Acadia National Park: one of my favorite places

Bubble Pond, along the carriage road

For so many reasons, Acadia National Park is special to Heidi and me. If you haven’t been, you’re missing out on one of the treasures of the National Park system and, really, of the east coast. The beauty of the park is remarkable (just look at the photo on the right!). Acadia’s real strength, though, is how accessible and easy it is to explore. The park is crisscrossed with miles of easy to ride carriage roads and easily reachable trails. It’s an easy, if long drive up to the park from New York or anywhere in New England, and has a great little town right outside the park in Bar Harbor. Whether you go for a drive on the Park Loop Road, or a hike or bike ride on the trails or carriage roads, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of water, islands, and the rugged coast of Maine.

On our most recent trip, I made time to take a long bike ride through the eastern half of the park. The carriage roads, built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as a labor of love, run through some of the most beautiful sections of the park. There are different loop combinations possible, allowing you to choose the duration and difficulty of your ride, run, or walk with ease. Some of the roads hug the lakes and ponds through the park, while others follow ridge lines or climb mountains in the park, leading to spectacular views out over all of Mount Desert Island. There are some challenging climbs, but since the roads are graded for horse-drawn carriages, there aren’t many of them. On the other hand, because of Acadia’s mountains and glacial past, there are really no flats anywhere. As one of my guide books said, the good thing is that nearly every climb is rewarded with a good view and a nice downhill after.

The route I chose covered about 33 miles, around 30 inside the park on the carriage roads (there’s a map below). While riding, I saw a number of families and groups riding around. I even saw a number of older couples (60+) making their way around the carriage roads. The western part of my loop (miles 6-13 in the map below), and the climb to the top of Day Mountain were among the quietest portions. I passed only a handful of riders and joggers. The portions closer to Jordan Pond & Eagle Lake were the busiest. If you know the park at all, that probably wasn’t surprising. I highly recommend getting away from the busy portions if you have the time. Just bring some food & a decent amount of water and give yourself enough time to take breaks and enjoy the views.

The one thing I wish I had was a guidebook for Acadia. I carried a bike map and a small guide for the roads, but concerned about weight, I left everything else except the water and my cell phone behind. After I tweeted about my ride, though, a developer based in Maine sent me a tweet about an iPhone & Android app he’d built for Acadia National Park. He offered to let me take a look for free and to offer feedback. After taking a look, I really wish I had it on the ride. The app is Chimani Acadia National Park, developed by Chimani, LLC. The app is beautifully designed and well thought out. It contains trail maps, cycling routes, sunset/sunrise info, ranger events and even an audio tour for the Park Loop Road. The app also has a schedule and route map for the free Island Explorer busses. Best of all, everything works without a network connection. Acadia may be many things, but cell phone friendly it isn’t, so this is a requirement for a park app.

Ride cheat sheet
5 right
3 left
2 left
4 right
6 right
9 right
11 right
13 right
18 left
19 right
20 left
21 left
14 right
15 left
16 left
17 left or loop day mtn
7 right
6 right
4 right
back to Bar Harbor, shop

My guide book was a little better in a few ways, though. First, the app’s maps don’t really have a turn-by-turn set of instructions for any of the routes or trails. They just indicate the starting position of a route or some portion, and list out points of interest. It would be great if they included turns at the sign posts. Every intersection on the carriage roads is numbered and is usually a three way intersection, so your choices always basically boil down to right or left. For each route, then, “directions” are a list of left & right turns. For example, the box to the right shows my cheat sheet for the ride (Note: I amended this while on the ride, so it doesn’t match the route above). It would be great if the app either listed the turns or allowed the user to create a cheat sheet like this.

That being said, it’s a great complement to a good bike map. The routes all include points of interest with some background info. For example, the carriage roads include many beautiful stone bridges throughout the parks. If I would have used this for my ride, I would’ve tweaked my route to include the Cliffside Bridge, which sounds spectacular.

Overall, the app looks solid and worth having if you’re going through the park. My only advice is not to rely on the app as your primary map when you’re hiking or biking. For one thing, the maps aren’t detailed enough. Most importantly, though, batteries don’t die on paper maps. Many of the maps you can pick up at the Visitor Center are also waterproof. For what it’s worth, I usually keep my phone inside a ziplock back when I ride in case it rains along with a little cash and one credit card.

