Acadia National Park: The Complete Guide

Gorham Mountain in Acadia National Park
Image by Michael Rickard / Getty Images
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Acadia National Park

Address
Maine, USA
Phone +1 207-288-3338

Whether you're a U.S. national parks fan looking to "collect" the best of the best or an outdoor enthusiast bound for Maine, Acadia National Park should rank high on your list of must-visit destinations. Located on the DownEast Maine coast, where the mountains meet the sea, Acadia was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Christened Lafayette National Park in 1919 and renamed Acadia a decade later, it holds claim to another precedent-setting first: This natural paradise of pink granite and shimmering water, of pine forests, fields, and sandy beach, was given to the people by private landowners who wanted the vistas and experiences they loved to be preserved by the national park service.

So, when you're biking, driving, hiking, climbing, or splashing in the cold ocean waters that surround Mount Desert (pronounced "dessert") Island, where most of the park's 47,000 acres are located, you have the Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Astors, Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, and others to thank for relinquishing what was once their summer playground. July and August are still the most popular months for a visit to one of the top national parks in New England, but Acadia enchants in each of Maine's four distinct seasons.

This guide to Acadia National Park highlights, with tips on where to camp or stay and on making the most of your time, only hints at the wonders you'll find if you visit and revisit Acadia throughout your lifetime.

Things To Do

Join the early sunrise watchers atop Cadillac Mountain, one of the first spots in the U.S. to greet the sun each day. Dip your toes in the cold Atlantic at Sand Beach. Rumble along John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s broken-stone carriage roads in a horse-drawn wagon. Enjoy afternoon tea and jam-slathered popovers at the Jordan Pond House. See golden light speckled across Otter Cliffs at sunset. Many of Acadia National Park's scenes and experiences are iconic: the stuff of calendar images, New England guidebook covers, and long-lasting family memories.

Some visitors, particularly those who have merely a few hours during a cruise ship layover in Bar Harbor, content themselves with seeing some of the park's visual highlights along the Park Loop Road. You can catch the free Island Explorer bus, which travels this route or drive your own vehicle, stopping at scenic spots like Thunder Hole and Jordan Pond. An offshoot road leads to the summit of Cadillac Mountain.

For those with the time, energy, and enthusiasm for outdoor adventures, so much more awaits: hiking and climbing, road and mountain biking, birdwatching and wildlife viewing, swimming, fishing, kayaking, stargazing, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. Be sure to check the busy schedule of ranger-led programs offered mid-May through Mid-October.

Otter Cliff at sunrise in Acadia National Park, USA
Dermot Conlan / Getty Images

Best Hikes & Trails

Hiking is so abundant in Acadia National Park that entire books exist on the subject. There are 150 miles of identified trails within the park, so whether you're up for a casual stroll or a challenging climb, you'll find options at the extremes and everywhere in between.

For beginner-level hikers, some of the best bets include Ocean Path, a coastal hike that stretches two miles from the Sand Beach parking lot to the Otter Point parking lot; the 1.4-mile Wonderland Trail, which leads through pine forest to the rocky coast in Southwest Harbor; and the 3.4-mile Jordan Pond Loop Trail.

The most classic challenge for serious hikers is the ascent of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain via either the strenuous North Ridge Trail or the longer South Ridge Trail, which affords spectacular views of the swirling Atlantic. You'll be able to say you climbed to the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard. The routes up Cadillac are two of the 24 summit hikes in the park.

If you want your hike to be infinitely Instagrammable, embark on a moderate. 0.7-mile hike from the Bubbles Divide Trailhead parking lot on the Park Loop Road to the summit of South Bubble, where you'll find Bubble Rock. Hikers love posing with this enormous, white-granite boulder as if they are pushing it off the mountain. It may look precarious, but it's been in this spot since it was left here by receding Ice Age glaciers.

Equestrian Activities

One of Acadia's unique assets is a network of stone bridges and 45 miles of carriage roads. A pet project of John D. Rockefeller Jr., these scenic, car-free backroads are maintained by the national park service for recreational use by hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, and sightseers who board horse-drawn carriages at Wildwood Stables within the park. Book your excursion with Carriages of Acadia, and experience Acadia at yesteryear speed. You may also board your own horse here and explore these historic roads on horseback.

