Of all 59 National Parks in the United States Acadia is one of the most unique. Located exclusively within Mount Desert Island, it is the only one of it’s kind. Acadia evolved by the private generous donations of properties from land owners on the Island looking to preserve what they loved about their little slice of heaven. Their generous donations is what created the first National Park east of the Mississippi River in 1916 as you know it today. Here are the top ten spots to visit within or around the park.
#1 ACADIA NATIONAL PARK LOOP ROAD
Now imagine yourself driving through the land of the park, passing stone brick tunnels and windy roads, gorgeous fall scenery, and sunlight peaking through lush trees, clear blue skies, red pinkish cliffs, by the raging Maine seashore and the wildlife that the park has to offer. Acadia has it all. You can explore the park by foot, by bike and a car or take the free Island Explorer Shuttle Bus from the greens in the town of Bass Harbor that runs fairly often and stops at Acadia’s major points of interests.
The 27 mile very well maintained road starts at the Visitor Center climbing the hill to some stunning views of Bass Harbor and Frenchman Bay. From there the road leads you to a split where you can continue and head over to Sand Beach or take the turn to Cadillac Mountain. After that the road waves on to the Thunder Hole. From both Thunder Hole and Sand beach you can catch a little detour and head over for some hiking to what would be the best views of the Main shore and surrounding towns and Islands.
There are a lot of overlooks along Loop Road where visitors can stop and enjoy the scenery as well as many other attractions you can check out to break up the driving. Stop at the Acadia Wild Gardens for a history lesson and learn about the Native Americans that used to live and hunt on the Island and all about the 300 native species, wildflowers and plants that could be found around here. Take a walk on the stone bridge and be filled by wonder from the views of the Bubble Pond and the landscape surrounding it. Pull over for a stroll down to Jordan Cliffs and Valley Cove trails for some rock climbing and seashore views. Take a step out of your car and hike one of the side trails for a short bit or for full day of trekking.
And although there are crowds during the most popular visiting months, the two lane road keeps the traffic moving. If you choose to do the whole Loop Road without any stops you can possibly make it in an hour but we do suggest that you take your time and a camera and fully enjoy the breathtaking vistas and many little stops along the way. Park Loop Road is only open when the weather allows, so check with the park directly before going.
We chose to visit Acadia National Park in October and fully embrace all that there is to see and do here during one of our favorite times of the year. We must’ve hit peak foliage because the colors were like nothing we’ve seen before. The heavy rain that fell in the morning helped the trees shed off their leaves and created a heavenly vista to marvel at. There were barely any people on the road either scared of the weather or grabbing a breakfast somewhere cozy. The windy quiet roads were covered in orange, yellow and red and at the end of it the views were even more stunning. Miles and miles of gorgeous landscape all painted in fall colors with a background of the bluest of blue skies we’ve ever wittiness was how Acadia greeted us that day. The weather here changes quickly though. From the heavy rain in the morning, to clear skies an hour later, to rolling grey fog moving in with force and back to shining sunlight. It was all four seasons in a matter of a morning. Pack a sweater and umbrella! They could come in handy.
#2 CADILLAC MOUNTAIN
Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is a must. The short drive from the Information Center and a little hike to the top of the mount offers the most expansive views from anywhere in the park all the way to Canadian province of Nova Scotia and Mount Katahdin to the north, both of which 100 miles away.
Cadillac Mountain is the tallest one in Maine and on the North Atlantic, standing high at 1530 feet and is the place where visitors can first see the sunrise in the United States between the months of October 6th and March 7th. It offers majestic views of Frenchman Island, Bass Harbor and surrounding areas and is the only place you can actually drive up to on the Island. Even though Cadillac Mountain Road is closed to vehicles in the winter, visitors can still use that road or one of several trails to hike to the summit in time for sunrise.
If you are not interested in fighting with the crowds (it gets busy during peak visitor months) for a parking spot, there is a free bus which visitors can take from the the town of Bass Harbor, which takes you right up to the mountain and to few other spots in and around the park.
If there is one attraction you must see on your Acadia National Park tour pick this is the one. The stunning views and refreshing air along with the gorgeous serene scenery are nothing short of spectacular. There are a few spots at the top of the mountain that provide a space away from the crowds and the perfect place to clear your mind and connect with nature at it’s best. And if you are brave enough wake up early and head over for the sunrise. You would not leave disappointed!
#3 SAND BEACH
Sand Beach in Acadia National Park is actually the only beach withing Acadia despite most of the park spreading along the Maine seashore. The Beach is the first stop on the Acadia Loop Road and a starting point to few of the most popular hikes in the park. From here you can take a short trail to Thunder Hole, Otter Cliff and to one of the most popular hikes: the Great Head Trail.
