When I meet someone new and they find out I’ve visited 55 of the designated National Parks in the United States, they always want to know about the west. How is Yosemite? Glacier? The Grand Canyon? These landscapes are quintessential to our understanding of “National Parks” in the United States.
So my new travel pals are often surprised when I tell them one of my favorite parks is actually in Maine. Nearly as eastern as you can be in the United States. I’m talking about Acadia National Park, of course.
I visited Acadia in mid-July — at the height of summer national park travel — and while I saw some of the record crowds firsthand, I was still able to find immense solitude throughout my trip. Whether you are looking to be in the crowd or away from it, there is a place for you in Maine.
Here’s everything you need to know to visit Acadia National Park this summer.
How to get there:
Acadia is fairly remote and absolutely requires a car to get around. I flew into the tiny Bangor airport and easily made the drive to Bar Harbor. If you’re already on the East Coast, it’s just a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston, and just over eight from NYC.
Where to Stay:
There are two campgrounds in the park, both on Mount Desert Island (where the majority of the park and visitors are located). All sites must be reserved in advance. Otherwise, you want to stay in Bar Harbor — as much of the park literally overlooks the town.
There are plenty of bed and breakfast options — I stayed at The Elmhurst Inn — that will truly give you the “east coast quaint town” experience you’re looking for. There’s also a new outpost of Under Canvas that I’d love to visit the next time I’m in the area.
In the park:
Acadia is consistently in the top 10 most visited of major US National Parks, while also being the fifth smallest by land area. So it’s crowded on a normal year (and of course this year is not quite normal). This has changed the way to navigate this park in one really important way this year — reservations for Cadillac Mountain road.
Cadillac Mountain rises 1,530 ft above sea level and its summit is the first place in the United States to see the sunrise from October 7 through March 6. It’s definitely worth a drive (or hike up) any time of day, but especially to watch sunrise or sunset. Due to the crowds, there is a timed entry system for cars this year. You’ll need an advance reservation (from recreation.gov) in addition to your park entrance pass.
When I finalized my plans all of the sunrise times were sold out, but I was able to secure one for sunset. Reservation tickets are $6, and 30 percent are released 90 days ahead with the other 70 percent being released at 10 am ET two days ahead of your visit. If you don’t get a car ticket, you can also hike up the fairly short trail to the summit.
Other popular hikes are the Beehive Trail, Precipice, the Bubbles, and Gorham Mountain. An easier option is the Jordan Pond Trail that weaves its way around Jordan Pond before looping you back to the famous Jordan Pond House — a restaurant that started serving in 1847, well before Acadia was designated as a National Park, and is still an incredibly popular spot to have tea and popovers (or, in my case, prosecco and popovers).
If hiking isn’t your thing there are extensive carriage roads (great for biking and ebiking), swimming and lounging at Sand Beach, and several stops (like Thunder Hole) to marvel at the coastline. All of these are off the park road and not overcrowded.
Outside of the main park road, you’ll also the famous Bass Harbor Head Light, Echo Lake Swim Beach, and, outside of Mount Desert, the much quieter and beautiful Schoodic Peninsula.
To visit anything outside of the Park Loop road you will need a car. Within the park, biking is extremely popular and a ride on the park’s explorer bus is easy and convenient.
In Bar Harbor:
Something I loved about Acadia is its close proximity to Bar Harbor. You can hop back and forth between the park and the city super easily. Bar Harbor feels like a movie set — quaint and lovely and very east coast. If you’re charmed by that sort of vibe, you’ll like this — there’s a lot to do in this small tourist town.
Where to eat:
I loved dinner at Cafe This Way, and lobster salad for lunch at the Terrace Grill at Bar Harbor Inn. There are, of course, plenty of places to satisfy your lobster cravings — Rose Eden Lobster, The Travelin Lobster, and The Happy Clam Shack all came highly recommended.
Where to Drink:
Where to play:
You’ll want to get out on the water in Maine. I took a tour with Acadian Boat Tours, and look forward to a sunset ride on the schooner Margaret Todd next time I’m in town. Sea kayaking is also very popular, along with guided climbing tours.
Also, watch those tide charts! At low tide, you can walk from Bar Harbor to Bar Island for a whole new perspective of the coast.
Want to escape the crowds?
There aren’t many places in Acadia and Bar Harbor to escape the crowds this time of year, which is why I also took some time to head north for a quieter experience. I drove up to Lubec, Maine — the easternmost town in the United States to decompress and experience a wilder landscape.
Lubec is a sleepy town on the US Canadian border with miles of undisturbed coastline, a new private shore system, and an absolutely breathtaking state park and lighthouse. Once the border opens back up next month, it is also the only way to drive to Compobello Island and visit Roosevelt Compobello International Park — a unique park that is managed by both Canada and the US, preserving the Roosevelt’s summer retreat.