Just outside the quaint seaside town of Bar Harbor, Maine, a five-hour drive north of Boston, sits the exquisite seaside jumble of rocks known as Acadia National Park. We took the Airstream up to Bar Harbor in mid-May for our first time in the National Park and were blown away by its rugged shores, sparkling vistas, and peaceful forests. Below, we share our experiences–and be sure to read our Bar Harbor post for specifics on what we did when we weren’t exploring Acadia.
First, some general notes about our time in the park:
- We did not camp inside the park. Campgrounds with RV spots weren’t yet open for the season, so we stayed in Bar Harbor. Acadia’s campgrounds fill up, so reserve way in advance if you want to stay in the park!
- We intentionally went in mid-May to miss the crowds. The weather can be dicey in May, and while our temps were cool, we only had a little fog and drizzle. The crowds in summer are NUTS: people crammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the main attractions, park road closures to ease congestion, full parking lots with overflow cars illegally parked along narrow roads. I imagine Bar Harbor is similarly overrun. If your schedule allows it, try to visit Acadia outside of peak season.
- In the interest of time, we only visited Mount Desert Island, Acadia’s main section (of three). I know you’re wondering, because we were: Mount Desert Island has nothing to do with a desert ecosystem; it’s a translation from French for “the island of barren mountains.”
- DOGS ARE ALLOWED ON HIKING TRAILS (with a couple exceptions) (on-leash, of course) IN ACADIA!!!!!!!
We hiked the following trails, and I’ve ranked them here in descending order of our enjoyment. We are partial to hikes with big views and few people.
Giant Slide Trail + Sargent Mountain (plus some other peaks)
Giant Slide begins outside the National Park, and wasn’t on our radar at all… and turned out to be our favorite. We asked the wonderful man who served our lobster rolls at Travelin’ Lobster to tell us his favorite hike, so here’s yet another example of locals giving awesome advice. The trail climbs up a river–as in, you’re scrambling over boulders (staying dry) for part of the hike–through a tranquil forest before popping out onto peaks inside Acadia. The section of boulder-scrambling may be challenging with a dog (or small children I suppose) so factor in some extra time for the slower going if you’re bringing short-legged types.
The views from the top are insane, and therefore, you’re not alone, but we only saw a few other hikers on the forest trail. Once you’re in the park, it’s easy to connect Giant Slide with other trails to construct routes of varying length and number of summits. Ours included Parkman Mountain, Bald Peak, Gilmore Peak, and Sargent Mountain, with massive, gorgeous views aplenty. Sargent, the second-highest peak in Acadia, was our favorite, but also the most crowded; we recommend starting early in the day and looping counter-clockwise to hit Sargent before it gets too busy. Next time, we’ll also add a mile (total) out-and-back from the top of Sargent to Sargent Mountain Pond.
Acadia Mountain and St. Sauveur Mountain Loop
The western side of Mount Desert Island sees fewer visitors than the busy eastern half, and this lovely and quiet 3.9 mile loop is worth a bit of extra driving to escape the crowds. The overlooks from Acadia and St. Sauveur (the big views are from Acadia) give you a different viewpoint than you get on the east-side trails, including a look at Somes Sound, the only fjord* in the Eastern US.
Bubble Rock and Jordan Pond
Bubble Rock is a massive boulder dragged by an ancient retreating glacier and dumped on the side of South Bubble, one of the two humps watching over Jordan Pond. We combined the scenic, flat, family-friendly (and crowded) loop around Jordan Pond with the out-and-back up to Bubble Rock for a total of 5.5 miles. The views from South Bubble are wonderful, but my real goal for this hike was to pose Bugsy next to the precariously perched Bubble Rock as if she were pushing it off the cliff. You know, how tourists do. She (and J) thought it was a pretty stupid idea.
We can also thank glacier activity for carving out the beautiful Jordan Pond. The Jordan Pond Path is a flat, family-friendly 3.5-mile loop around the pond, and we recommend including it in your Bubble Rock adventures. Dogs and humans must stay out of the water, as Jordan Pond is a local water supply. The trail up to Bubble Rock from Jordan Pond is steep and exposed in sections, so be warned if you don’t like that sort of hiking and/or your dog isn’t a mountain goat like ours.
If you want to break the two hikes up, the shorter and sedater option for popping up to Bubble Rock is to park at the Bubbles Parking Lot, making it a total hike of a mile and a half.
[No dogs allowed on the Beehive or Precipice Trails!]
The Beehive and Precipice Trails are cleverly engineered trails scaling up and across sheer rock faces using a series of iron rungs and cables. If you have issues with heights or balance, perhaps these hikes are not for you! They are definitely not for your dog. And they are not for wet weather.
