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The iconic rocky coastline and Bass Harbor Lighthouse of Acadia National Park (Photograph by John Greim, Getty Images)
TravelInsider's Guide

A Park Ranger's Guide to A Ranger’s Guide to Acadia

The first national park east of the Mississippi, Maine’s Acadia National Park comprises nearly 50,000 acres of rocky coastline on Mount Desert Island and environs. Though one of America’s smaller national parks, Acadia is one of its most visited and beloved.

This glorious patchwork of parkland, private property, and seaside villages seasonally fills with what residents call “the summer people”—visitors getting their fill of the scenic splendor and serenity that Acadia has to offer in spades.

Park Service veteran Edward Pontbriand worked as a ranger at Wind Cave and North Cascades national parks before returning to his home state of Maine to round out his career with a dozen years of service coordinating search and rescue and emergency medical services at Acadia.

Here’s a guide to this New England crown jewel written by one of the people who knows and loves it best.

Acadia Is My National Park

October is the best time to visit my park because there are fewer crowds, no bugs, and fall foliage is stunning.

My park’s biggest attraction is the scenic vistas along an unspoiled coastline, but a visit isn’t complete without seeing sunrise from Cadillac Mountain.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to use the Island Explorer shuttle service to alleviate traffic congestion and help the environment.

My favorite “park secret” is being here in the wintertime and being able to ski on the historic Amphitheatre Bridge carriage road.

Watch out for summer traffic congestion and parking issues, and be sure to bring patience when you come to the park.

If you want to see wildlife, you should head just outside park boundaries for a boat cruise in Frenchman Bay. While we do have wildlife in Acadia, seeing seals sunning themselves on the rocky shoals of the Atlantic is a wonderful sight. Any cruise in Frenchman Bay will do—and if you time it at low tide, you’ll see plenty. The park only has land (including islands) ownership and does not own any parts or tacks of ocean. Sometimes you can see seals sunning themselves on “haul out” rocks (via binoculars) while you’re walking in the park, but the best places are accessible by boat on islands that are owned by the park.

For the best view, drive up Cadillac Mountain. 

Cadillac South Ridge is the best trail in the park and Park Loop Road—especially the seaside portion (what we call Ocean Drive) that starts at Sand Beach and extends past Otter Coveis the most scenic drive. Ocean Path, a hiking trail, borders Ocean Drive, so, really, you can drive it, walk it, or take the free Islander Explorer bus, which can drop you off at trails, Sand Beach, or Thunder Hole—all parts of the Loop Road.

If you’re up for an adventure/physical challenge, try the ladder rungs on the Precipice Trail.

To experience the park’s cultural side, visit the Abbe Museum at the Sieur de Monts Spring.

Seawall Campground is the best place to stay while you’re visiting and Jordan Pond House is the best place to eat

If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to hit the Park Loop Road (which will give you incredible views of the rugged Maine coast) and Cadillac Mountain.

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend the wide number of ranger-led programs offered at the park. My favorites are the fall hawk migration program on Cadillac Summit and the night sky program at Sand Beach. There is also the Acadia Night Sky Festival in the late summer or early fall. If the park gets a clear night, we close off Cadillac Summit and make it into a celestial laboratory that’s open to the public.

The most peaceful place in the park has to be Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut.

Acadia’s rail crew are the unsung heroes of my park because of the incredible job they do on trails and carriage roads.

Cadillac Mountain being the first place in America to see the rising sun (at least for part of the year) could only happen in my park.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss exploring the tide pools. Acadia experiences a 12-foot tide differential throughout the day and there are many places where you can discover what the tide left behind, including crabs, starfish, and many varieties of shellfish. My favorite spots include the Ship Harbor Nature Trail and the Seawall picnic area. Visitors can enroll in a program called the tide pool school and, if they’re on the adventurous side, can even walk to Bar Island during low tide.

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit several island fishing villages that embody the true flavor of the Maine Coast. In Bar Harbor, you’ll find lots of choices for hotels and restaurants—along with crowded streets, congested stores, and, when the cruise ships are in port, long lines. To get off the beaten path, check the small fishing villages. They don’t have the choices of a Bar Harbor, but they have a special flavor all their own. It will take some homework to find them, but it’s worth it. I recommend Winter Harbor, Corea, Islesford, the Cranberry Isles, and Isle au Haut.

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Feeling adventurous? Climb ledges at 1,058 feet above sea level on the rugged Precipice Trail. (Photograph by Mark Daffey, Getty Images)

If my park had a mascot it would be a peregrine falcon. Theirs is a remarkable species recovery story and Acadia is deeply embedded in that story. The peregrine nesting site at Champlain Mount on Precipice Cliffs is one of the older site locations for wild peregrines on the East Coast. The park sponsors a ranger-led program at the site, where a spotting scope is set up so visitors can see into the nest.

The biggest threat to this park’s future is climate change and overcrowding.

The world should heart my park because there is an incredible amount of recreational opportunities for visitors. For those who hike and bike, there are the historic hiking trails and carriage roads. For ocean lovers, there are sea-kayaking tours, whale watches, and visits to the surrounding islands. For those who love to slow down, there is the scenic loop road and the horse-drawn carriage rides from Wildwood Stables. And for those who love fresh seafood, there is a plethora of restaurants. Acadia’s unique beauty and tranquil environment is what keeps me here and what draws millions of visitors each year.

> Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources:

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