The Beach is a great place to enjoy the scenery that the Maine Coast is known for and a good spot to let the kids put their toes in and wade in the water, have a nice picnic or read a book on the shore. The water never exceeds 56 degrees and even on a hot summer day it is not warm enough for a serious dip or a pleasant swim.
Despite the temperature of the water, the pink sanded beach that gets it’s color from the crushed granite rocks surrounding the Island offers visitors tranquility and stunning vistas of the ocean cliffs, the Islands around and the pine tree forest.
If you choose to make the stop at Sand Beach be sure to come here early as the large parking area fills up quickly. There are always a lot of people either looking to spend the day at the beach or hike around, or just passing quickly which makes parking a little bit of a challenge. There are bathrooms available and changing rooms and there is no extra fee charged for visiting Sand Beach.
#4 WILD GARDENS OF ACADIA
Countless hours and loving volunteer care from the Bass Harbor Garden Club in partnership with Acadia National Park is what brought the establishment of The Wild Gardens of Acadia in 1986. A little piece of heaven right in the heart of the park the Garden displays native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and ferns.
The Gardens are a showcase of the diversity and microcosm of the park and gives in great detail a description of all the flowers, plants and habitats that can be found within Acadia Park. If you are an avid gardener, trying to learn more about the ecosystem or just curious about flower and shrubs then this is a must see.
A small visitors center awaits you right after the large parking lot by the gardens entrance, where you can get all your questions answered and find books of natural history. Here you can pick a self guided tour booklet which later comes in handy while walking through the exhibits and gives great information on the history of the Maine Native Americans.
Outside you can follow the paths through twelve different display areas where 300 native species (very well marked) display the typical habitat of Mount Desert Island. There are many benches within the gardens offering seats with beautiful, shaded views where you can take a rest and enjoy the birds singing and the beautiful serene landscape.
Wild Gardens is a great place to bring your family. Our little one was particularity taken by the Native American handmade tent. Going in and out was pretty entertaining for him which gave me plenty opportunity to wander around the picturesque garden and snap a few pictures and just enjoy the fresh air and quiet of the woods.
Having no bugs despite the little ponds all around the park made the experience that much more pleasant. On our way out we checked out The Nature Center and small Abbe museum which were quite interesting and informative. In all we spent about 2 and a half hours here without rushing, taking our time through the boardwalk and nature trails, the small hikes and thoroughly enjoying the beautiful fall foliage and all the gorgeous colors that come with it.
The Gardens are open year round and are located right off Loop Road in Acadia National Park.
#5 THUNDER HOLE
Thunder Hole is best to be seen after a storm or even during a storm unless the viewing platform is closed because of raging waves. You can check with the visitor center ahead of time to avoid any disappointment if closed.
We suggest you park at Sand Beach and take the short (less than half a mile) mostly flat hike to Thunder Hole. This way you wouldn’t have to battle the crowds for a parking spot. Come early in the morning as this is one of the most popular attractions in Acadia National Park drawing visitors off the Loop Road that like to stop here and take a little break with a view before continuing to explore the rest of the park.
Thunder Hole is known to make a loud grumbling noise where the crushing waters meet the hole in the cliffs and sometimes promises as high as 30 feet up in the air waves that would definitely bring a thrill on a warm summer day and a little chill on a winter one. There is no additional cost to visit this attraction. The viewing platform gets you really close to where you can view the hole and even if you don’t see it in full action you would not leave disappointed as the vistas here are marvelous and certainly worth the stop. Greenish blue waters that have pounded the pink granite cliffs for millions of years and pine forest in the distance paint the perfect New England scenery visitors come her for and leaves their hearts full of happiness as they start their track back through the woods.
#6 WONDERLAND TRAIL
Wonderland truly lives up to it’s name. Although not part of Acadia National Park we definitely recommend you check out this wonderful little trail. Located just outside the town of Bass Harbor this one and a half mile hike is perfect to do with small kids and dogs. A little parking lot on the side of a busy road is where you’ll begin your trek. Pass a short wooded windy path you’ll reach rocky fields with pine trees and red colored bushes called burning bush and for a good reason, as the colors of this plant is the reddest red you’ve seen.
A short mostly flat passage between the bushes leads you to a gorgeous backdrop of the Maine seashore with the Islands in the distance and cliffs getting hammered by the huge waves as they have for as long as they’ve been around.
Once here forget about the rest of the world and let your soul wander. Take a walk along the sandy shore and jump on the wet rocks, let the kids splash their feet in the cold New England water, enjoy a delightful picnic with a view or just open a book and get lost in the pages. Look for seashells with your littles and make memories they’ll cherish for a lifetime.
You’ll be sure to find stillness and calmness here. This trail is so off the beaten path that you would possibly be the only person that the woods have seen that day. Stay a little longer and watch the sun set behind the boulders and the colors of the sunset pop. Don’t forget to stop and smell the wildflowers on your way back and watch the squirrels as they nibble on their snack.