Horse-drawn Wagon Tour in Acadia National Park
Neil Rabinowitz / Getty Images

Biking

Acadia's crushed-stone carriage roads and the paved Park Loop Road are the most popular biking options within the park. Note that Class 2 and 3 e-bikes are prohibited.

Paddling and Boating

Several paddling outfitters rent canoes and kayaks and offer tours in and near Acadia National Park, including National Park Sea Kayak Tours, National Park Canoe & Kayak Rentals, and Coastal Kayaking Tours. There are also many saltwater launches, lakes, and ponds open to those with private boats. If you want to see park sights from the water effortlessly, book passage aboard one of Acadian Boat Tours' nature cruises, departing from the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel in Bar Harbor.

Couple kayaking on Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park, Maine, USA
Jerry Monkman / Aurora Photos / Getty Images

Where to Camp

Within the boundaries of Acadia National Park, there are four camping options for visitors. The most popular are the two seasonal campgrounds on Mount Desert Island: Blackwoods Campground and Seawall Campground. Both have some campsites that can accommodate RVs, but they primarily play host to tent campers. An additional campground on the Schoodic Peninsula, Schoodic Woods Campground, has a variety of sites and more amenities for RVers including sites with electric and water hookups. There are also five lean-to shelters on Isle au Haut​ for campers.

Outside the park but close to all of the wonders of Acadia, there are many more campgrounds and cottage resorts, including top-rated properties like Hadley's Point Campground and the oceanfront, dog-friendly Tide Watch Cabins.

New and increasingly trendy are the seasonal glamping options available near Acadia, including Terramor Outdoor Resort and Under Canvas Acadia.

Where to Stay Nearby

With so many things to do in Bar Harbor, this town that shares Mount Desert Island with Acadia National Park is most travelers' go-to place for accommodations. Most of the best hotels and inns near Acadia National Park are here, including luxurious oceanfront properties like Balance Rock Inn and Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina

If you want to stay a bit away from the bustle of Bar Harbor, consider The Claremont in Southwest Harbor: a historic hotel that reopened in 2021 as a luxuriously reimagined hideaway complete with pool cabanas, a sweet shop and bakery, and two on-site restaurants.

How to Get There

While a car certainly offers maximum flexibility, allowing you to explore beyond Acadia and find your way to quintessential Maine places like Thurston's Lobster Pound, Acadia National Park is a rare New England destination that can be accessed via public transportation. If you're traveling from Portland, Maine, you can reach Bar Harbor via a bus or plane. There are even more flight options to Hancock County Bar Harbor Airport (BHB) from Boston. During peak season, the free Island Explorer bus connects many points on Mount Desert Island to Acadia National Park. While service to the airport is suspended in 2021, it is expected to resume in 2022. Island Explorer's Car-Free Travel Guide is a useful resource for anyone who hopes to utilize public transportation to experience Acadia.

Accessibility

Acadia National Park's Accessibility Guide provides thorough information about constantly expanding efforts to make the park accessible for all visitors. This includes providing ADA campsites and wheelchair-accessible restrooms and facilities at the park's three main campgrounds. Note that 31 steps make Sand Beach inaccessible to wheelchair users. With advance request, an ASL interpreter may be provided for ranger-led programs. Assistive listening devices may also be reserved. Audio tours are available for purchase at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center.

Free Island Explorer shuttles are ADA compliant and equipped with wheelchair lifts. However, they are unable to accommodate some specialized mobility devices. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • While a park entrance pass is required from May through October, admission to Acadia National Park is free in the off-season. Passes may be purchased online and printed before your visit. As of 2021, vehicle reservations are required if you plan to drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain.
  • Before you go, download the two official Acadia National Park apps to your phone or tablet.
  • Cell phone service is very limited in the park, so you may want to switch your phone to airplane mode to minimize battery drain.
  • Acadia National Park is extremely pet-friendly, with leashed dogs allowed on 100 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of carriage roads, as well as at the park's three main campgrounds. Be mindful of these best practices and restrictions if you plan to bring your pet.
  • Drones are prohibited in Acadia National Park.
  • Even if you're not a morning person, make a point of waking early to view a sunrise from the summit of Cadillac Mountain. You won't regret it.
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Maine's Stunning Acadia National Park Offers Adventures for All