Our visit to Acadia National Park as part of my birthday road trip along the East Coast was one of the best visits to a National Park I’ve ever experienced. I’d never seen anything like Acadia National Park’s stunning rocky shorelines, and I was blown away by the breathtaking sunsets, and sunrises, fantastic hiking trails, sandy beaches resplendent with tide pools, seashells, and beautiful sea birds, a botanical garden, and dozens of gorgeous stop off areas. We visited before the busy tourism season began, as the lupines started to fill the meadows and capture some of the area’s natural beauty to share with you in this guide. That’s why I’m overjoyed to share this incredible national park with you today! I hope this inspires you to visit one of the United State’s most beautiful destinations and see its immeasurable natural beauty for yourself one day soon.
About Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park, established in 1929, is one of the most beautiful national parks in the nation. This 47,000-acre nature sanctuary has more than 155 miles of marked hiking paths, 45 miles of drivable roadways, and is the fifth smallest National Park in the nation, but one of the 10 most popular to visit, receiving around 3 million visitors annually. Mount Desert Island, which is the island upon which Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, Maine sit, is the largest island in Maine and the second largest island off the East Coast, just behind Long Island, New York.
Visitors of Acadia National Park can hike, bike, walk, run, swim, and drive around different areas of the park. Check out the activities we did, listed below, to get a better idea of where to find each activity. There are also numerous, incredible landmarks like the loud coastal inlet called Thunder Hole where crashing waves during high tide make an incredible sound complete with high splashing waves, the Bubbles at Jordan Pond, small twin mountain peaks which can be hiked in about 2-3 hours, or Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, the summit of which is also the very first place the sunrise can be seen in the United States from October to March.
How to Reach Acadia National Park
We drove from Connecticut to Maine, which was such a fun road trip for us, and very easy to access via the highways. If you don’t live close enough to fly in, I recommend flying into either the small airport in Bar Harbor’s neighboring city of Trenton, called Hancock County–Bar Harbor Airport. If you’d prefer to fly into a bigger city first and renting a car to drive around, I recommend flying into Bangor International Airport in Bangor, Maine, which is just over an hour’s drive away from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.
When to Visit Acadia National Park
I highly recommend visiting in the shoulder season, before the massive summer crowds. Friends who visited in the summer said parking was almost totally unavailable, hiking trails were crowded, and it was difficult to see some of the landmarks because of the crowds.
With this in mind, I’d recommend visiting from March to early June, or after Labor Day. We visited the first weekend in June and the crowds still weren’t bad at all, but we still had a bit of trouble finding parking, because there’s very little parking to begin with. Plus, visiting in early June meant the gorgeous Lupines were in bloom, the weather was perfect for hiking, and the days were long enough to maximize our time outside.
What to Do at Acadia National Park
We spent an entire long weekend exploring Acadia National Park, but we could have easily spent a month here and still not hiked all of the hikes, swam in all of the swimming spots, and seen all of the best sunrises and sunsets on the East Coast. Here are a few of the things we did on our first visit, along with some of the things that are at the top of our list to do on our next visit.
*Drive Acadia Park Loop
This 27-mile long drive is the main scenic drive around Mount Desert Island. I recommend making a reservation to drive up Cadillac Mountain for the sunrise, hiking around the summit of the mountain, checking out the gift shop at the top of the mountain (I’ll explain more about these spots soon), and then driving the scenic loop at least once to get a lay of the land, orient yourself, and prioritize the other spots on this list. This loop takes visitors past rocky shorelines, through meadows, alongside rivers and lakes, past fields full of colorful lupine in the springtime, as well as a multitude of stop-offs, trailheads, and more.
Cadillac Mountain Sunrise & Eco Store
From May 26th until October 19th this year, reservations are required for each vehicle driven up Cadillac Mountain. This ensures that there will be enough parking for the vehicles there, and it reduces the sizes of crowds. Watching the sunrise here is one of the most incredible experiences we’ve ever had. Plus as I mentioned above, from October to March, where the sun rises at just the right angle and this area is open, the top of Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the United States the sunrise is visible in the morning. The summit is closed from December 1st to mid-April each year for safety reasons, so there’s only a small time frame, from October until the last day of November, that it’s possible to see the first sunrise in the United States here. There is very little cell reception atop the mountain, and no wifi available anywhere nearby, so ask for a map at the base of the mountain. I have AT&T service and I was able to use my phone throughout most of the park, but my husband’s Verizon phone didn’t work at all.
Reserve your timeslot to visit Cadillac Mountain, here.
The Gift Shop Eco Store, where visitors can buy Acadia National Park park passes and parking permits, sells a variety of souvenirs, clothing, and light snacks, and water for visitors. It’s just behind the parking lot atop Cadillac Mountain, and it also has the only restrooms on Cadillac Mountain and a sitting area. The shirts, hats, and other wearable items here are made from recycled organic textiles, making them low waste, and much of their other souvenirs are handmade with reclaimed materials like shells, glass, wood, and other sustainable materials.
This small inlet by the sea was naturally carved out by erosion after millennia of waves crashing against the shoreline. Today, there’s a platform that allows visitors to walk down along the see, right next to Thunder Hole on calm days. On stormy days, however, the waves are much higher and rougher, which is when visitors can really hear the “thunder” in the Thunder Hole. The strong crashing of the waves against the rock, forced upwards by the small shape of the inlet causes a monstrous thunder-clap-like noise, hence its name! To the right of the Thunder Hole is Otter Cliff and to the left of this landmark is Sand Beach.