Wonderland is our favorite trail here and not only because of the lack of crowds, but also because it has everything that we would like to see when exploring Maine. The seashore, the wooded paths between the massive pine trees and the views we have imagined that we’ll find when looking at photographs and cards from this area.
The Nature trail is open year round and can be reached easily if you start in Southwest Harbor and continue on ME Route 102 through town. Just past the town turn left on 102A. The Wonderland Parking lot would be on your left in 3.1 miles.
#7 BASS HARBOR LIGHTHOUSE
Bass Harbor Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the United States and once here you’ll see why. Nestled comfortably on the edge of huge granite cliffs surrounded by rugged boulders and expansive views the lighthouse screams “New England” and is the scenery that you have most seen when picking out a post card from Maine to send back home to relatives.
You can combine the lighthouse trip with a visit to the Wonderland Trail or the Ship Harbor Nature trail since they are relatively close to each other and kind of on the same side of the Island. We personally walked here from our little vacation rental in Bass Harbor and that worked out great for us. The parking here is limited especially if you come during sunset hour, but don’t let this deter you form visiting. You can always find a spot by the road and would just have to walk a little.
From the parking lot you’ll pass by a small information center. If you have time go and check it out. They have little trinkets and souvenirs for you to take home and remember this place. Following a little path you’ll reach a spot where you’ll have to make a decision. Go right on the pathway through the shrubs that would get you close to the lighthouse but not to where the best views are. Or go down the staircase and find a spot on the big rocks for a view like no other.
The stairs are quite steep if that is of consideration so plan accordingly. Once down by the cliffs you can decide if you want to get even closer just make sure that you have good shoes as the rocks are slippery and the waves are pretty high. The lighthouse unfortunately do not offer tours. There is a carriage house by it which we were told is occupied so try to not bother the renters.
Find a comfortable seat and a good spot to prop your camera and enjoy. Bring a blanket and snuggle in it’s warmth as Maine nights get chilly quickly. Once the sun starts setting the views are insane. The orange/red sky we witnessed while sitting there combined with the white lighthouse and the beaming red light coming from the window made for a perfect picture and a bit of time we’ll remember forever. The sunset set slowly and everyone got quiet. Only the birds were to be heard, the waves beating on the cliffs now painted in yellow and red and people exclaiming in awe of how absolutely stunning this little moment was. The darkens set and everyone started making their way up. Bring a flashlight. You would need it! The stairs get cramped as everyone tries to exit quickly and there is not much light around.
Bass Harbor Lighthouse is open daily from 9am to sunset. Although sunset is the best time to visit we can only imagine how mystical and magical it looks on a gloomy New England day surrounded by thick fog where you can’t see much of it but only the flashing red light. The Lighthouse is a stop on the free bus that you can take from Bass Harbor so make sure you come and take a look at this treasure.
#8 SHIP HARBOR NATURE TRAIL
Ship Harbor Nature Trail is another one of our favorite hikes. A short 1.3 mile figure eight shaped trail through windy wooded paths, lush forest, red colored buses and wildflowers leads hikers to a jagged pink colored seashore. Mainly flat and a little rocky at times the trail got it’s name supposedly because small ships used to look for cover here in the inland during sea storms. Some say they still do and if you are brave enough to venture here during stormy weather you might even get lucky and encounter some of them.
We did not see any while trekking this route but did see ducks swimming in the water and all kind of singing birds hiding in the bushes. This trail is popular between birdwatchers and dog walkers. It’s also great for families with small children if you are looking for an easy loop trail and don’t have much time to spare. Definitely go at low tide to check out the tide pools. Lots of rocks to explore and beautiful coastline. We took a walk along the seashore and thoroughly enjoyed the marvelous vistas of the ocean while listening to the waves crash into the granite.
Pack a basket and find a spot along the shore on the rocks for a delicious picnic, bask in the sun while listening to nothing else but the waves and birds singing, climb rocks by the water or just sit and take in the views, dip your feet in the cold water during low tide while marveling at the woodlands, cove and rocky coast. This trail is little known and not very populated so you’ll find yourself in total serenity surrounded by nothing else but quiet and peacefulness.
We took our time by the rocks and the trail took us about an hour with a toddler in tow but visitors should be able to do this hike in less than that depending on shape and hiking abilities. There is not a big parking lot but you can always find a spot by the side of the road. The trail is very well marked and taken care of so if you follow the cleared path you would never get lost here.
