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A First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Acadia National Park

A First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Acadia National Park

There aren’t any deserts to be found in New England, so the name of Maine’s “Mount Desert” Island comes as a bit of a shock to those unfamiliar with it. Today, about half of Mount Desert Island is preserved as Acadia National Park. It’s one of the smallest yet most-visited national parks in the country. When French explorer Samuel de Champlain first explored the New England coast in the early 17th century, he was struck by how barren and treeless this rocky coastline was. He dubbed it the island of monts-déserts, or “barren mountains.” He wasn’t wrong—the landscape of “Downeast Maine” along the Bay of Fundy between the “Mid-Coast” area and the Canadian border is unique to the rest of New England. Here, lush forests give way to granite mountains that rise up from the sea. It’s the highest along the eastern seaboard this side of Rio de Janeiro.

Acadia has much to offer visitors, and even locals find themselves returning time and time again to explore its riches. If you’re interested in visiting the Northeast’s only national park this side of the Shenandoah Valley, it’s absolutely worth the trip. Here, we’re breaking down how to make the most of your Acadia National Park trip.

How to get to Acadia National Park

During the peak summer months, driving your car is convenient for everywhere except the park itself. Yes, you can get from Logan Airport in Boston to the park’s entrance in four and a half hours flat. But know that traffic and parking once you’re inside the park may kill your vibe. If you plan on seeing a few other parts of Maine on your trip (such as the restaurant scene in Portland, or the preppy beach enclave at Kennebunkport), it’s probably best to drive. If your sole focus is Acadia, there are a few other options.

Regional carrier Cape Air offers regularly scheduled flights from Boston to Mount Desert Island. From there, it’s easy to take a taxi from the airport to your hotel. And so long as you’re staying in one of the main villages on the island (there are several), it’s easy to hop on and off the Island Explorer, a regularly scheduled shuttle bus that drives loops around the island and through the national park, hitting all the main spots along the way. The Island Explorer’s website also has a very handy “Car-Free Travel Guide” that lists out the various options for public transportation from nearby Bangor, Maine, as well as Boston.

What to expect

The temperature in New England, especially along the coast, can be variable. Even in the peak of summer, chillier nights can get down into the 40s, so definitely pack some layers. This time of year, everything is on the table weather-wise in New England, from dry heat to high winds and even hail. Chances are, you can expect daytime temperatures in the high 70s with lots of sun and humidity. Hikers from drier climates might be surprised by how oppressive the heat can feel. Pack layers, bring plenty of water, make a plan for where you’re going, and you’ll be fine. The National Park Service’s Acadia National Park webpage is a must-read resource for trail closures, repairs notices, and advisories about which parts of the park may or may not be open at any given time.

In terms of where to situate yourself, it’s worth noting there are several villages on the island of Mount Desert, the most notable including the charming town of Bar Harbor, and the sleepier Southwest Harbor. If it’s your first time to the island and proximity to the national park entrance is your priority, opt for something in Bar Harbor. Southwest Harbor is about 20 minutes away by car from the national park (longer in traffic), but, conversely, is much sleepier and more low key than the often crowded streets of Bar Harbor in the peak of summer.

What to Do in Acadia National Park

Drive the Park Loop Road

Acadia’s 27-mile Park Loop Road is the quintessential scenic drive, with ocean views, lakeside splendor, and dramatic cliffs in spades. It’s a worthwhile drive in and of itself, but is also the most convenient way to access many of the park’s main attractions like Sand Beach, Otter Point, and Cadillac Mountain.

Did we mention you should hike while you’re here? There are over 158 miles of hiking trails in Acadia National Park, with options ranging from family-friendly to downright grueling. The most classic is probably the hike up Cadillac Mountain, especially at sunrise, as it’s among the first places in the country to see the sun rise over the Atlantic.

While the crowds tend to stick to Cadillac (there’s a car road that ends at the summit), locals love to summit “The Bee-hive,” a challenging hike that includes granite steps, iron via ferrata rungs, and just enough scrambling to keep things interesting. Once you reach the top, however, you’re treated to views that are as good as anywhere else in the park. You also have only a fraction of the tourists. And remember, the National Park Service’s Acadia website is a great resource for live updates on which trails may or may not be closed for repairs.

See Acadia from the water

Hiking trails across Acadia National Park make it possible to walk across many of the park’s rugged natural features. Seeing them from the water gives a unique perspective to the park’s geography. Catch a ride with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., which offers whale watching tours, puffin tours, lighthouse tours, as well as a from-the-water tour of Acadia National Park. You’ll see things that you would never otherwise see from land-based adventures.

Kayak to an oyster farm

OK, Bar Harbor Oyster Company’s oyster farm might not technically be within the confines of Acadia National Park. But this is an activity that absolutely any visitor to Mount Desert Island—especially those who love food—should consider. Aquaculture has exploded in New England in recent years, and this small locally owned operation uses its farm tours program to give a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a modern farmer. The tour goes twice a week during July and August—note, it books up quickly! You get to kayak out to the company’s oyster farm and taste some fresh bivalves plucked straight from the water.

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Where to stay

Terramor Outdoor Resort Bar Harbor

As the only full-service glamping property located on Mount Desert Island, Terramor is the kind of property that could easily rest on its laurels. Luckily, it doesn’t. This outdoor resort takes all the work out of camping, so you can focus on the fun stuff. It’s almost unfair to call the tents here “tents.” They have Frette linens, Pendleton blankets, screened-in porches, private bathrooms, and private fire rings. The property also has an outdoor pool and hut tub, and a highly trained staff can advise on hikes, canoeing, and biking in the national park. You can also brush up on your outdoorsy skills like building fires and reading trail maps. New for this summer is TerraS’Mores—a rotating menu of gourmet s’mores such as lobster and brie s’mores, summer strawberry s’mores, and candied bacon s’mores. You may just be unable to go back to regular camping ever again.

Queen Anne’s Revenge

Everyone loves a comeback story. The before-and-after pictures on Instagram of this inn’s recent renovation are nothing short of jaw dropping. Three neighboring 19th century cottages were transformed into contemporary yet historic hideaways. They’re certainly one of the most interesting places to stay on the Maine coast this summer. No two rooms are the same, and your stay includes a free continental breakfast each morning. Looking for something more substantial? The inn is conveniently located within walking distance to all that Bar Harbor has to offer.

West Street Hotel

A rooftop pool? In Maine? You bet—and it’s also the only pool on the whole island with views into the national park. The hotel’s restaurant Stewman’s Lobster Pound is one of the best in Bar Harbor for a classic Maine lobster bake. Meanwhile, the hotel’s pub Paddy’s is a reliably fun place for a nightcap. Keep in mind, the hotel is 18+. On an island which can be intensely family-oriented during the warmer months, this is a welcome reprieve for grownups. And if you’re trying to travel with kids, check out the hotel’s sister property, Harborside Hotel, where kids are welcome. It’s across the street.

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This story was originally published June 7, 2022 1:54 PM.