Bass Harbor Head Light Station
Climb the rocks at Bass Harbor Head Light Station to admire Acadia National Park’s only lighthouse, which was automated in 1974 and no longer needs an actual person to live there and run it. This iconic lighthouse’s light is visible up to nearly 15 miles out at sea, depending upon the weather conditions. The stairway that overlooks the ocean on the way down to the brilliant orange-red rocks offers beautiful views of the water as well. Use caution when climbing the rocks, as there are no handrails, and the rocks can be very slippery when wet.
Hiking The Bubbles
This hike is relatively short, at 1.5 miles to North Bubble, South Bubble, and Bubble Rock. Starting at the parking lot, follow signs for Bubbles Trail to North Bubble, and follow the paths that run near Jordan Pond.
Hike the Perimeter of Lake Jordan, the deepest lake on Mount Desert Island at 150′ (46m) deep. Jordan Pond is also the clearest body of water in the state of Maine. Swimming is not allowed in this body of water, but non-motorized boats like canoes and kayaks are allowed. The Bubbles, mentioned above, are visible from Jordan Pond, as shown below, and both of these activities can be done at the same time.
This 265m long (870′) long sandy beach is a great spot to have a beachfront picnic, swim, walk, or admire unique seashells. This beach also has changing rooms, restrooms, and a large parking lot accessible by the Park Loop Road, making it a popular stop-off. We arrived early in the morning after sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain, and there were only 3-4 other people along the beach. Behind the beach are gorgeous sand dunes where climbing is not allowed, and in the distance, The Beehive Trail is visible behind the sand dunes. If you’re looking to relax on a sandy beach, cool off in the ocean, or admire the rocky coastline, this is an excellent spot to do so.
*Wild Gardens of Acadia, Sieur de Monts Spring & Hiking Trail
Maintained by volunteers, this beautiful botanical garden showcases the native flora (and the occasional fauna too) in various ecosystems throughout the parks. This was wonderful because it taught us the names of grasses, flowers, trees, and plants we weren’t familiar with, grouped by ecosystem like meadows, brookside, ponds, beach, and they even have a display garden featuring native plants that grow along the road in Acadia National Park in their “roadside” section. This showed us the abundant variety and natural beauty throughout the park in an aesthetically pleasing and educational way. Read more about the Wild Gardens of Acadia, and the native plants, flowers, and trees within Acadia National Park, here.
Near the gardens is Sieur de Monts Spring, which was named after a French colonizer who had authority over present-day Acadia National Park in the mid-1600s. This spring of course, provided water for their expedition purposes, and later was where those who helped eventually establish the national park in an effort to preserve it enjoyed spending their time.
There’s also a boardwalk hiking trail behind the gardens, which loops back about a mile through the wetlands and forest.
Getting Around Acadia National Park
Shuttle buses run from June 23rd to October 11th, 2021, which take passengers along several different routes throughout the park. See the shuttle timetables here. The activities above that are serviced by the shuttle are denoted with an asterisk (*). We drove from Connecticut to Acadia National Park, so we drove around the National Parks as well, and either hiked or drove to each spot we wanted to see. Again, parking can be very limited inside the National Park, so if you can take the shuttles, that’s ideal, otherwise, be prepared to park and walk to each spot you’d like to visit.
Admire Fields of Lupine and Other Wildflowers
During our visit in early June, purple, pink, blue, and white lupine-covered meadows, and some roadsides. I’d never seen so many lupines in person before, and it was truly magical. I spent probably 30-45 minutes admiring and photographing the lupine around the park, particularly in the meadow where I took these photos. If you’re a flower enthusiast as I am, late spring is the perfect time to visit to see an abundance of lupine and other gorgeous wildflowers. Just remember, picking wildflowers is prohibited.
Where to Stay Near Acadia National Park
We stayed in nearby Bar Harbor, Maine, and drove into the National Park, which was about a 5-minute drive each way every day. There are numerous lovely hotels and inns in Bar Harbor, like Ivy Manor Inn, Bar Harbor Inn, Harborside Hotel, Spa, and Marina, and the Balance Rock Inn. I recommend booking at least a month or two in advance of your visit for the busy season, and things fill up quite quickly.
Above: Balance Rock Inn in Bar Harbor, Maine Below: View of Atlantic Ocean and nearby island from Balance Rock Inn
Staying Safe at Acadia National Park
There were signs all over the park to watch out for ticks that are becoming more common in the area. During our time at Acadia National Park, and throughout our hiking adventures, we never once found one on our bodies or our clothing. I recommend wearing tall socks and sturdy shoes, light-colored clothing, and doing frequent tick checks (once per hour or so) while hiking in heavy tick areas, and a full body check upon returning home. The good news is that ticks that carry Lyme disease aren’t very common, and ticks must be attached for around 72 hours or more to fully transmit Lyme disease, so by being careful, staying on marked paths and out of tall grassy areas, and being aware of any unwanted hitchhikers, you’ll stay safe.
When hiking, follow posted rules and do not climb in unstable or unsafe areas, which are generally marked as such, and follow marked pathways. We saw people free climbing along uneven, sheer cliffs that could have resulted in serious injury or death if they’d fallen, so be aware that the waters around the cliff are not meant for cliff diving, swimming, or climbing. Along the same lines, be careful when standing at the edge of cliffs along the sea, as they have unstable edges and lead to very sharp drops into rocky waters. When taking photos, stay a few paces away from the edge if you’re concerned about staying safe and preventing accidental slips or falls.
Be aware of changing tides when hiking certain trails along the sea that are exposed during low tide and submerged during high tide. The park ranger we spoke with told us that every year at least one or two people hike these prohibited paths at low tide, get stranded, and thrown against the rocks during high tide, which is tragically fatal.
We never hiked anywhere that felt unsafe or made us nervous, because we stayed on marked paths, and took in the many incredible sights within Acadia National Park. If you do the same, you’ll have an excellent, and safe visit.