#9 SOMESVILLE HISTORICAL MUSEUM AND GARDENS
The largest island off the coast of Maine, Mount Desert has seen American Indians dating back 6000 years ago, French and British colonists, fought to establish dominion in Acadia, but it was the outsiders, artists, and journalists who magnified the Island with their paint palettes and brushstrokes, inspiring friends and leaders to gather here. Mount Desert, still remote from the cities of the East, became a haven for the well established people in the 1800s. It quickly turned into retreat for the famous. The Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors all chose to spend their holidays here which transformed the landscape of Mount Desert Island.
The Somesville Museum holds the heart to the history of Mount Desert Island. The white cottage like building overlooks an ancient mill pond and tranquil Somes Harbor. The museum was built in 1981 and consists of the Sumesville Selectman’s Building, the Heirloom Gardens that have been blooming plants and herbs here since 19th century and the Thaddeus Shepley Somes Memorial Bridge. According to the museum information we were given Memorial Bridge is the most photographed bridge on the east coast.
We quickly realized why that would be. A white wooden bridge spreading across the pond with a background of a picturesque and relaxing landscape, surrounded by blooming flowers of all colors is the setting for a picture like no other. We couldn’t decide from which angle the bridge looked the best as from all of them it was a magnificent scene. It is located right in the heart of town and you could walk from and to it to other attractions or restaurants around.
The history of the museum is quite interesting. A memorial states that Virginia Somes Sanderson gave the bridge to the Mount Desert Island Historical Society in memory of her aforementioned grandfather. There are different exhibits that cover the history of the Island and studies done to learn more about it. They are always changing so check on their page for the most recent one.
Somesville Museums & Gardens are open from June 29th through September 2nd on Sunday – Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm. There is no admission charged to tour the museum, but donations are greatly appreciated.
#10 BASS HARBOR
We couldn’t create this list without mentioning the Town of Bass Harbor. As one of the four towns that compose Mount Desert Island, the town of Bass Harbor is our favorite for multiple reasons. We enjoyed having the vacation rental right in town within a walking distance to the Town Museum and a restaurant and also with stunning views of the harbor right outside our window.
It was more on the quiet side where we were able to actually pack the stroller and take our toddler on a walk without worrying about traffic, but also so close to hikes and to the park where we didn’t have to drive for too long. It gave us the opportunity to take those little hikes nearby during the busy hours of Acadia making it easy avoiding the crowds, a quick stop back at the cottage during the rainy hours of the day, and we really enjoyed the close proximity to the tours and excursions available right down the road for us to get to in a whim when the weather permitted.
The Tremont Historic Society Museum was a wonderful little stop where we learned a lot about the town history and got our passport stamps. The Bass Harbor Lighthouse which turned out to be one of our favorite sunset spots on the Island was a relatively short walk from our cottage. Walking by the harbor with a warm coffee on a crispy New England morning while looking at the boats and waiting on the fog to break through the tick clouds was all we needed to get our days going with a happy heart, grabbing a delicious dinner consisting of the freshest lobster rolls at the Sea Food Ketch Restaurant was always a delight and an amazing way to end a day of exploring.
And although most of the time we spent on the Island it was rainy it really didn’t feel as if we missed anything. The little breaks between the rain and the sun shining back again gave us time to recharge and explore activities inside which we would’t have done otherwise as we probably would’ve embarked on some extra hiking instead.
If you are not a fan of the vacation rentals and hotels, you can always pitch a tent or grab a cabin at the campgrounds within the Islands. We heard wonderful things about all of them and other people we met that stayed at some highly recommended it to us. Depending on where you want to stay on the Island there are campgrounds pretty much on each side to accommodate your needs. Some of them even allow pets which is a huge plus for dog lovers.
#11 The Asticou Azalea Garden
We want to give you an added bonus attraction that we really enjoyed and you should check out if passing by or just looking for something to do outside Acadia National Park. A slight detour from Loop Road on NorthEast Harbor just a 10 minute drive away would bring you to this park with hidden little nooks and crannies around each corner that are certain to delight your eyes with the artistry of the landscaper’s design. You might see a little trend here and we have to admit we love gardens and flowers and learning new things about plants and how to better grow them for our own garden at home.
This beautiful well maintained garden is well marked and best to see when the azaleas are blooming. But even when they are not this hidden gem is worth the visit. A large collection of trees, shrubs and species of different plants, rhododendrons, Japanese meditation garden, a Zen Sand Garden, reflecting pond, specimen trees and little streams, singing birds and colorful flowers is what you’ll find behind the wooded fence that wraps around the gardens.
For only $5 suggested contribution you can enjoy this absolutely beautiful sanctuary that is brilliantly built and Japanese Garden inspired. Do your soul and mind a favor by rewarding them with calmness and tranquility. Listening to the hummingbirds that frequent the garden would be so peaceful that you might even forget to pull out your camera for some time like we did.
Azalea Gardens is open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, May through October and sometimes in November if weather permits.
Anything to add to our list? Feel free to comment below. And as always, keep your Travel Bug alive!