Adventures in Acadia National Park

This is the first in our series on exploring America’s national parks.

Acadia National Park is one of this country’s most beautiful parks. Encompassing more than 47,000 acres along the Atlantic coast, the park is an all-weather destination for more than 2 million visitors each year.

Our decision to explore Acadia came in May, 2016, when I was at the very beginning of my treatment for the arthralgia and myalgia that had dominated my life for the preceding 8 months. We needed a vacation, and I was casually searching images of beautiful mountains and oceans when I came across one of Acadia.

After a few minutes pouring over images and descriptions, I called Jeff over and said, “I want to go here this summer.” Now remember, I could barely walk to the end of my driveway without a break. Clearly, I was out of my mind to propose a hiking trip to the East coast. But Jeff, in that typical way he has, looked at the pictures, looked at me, ran his hand through his hair, and said, “Well, okay.” He didn’t quite roll his eyes, but he did that head-tilt-brow-lift thing that people do when they think you’ve lost your mind.

The story of how I got my body ready for such a trip is one for another post. The point of this one is that we packed up the car our mountain bikes and hiking gear and hit Acadia in July.

With so many places to stay and so much to do in Acadia and Mount Desert Island, it can be hard to decide exactly where to start. Here are our tips:

Where to stay?

Bar Harbor has a ton of great hotels, motels and B&Bs. A lot of them are pretty expensive, though. In July, rates generally run from $250 on up. We were not looking for a Bar Harbor experience, however. We didn’t want to spend that much on a room we wouldn’t spend much time in, and we needed one that was hiker friendly.

We found what we were looking for at the Highbrook Motel. If you remember the AAA motels from the 1970s, you have the general image. But the Highbrook has been upgraded inside and out. And with a rate that hovers right around the $200 mark in season, the Highbrook was perfect for us. We stayed in a mini-suite, giving us a separate dining/sitting area as well as a mini-kitchen. There was enough room to store both our bikes and our cooler without developing claustrophobia. Jeff and I could also find a little separate space to unwind after spending an entire day together.

Where to hike?

Map of Acadia’s Carriage Roads

Before you start hiking, you need a map. There are over 158 miles of hiking trails and, although they are well-marked, it is easy to end up on a different trail than the one you planned. There are excellent hard copy maps such as this waterproof one. Most of the time, we grab a hard copy map when we pass through the park entrance, just to give us an overall picture of where we are.

For trail navigation, though, we generally prefer the AllTrails app. The app gives you access to over 75,000 trails, with reviews from actual human beings who range from the physically challenged to hard-core go getters.

The basic app is free and works great for the average hiker. Once we started heading into parts unknown, we did spring for the Pro version, which runs $30/year. Well worth it to download maps ahead of time when you know you’re going to have limited GPS, and to keep track of where you’ve been.

We’ve also used the app to mark trails suggested to us by other hikers we’ve met in our travels. Our memories may be sketchy, but AllTrails is forever!

At the trailhead!

Anyway, our first hike was the Gorham Mountain Trail. With a 525ft summit and a moderate rating, it was a little tricky for our first hike, but not enough to kill us! The views, as with anywhere in Acadia, were gorgeous.

If you are up for a challenge, check out the Beehive Trail. Don’t let the warning sign scare you off. Caution rules, but this is totally doable.

Despite it’s difficult rating, and despite the fact that you will find yourself clinging to iron rungs and bars as you make your way up a cliff face to the summit at 520ft, a 450ft elevation gain, you will regret not giving it a shot. Beehive is one of two ‘technical’ trails in the park. The other, Precipice Trail, is closed during the summer months to protect peregrine falcon nesting areas.

Beehive Summit view of The Bowl

Guides suggest that Beehive can be an out and back trail, but we did not see any hikers attempting a return descent. Rather, most completed the loop, adding on a side trip to the lake in The Bowl for a quick dip in the water.

Where to bike?

This entire area is bike friendly. In fact, the free Island Explorer shuttles that run throughout Bar Harbor to the park have bike racks on the front. Super easy to find your route and schedule, toss your bike on the rack and head off for a day of adventure.

The hiking trails in Acadia are off limits to bikes. But there are tons of options from easy to this-might-just-kill-me. The Carriage roads are super popular, trailing along beautiful woodlands, peaceful ponds and stunning overlooks. The Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake bike paths are rated as easy, but I did find them a little challenging given my fitness at the time. 

Where to eat?

Great stop for a cool treat!

Anywhere we go, my priority is ice cream, and Jordan Pond Ice Cream and Fudge met my super high standards. Yes, the shop is set in tourist central – Bar Harbor’s downtown. At times, lines are out the door. Time your stop for mid-afternoon or right after an early dinner and you’ll have a shorter wait time.

Breakfast is probably our favorite meal of the day. As pre-activity fuel, breakfast was a non-issue, as the Hillbrook provided a basic breakfast we could take to go – egg sandwiches, oatmeal, hard boiled eggs, coffee, etc. – as part of our room.