My paper map was an awesome one that’s available at the Visitor Center. It’s the “Complete Hiking Trail & Carriage Road Map” by the Friends of Acadia. It’s $3.50 and well worth it.

Top of Day Mountain, Acadia National Park

This ride was also the first time I’ve been on any sort of mountain bike in years. I rented a nice Cannondale F4 from Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop. This was my first time renting there, but I’d be happy to do it again. You really can’t go wrong at any of the shops along Cottage St. in Bar Harbor, but they had a full bike shop attached, which was great for last minute gear I needed.

The F4 is a nice ride. While it felt super slow compared to my road bike, it was really pretty damn fun to zoom around the park without worrying as much about the gravel or rocks. I recommend staying away from road bikes on the carriage roads. I wanted the wider tires of a comfort bike or mountain bike on the gravel. I also really appreciated the hill friendly gearing on the mountain bike. I’ve been on the roads using a comfort bike and was fine, so just use your judgement. Bikes aren’t allowed on the hiking trails, so there’s no real easy opportunities to truly go trail riding, as far as I know. It was the first time I really wish I had a cross bike.

Heidi and I also went on a whale watch. This was my first time doing one. I didn’t really expect much from the trip, thinking we might be lucky if we saw even one whale. Boy, was I wrong. We saw at least 4 finback whales playing and diving. No breaches (leaps out of the water), but we saw a fin slap and a number of terminal dives where we saw the tail before it disappeared below the surface. We did a sunset whale watch, so we were treated to some beautiful views on the way home. If you’ve never been on one, highly recommended. Just remember to dress warmly. We were freezing out on the water, and when the boat really gets moving, you feel like you’re in a wind tunnel experiment about wind chill. We were both freezing, but didn’t want to take a chance we’d miss a whale sighting. Definitely, bring fall/winter layers (sweatshirt or fleece plus windbreaker or warmer jacket, etc.). It’s a great way to spend time with nature when you don’t want to be out in the park or can’t hike (say, if you’re with a pregnant wife, for example :) ) I’m really glad we went on this.

Beyond all the nature and hiking and biking, Bar Harbor and the other towns on the island have great, great restaurants. A lot of places are very vegetarian friendly, and there’s a variety of cuisines to suit whatever you might want. There are great restaurants all over, including Thai, Mexican, Greek, Italian, and lots of seafood. A lot of the restaurants use locally sourced ingredients, too. Good stuff. Some of the places we like include Guinness & Porcelli’s, Lompoc Cafe, McKay’s Public House, and a number of the pizza joints on Cottage and everything on Rodick St. There are also some great restaurants in Southwest Harbor and in some of the other towns on the island, so be sure to get out and explore!

Atlantean Inn, Bar Harbor

Finally, getting a place to stay up there can be a bit expensive during the high season. The best thing we’ve found is to rent a house for a week and try to go up with another couple or family. We’ve done this a few times now and it’s really the most cost effective way to go. You can eat in, since you have a kitchen, and make lunches for your hikes/rides/whatever. The other thing we’ve done is camped. The park has a number of campgrounds nearby and many are reasonably priced and have showers and other amenities. We’ve stayed at Smuggler’s Den Campground. They had a shower and a pool and a shop on the campgrounds for things you may have forgotten. On our most recent trip, we went a little more upscale, since it was our anniversary, and stayed at a phenomenal B&B called the Atlantean Inn. The owners were awesome, balancing the being helpful but giving us space thing perfectly. Our room was great, and the breakfasts were amazing. They cook vegetarian breakfasts, but I’d be surprised if most non-vegetarians would notice or care, the food was that good. I really loved staying there. Too bad they don’t allow kids, otherwise we’d probably plan another trip in a few years.

Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island are really great places to visit. Hopefully this has given you a taste of some of things you can do there and why I really love the place. Even with everything I’ve mentioned, there’s so much more (the only fjord on the east coast!, the first place in the U.S. to see a sunrise!).

I have a lot of good photographs up on Flickr from our recent trip, and would also suggest checking out Faith’s beautiful photo set from her recent trip. This is a gorgeous park and a rugged and beautiful part of the world. Whether you’ve been there before or not, I hope you get a chance to visit soon.