in from the top. A storied iron rung route, Beech Cliff Trail rises a dramatic 480 feet in elevation over 0.8 of a mile through rocky trails and a network of four iron ladders.

Beech Cliff’s 839-foot summit peers out over Echo Lake to the east and the Cranberry Isles to the south. After enjoying a panoramic respite from your heart-pumping journey up (and perhaps yelling an “Echo!” or two), loop back using the connecting 1-mile Canada Cliffs Trail, or simply retrace your steps to descend.

Overlook the ocean from the summit of Cadillac Mountain. During the fall and winter months, Cadillac Mountain marks the first piece of soil in the United States that the sun touches each morning. In the summer, you’ll still need to wake up in the middle of the night to reach the peak before dawn.

Hike from the bottom via the Cadillac South Ridge or North Ridge Trail, bike using the steep summit road, drive, or take a free ride directly to the top and wander the 0.3-mile Cadillac Summit Loop Trail for 1,530-feet high panoramic views of Frenchman Bay, Porcupine Islands, Bar Harbor, and beyond.

Try a lobster, fresh from the sea. From either Echo Lake or the base of Cadillac Mountain, it’s worth the 10-mile drive north to Trenton to try roadside Rose Eden Lobster, where $20 will get you a made-to-order no-frills full lobster, handful of mussels, and one buttered ear of corn from a nearby farm.

Get to know an ecosystem in The Wild Gardens of Acadia. Tucked in beside a brook at the Sieur de Monts Nature Center, the volunteer-run Wild Gardens are located just south of downtown Bar Harbor. Here you’ll find Sieur de Monts Spring, the Abbe Museum, and free admission to learn about more than 400 plant species native to Acadia. There’s also an exhibit that illustrates striking local effects of climate change to date, as well as what you can personally do to minimize further negative impacts both around the Park and in your everyday life.

Dip a toe in the water at Sand Beach. After visiting Sieur de Monts Nature Center, head a few miles southeast to brave frigid waters at Sand Beach, one of Acadia’s only soft sandy beaches and starting point to the short Ocean Path trail.

Drive out to Seal Cove and Bass Harbor Head Light. From Sieur de Monts, a park ranger recommended we head south before sunset to see Seal Cove, where local lobster fishers dock their daily deliveries, as well as the nearby lighthouse at Bass Harbor. Swing by each for peaceful, pretty views along the water’s edge and have a quick sun-downer on the rocks before heading to dinner in Southwest Harbor (nearby off-the-beaten-path, sublime dining awaits at Rogue Cafe and XYZ).

How to get there — and around town

After taking the Amtrak Downeaster up to Portland, Maine, we rented a compact car and made an afternoon of driving up to Acadia, stopping by Allagash Brewery, the giant Bean boot, Edgecomb Potters, and Belfast along the way.

Hiking and biking are two of a few ways to explore the Park, Bar Harbor, and beyond. Horseback riding, sea kayaking, boating, and guided tours and nature walks await along with the free Island Explorer shuttle network, an L.L. Bean-supported, propane-powered bus route that totes visitors to lodging, trails, beaches, shops, and restaurants from late May through early October.

Coming home we opted to drop the rental car off at Augusta State Airport and hop a six-seater puddle jumper down to our connecting flight in Boston. Our booking with JetBlue automatically placed us on the Nantucket Airlines-operated route, and winging our way down the coast via Cessna was one unexpected highlight of the trip. Cape Air is another local airline that offers daily connections between Boston and Bar Harbor.

Where to stay

Hotels in and around Acadia can become quite expensive and difficult to book as quieter months give way to summer’s high season. Bed and breakfasts typically offer more economical lodging options but also tend to fill up quickly as vacation season kicks off. A growing number of roadside tiny house motels are an adorably novel solution to this, as are cabins, cottages, and camping.

Accommodations grow more affordable as you depart downtown Bar Harbor. Through Airbnb we rented an entire home in sunny Southwest Harbor for the same nightly rate as many nearby hotels. Built in the early 1900s and lovingly restored by its owners — two artists building a tiny house in their backyard — our accommodations felt just like home and came complete with a friendly neighbor, extensive record collection, library of great books, French press, claw-foot soaking tub, and 1926 baby grand piano named “Steiny.”

What to wear

Maine’s coastline is notorious for its mercurial weather patterns. Overcast mornings burn off into hot afternoons just as often as cloudless skies go dark, sweeping storms in from the Atlantic and leaving Acadia sopping wet.

Whatever time of year you visit, pack lots of layers and prepare for those unexpected weather patterns. In spring and early summer rain gear is essential, as are sunglasses and a hat. Wear comfortable shoes with great arch and ankle support.

Keep sunburn, ticks, and no-see-ums at bay by dressing in light colors and pairing lightweight long-sleeve shirts with pants or leggings tucked into camp socks. Top it off with a hat, scarf, or bandana.

What I wore on this trip:

Size, fit, shopping standards, and everything else that’s in my closet right here.

On my other blog: Why I only travel with a carry-on, a packing light formula, and a printable packing list.

PS: A photographer’s favorite Acadia hiking trails, NPS trip planning resources, Acadia National Park Pass information, Google’s extensive Acadia travel guide, and a few free Acadia trail and regional maps (downloadable PDFs).