One of the nation’s most beloved parks, Acadia protects a patch of coastal Maine where the north woods tumble down to meet the wild Atlantic. The first national park east of the Mississippi River sprawls across half of Mount Desert Island, with small portions on smaller islands and the mainland. For generations, it’s been the place where New Englanders escape into nature and learn to cherish the wild side of Down East.
Named after the French settlers who were expelled from Atlantic Canada by the British, Acadia is the nation’s easternmost national park and one of the first places in the United States to see the sunrise each day.
After starting life as a colonial fishing village, Bar Harbor gradually evolved into a Victorian-era getaway for the affluent, artists, and “rusticators” trying to get back to nature. Today the island town is the park’s main tourist hub, a port of call for whale-watching and sailing tours, lobster shacks, and lodging.
At low tide it’s possible to walk the Bar Island Land Bridge to a tiny portion of the national park on Bar Island. During the summer, a passenger ferry runs between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor and the park’s Schoodic Peninsula. Located near the Village Green in Bar Harbor, the Smithsonian-affiliated Abbe Museum is dedicated to the Wabanaki Alliance of Native American tribes that once lived along the Maine coast. Bar Harbor’s other great collection is the Dorr Museum of Natural History at the College of the Atlantic with its displays of Maine wildlife and touch pools of live sea creatures.
Many of the park’s major features are within easy reach of Bar Harbor, including Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the start of Acadia’s scenic Park Loop Road, a sinuous 27-mile route that includes a steep drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain. One can also hike from town (via several trails) to the 1,530-foot summit for a view that takes in much of the park and nearby islands. Located just south of town, the park’s Sieur de Monts area features the Wild Gardens of Acadia, the park’s Nature Center, and an older branch of the Abbe Museum.
After looping around Cadillac Mountain, the one-way Loop Road reaches the coast at Sand Beach. Protected by the Great Head peninsula, this is probably the best place in the park to take a dip in the ocean. The 4.7-mile stretch between Sand Beach and Hunters Head is Acadia at its best: a rugged, rock-strewn shore carved by wind and water over millions of years. The rush of water through Thunder Hole—and the roar it makes—epitomizes the forces that shaped the Acadia coast.
Loop Road curls inland to Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake, navigable by kayak, canoe, and low-horsepower motorboat. The lake area is laced with hiking trails and crushed-stone carriage roads, which were funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., between 1914 and 1940. Most of the park’s carriage roads are open to foot, bike, and horse traffic.
Much less visited than the heart of the park, the area west of Somes Sound features trails along the shore of Long Pond (1 mile) and up Bernard Mountain (3.2 miles). Down along the coast are Ship Harbor Nature Trail (1.3-mile return) and the clifftop Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.
1. Great Smoky Mountains
Ensconced at number one is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which drew more than eleven million visitors last year—about twice the number of the second most popular park. Most visitors see the park from a mountain-skimming scenic highway; many take to the more than 800 miles of hiking trails across North Carolina and Tennessee.
Reaching the park’s Isle au Haut unit requires passage on two ferries, from mainland Stonington to Town Landing (year-round) and then onward to Duck Harbor (summer only), where trails lead to secluded coves and dramatic sea cliffs. During summer, ranger-led boat tours journey to far-off Baker Island with its pioneer homes and graveyard, 1855 lighthouse, and cluster of huge natural granite slabs dubbed the “dance floor.”
Where to stay
• The Bar Harbor Grand Hotel was built as a replica of a historic inn.
• Affordably priced, the Bar Harbor Villager Motel is a short walk to the Abbe Museum and shops yet only one mile from the park entrance.
• The park includes several campgrounds (Blackwoods, Seawall, Schoodic Woods), though they tend to fill up quickly, especially in good weather. There is an option for horse camping (Wildwood Stables) and a few primitive sites on Isle au Haut via advanced registration.
• The region also offers many private campgrounds.
Off-season things to do
• Acadia is famous for its stunning fall foliage, but it is also beautiful in the winter, when it is often blanketed in white. Winter scenic drives and hiking are thus popular options.
• Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are wonderful ways to see the park in winter, and volunteers sometimes even cut trails.
• Ice fishing is another popular activity in the region.
• Snowmobiling is allowed on the 27-mile Park Loop Road system and many fire roads.
For another blast from the past, hop across the bridge to Trenton village and the Great Maine Lumberjack Show, an homage to the timber industry that once dominated much of the state. The show includes log rolling, chainsaw carving, pole climbing, and other woodsy sports. Just up the road, Scenic Flights of Acadia offers aerial views of the national park, with tours that vary from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. Trenton is also home to many “lobster pound” restaurants and the national park’s seasonal Thompson Island Information Center (May to October).
- Nat Geo Expeditions