However, man cannot live on grab-and-go alone. We did search out a more unique breakfast opportunity on our last morning. For a breakfast that is anything but typical, you can’t go wrong with 2 Cats Restaurant on Cottage Street.

For more than 20 years, 2 Cats has been serving up everything from a sticky bun/biscuit pastry known as ‘Cat Paws’ to lobster eggs Benedict. Breakfast will run you around $15 a person if you go all out, but pastries and bagels will get you out the door for less. We don’t see the point of that in a place like this, though. There are dozens of good bagel options out there. Why waste an opportunity to try something new? I mean, you’re there.

We don’t have any lunch suggestions for you, as lunch was generally trail mix and granola while we were on the go. On a side note, if you are engaging in this level of activity, trail mix is not enough to fuel your body. Invest in some protein bars. Our favorites are Fortifx chocolate pretzel or Quest bars. They are protein-packed to keep you full, and they travel really well.

Dinner is always more complicated for us. When we travel, we generally don’t like to spend money on fancy dinners, preferring to spend the big bucks on doing rather than eating. Give us a rotisserie chicken and salad from a local grocery, and we’re happy. 

But to be in Maine and not eat lobster seems almost a crime, right? With that in mind, we did check out two different restaurants while we were in Bar Harbor. 

If you are searching for lobster, you’ll probably notice a number of restaurant names that include the phrase ‘lobster pound’. A ‘pound’ is traditionally a holding tank in the harbor, where water from the harbor flows through and among the lobsters being held there. The design is meant to keep lobsters not just alive, but fresh for sale. The term seems pretty unique to Mount Desert Island and the Bar Harbor area, so let us know if you see it anywhere else in your travels!

Our first foray was to Stewman’s Downtown Lobster Pound. The wait was long, as this is a popular tourist spot. When we finally were seated on the deck, the beer was cold and the sun was warm. The view of the bay made us feel very Maine-like, with lobster boats bobbing gently at their moorings. The lobster was good, but a little pricey. Service was solid, too.

We were on a budget, though, so we knew we needed another option if we wanted to eat our weight in lobster!

C-Ray’s Lobster Pound was the perfect alternative. A roadside stop along State Highway 3, just outside Bar Harbor, C-Ray’s offers a simple menu of fresh, local seafood. For $35, we shared a dinner that included two 1lb-1.25lb lobsters, one pound of mussels and two ears of corn. We purchased water, but this ‘pound’ is BYOB, so bring your cooler! The blueberry pie was freshly baked and well worth the calories. In fact, the food here was so good that we ordered again as take out the next night. ‘Cause really, it’s lobster.

On the water

We will kayak just about anywhere. In fact, kayaking has become a key requirement for just about any vacation we take. Our trip to Acadia gave us a golden opportunity to explore the Maine coastline along Frenchman’s Bay and the Porcupine Islands. We booked a ½ day tour with Coastal Kayak that covered approximately 5 miles. 

Fortunately, the sun was shining on the day of our tour, which was great. The wind, however, was blowing pretty hard, which made the trip far more challenging than it should have been. It took us an extra hour to make our pullout and, with some members of our group relatively new to kayaking, it became a team effort to keep everyone moving. 

That said, the opportunity to view the islands and bay from the water was well worth the effort. There are a number of kayak outfits operating out of Bar Harbor, so take your pick!

Don’t miss….

Acadia National Park is located primarily on Mount Desert Island, and that’s where most visitors stop their exploration. The ‘other’ part of the park is the one that most visitors miss, the section on the Schoodic Peninsula. On what was supposed to be our ‘rest’ day, we decided to make the hour-long drive along the coast to this far quieter environment. 

What we found was a breathtaking rocky coastline combined with a smaller, yet still challenging selection of hiking and biking trails. A campground and a visitor center staffed by friendly and knowledgeable rangers make this a preferable option for those looking to avoid the far more crowded ‘main’ park.

Quick stop at…

Thunder Hole

Thunder Hole. This is a highly-trafficked stop along the Park Loop Rd. No doubt about it, the sound the water makes as it crashes through the rocks is very cool, especially for younger children. For us, it was just a quick stop, though. There are far better places in Acadia to experience the coastline (see Schoodic Peninsula), with far fewer people.

Cadillac Mountain Summit

Cadillac Mountain. The tallest mountain on the East coast at 1530ft, Cadillac Mountain is worth the drive to the top. The road is heavily trafficked at peak times during the day, so prepare to take your time. We laughed a lot on this trip, but probably no harder than when an apparent septuagenarian on a mountain bike passed our car on the way to the summit! We give full marks to anyone with the fortitude to tackle this climb!

Acadia National Park was a blast. It was our first national park visit, and sparked our love for these beautiful places scattered throughout our nation. We have since visited at least one new national park each summer, and we will cover those trips in upcoming posts. 

Acadia may not be the first national park that comes to mind when thinking of a trip, but it should be right up there!

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