Our intrepid National Parks expert-friend told us we had to hike Precipice Trail, but Precipice was temporarily closed to protect nesting peregrine falcons. Beehive Trail is shorter, but similar to Precipice: it’s two miles total versus four, and ends at a lower altitude, but both reward your bravery with impressive views. After climbing the Beehive, you descend along a more gradual path through the woods back to the trailhead; don’t try to go back the way you came up as you’ll clog up the works.
Wonderland and Ship Harbor Trails
Farther afield, at the southern tip of the quieter Western side of Mount Desert Island, Wonderland Trail and Ship Harbor Trail are neighboring peaceful jaunts through the woods and along the rocky coastline. They’re both about 1.5 miles round-trip and we enjoyed them both, but if we could only do one, we’d probably choose Wonderland for the fun of scrambling around on the rocks.
While down at the southern tip of MDI, we stopped by Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, possibly the most-photographed lighthouse in New England. The path to the left of the lighthouse, taking you down to the shore for the picturesque view, was closed, so we weren’t impressed. If you’re making a special trip down south to see the lighthouse, you may want to check on the status of that road in advance to make sure you can get the full lighthouse experience.
To get intimate with Acadia’s rugged shoreline, get out of the car and go for a stroll on Ocean Path. Yes, it follows the road, yes, it’s kind of a sidewalk, and yes, there are a million other people on the path, but you can’t get up close and personal with the dramatic coast on the eastern side of MDI otherwise. You can hop off the path here and there to explore and escape the crowd, and if you walk the entire path and back to your car you can log about four miles. Don’t miss Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Boulder Beach along the way.
Poor Beech Mountain. It’s not its fault we hiked it on a foggy day. The fire tower was cool, and the trail was pleasant, but because of the weather we didn’t get the views to pay us back for the steep climb up. Beech Mountain is on the quiet (western) side of MDI and the parking lot was gloriously empty when we arrived–I’m sure partially because of the fog. We did the 1.2 mile Beech Mountain Loop, but on a nicer day would have combined it with the Valley Trail and South Ridge Trail to spend more time away from the madness of the main attractions.
Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain
Cadillac Mountain is the highest mountain on the East Coast (within 25 miles of the shoreline), and from October to March, it’s the first place in the US from which to view the sunrise. We were there in May, but still got up before dawn to drive to the summit and watch day break with the throngs of other pilgrims. It was fun to take a little picnic of coffee and RXBARs and huddle together in the chilly twilight.
Be sure to look up sunrise o’clock on your target day and check drive time to the summit so you can plan your timing and not miss any of the action. And dress warmly! During the busy season, as you may expect, Cadillac at sunrise gets cuckoo crazy so one of these alternative sunrise-viewing locations may be preferable.
Popovers at Jordan Pond House
One of the top touristy to-dos in Acadia is eating a popover at Jordan Pond House. Jordan Pond is a busy area of the park and we weren’t super psyched to spend time there, but like with pasties in Michigan’s UP, we knew we had to try the famous local food. YUM. They’re simple rolls, baked into a poofy delight, best enjoyed with loads of butter and strawberry jam and a pot of tea, ideally at a lawn table in warmer weather. MAKE A RESERVATION!
Taking your dog to Acadia
Dogs are allowed on most of the hiking trails in Acadia! Have I mentioned that? DOGS ARE ALLOWED!!!! We–especially Bugsy–were thrilled to be able to include a certain neurotic beastie in most of our Acadia adventures. As noted above, there are a few trails where pets are not permitted, and other trails that may be challenging for pets. Also, don’t let your dog swim in Jordan Pond, and she can only swim in Echo Lake off-season. Ask a ranger if you have questions or concerns; here’s the list of rules and suggestions from the NPS.
The usual rules apply: dogs must be on leash (yes, I wrote this under a photo of Bugsy off-leash. It was for the photo, and she’s good at staying still for a pose); clean up after your dog; don’t leave your dog unattended in the car on a warm day.
For our next visit
One of the highest-rated Acadia activities is biking on the 57-mile network of carriage roads looping through the forests on Mount Desert Island. We were there in the Spring, when the carriage roads were closed to bicycles due to soft ground from rainy weather. We no longer carry our beach cruisers on the Airstream, but there are plenty of places to rent bikes in Bar Harbor, so next time we’ll try to explore via bicycle.
Acadia National Park is not just Mount Desert Island! Next time, we’ll visit the other two, more secluded sections: Isle au Haut, an island reached by ferry from Stonington, a charming fishing village south down the coast; and Schoodic Peninsula, an hour’s drive north of Mount Desert Island.
*Somes Sound has recently been downgraded from “fjord” to “fjard” (a distinction that makes me laugh). Fjards are submerged glaciated valleys, like fjords, but are shallower, broader, and generally shorter.