On the picturesque Maine coast there is a wild landscape where ocean crashes onto rocky shoreline. A place where visitors can hike miles of scenic trails, explore tide pools, visit small town resorts, book an expedition on a whale watching trip, ride bicycles through miles of visual delights, and paddle sea kayaks to their hearts’ content. This is Acadia National Park, one of our largest National Parks and a wonderland of forest, coastline, and mountain. No trip to Maine would be complete without a visit to experience the natural treasures Acadia has to offer.
The main portion of Acadia National Park is located on Mount Desert Island, with smaller parts of the park on Isle au Haut, which can be reached from the mainland by a small boat from Stonington, and the Schoodic Peninsula, fifty road miles from Bar Harbor. For the purposes of this blog, we will concentrate on the Mount Desert Island section of the park.
The earliest inhabitants of Mount Desert Island were hunter-gatherers who caught sea mammals and fish from crude dugout canoes. Archaeological excavations at the park have dated these people to 5,000 years ago. Later the Wabanaki Indians lived on the island, making their living by hunting, gathering wild crops, and trading with European fishermen and explorers.
The first European record of Mount Desert Island was made in 1604 by explorer Samuel de Champlain. Several attempts were made to settle the island following Champlain’s visit, but for the next 150 years, wars between France and England made the territory unsafe for settlement. In 1761, the first English colonists established a permanent settlement.
These early residents made their living by fishing, farming, quarrying granite, and shipping. A new source of income was discovered in the mid-1800s when the first tourists came to the island and it became an instant hit with city dwellers from New York and Boston. Huge wooden hotels appeared to serve the new tourist trade, and wealthy summer residents built extravagant cottages. Soon the quiet farming and fishing villages were busy places, with lawn parties and other social events, and entertainment imported from the big cities.
With all of this activity changing the face of the island, there were those who recognized its great natural treasures and began to work to preserve it. In 1901, Harvard College president Charles Eliot formed the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations to help protect some of the most beautiful spots on Mount Desert Island. The trustees acquired some 5,000 acres of land, which they donated to the United States as a preserve. In 1919 this land was named Acadia National Park, the first national park established east of the Mississippi River.
Today Acadia National Park is a busy place as people from all over the world come to experience her delights. The park offers a diversity of life. Arctic black crowberries grow next to more temperate bunchberries. Deer and fox live in the forest, while starfish and sea urchins can be found in the tide pools. The songs of wood warblers can be heard, and brown bats can be spotted flitting through the forest canopy. Offshore, humpback whales, dolphins, and porpoises can be seen from small boats.
The highest point in Acadia National Park is Cadillac Mountain, offering dramatic panoramic views of the coastline in one direction and the forest in another. A paved road leads to the top of the mountain, which is an easy drive with lots of places to pull over and enjoy the view. The mountain is a fragile environment, and people are loving it to death. Visitors are encouraged to remain on marked roadways and trails to avoid damaging the fragile plant life that maintains a precarious grip on the mountain’s granite surface.
There are many ways to see Acadia. Park rangers lead several different walks along the shoreline, atop the mountains, into the forest, and on boat cruises to point out the park’s wildlife and plants, history, and geological features. Since parking is limited, many visitors prefer to ride the fare-free Island Explorer shuttle buses, which are supported by park entrance fees. The shuttles make regular stops in Acadia National Park and at local campgrounds, lodges, and ferry docks.
The twenty mile Park Loop Road connects Acadia’s lakes, mountains, and seashore, passing many of the park’s most popular sites. Visitors can purchase or rent a cassette tape or CD at the park’s Visitor Center for an audio tour of the park in their own vehicle.
Acadia has a fine network of trails ranging from lowland paths to mountain treks designed to suit everyone from the casual walker to the experienced hiker. Bicycling is always popular, and the park’s 44 miles of carriage roads and 27 miles of paved roads are sure to please the two-wheeled explorer.
John D. Rockefeller Jr., an avid horseman and the foremost private patron of the National Park system, funded a wonderful network of automobile-free horse roads in Acadia National Park, and today visitors can enjoy anything from an hour-long to an all day chartered carriage tour of the park.
Acadia offers so much to see that it is hard to decide what is the most popular. Echo Lake Beach and Sand Beach have lifeguards in the summer for those willing to brave the cold water. Glacially carved valleys hold freshwater lakes that are home to waterfowl and amphibians and make peaceful places to pause and contemplate our lives and the world around us. At Thunder Hole during certain seasons of the year the ocean pounds into a narrow rock crevice, spewing water into the air in a dramatic example of Mother Nature’s power.
Three museums in the park offer insights into its natural resources and history. Exhibits at the Nature Center reflect Acadia’s natural resources and what is being done to protect them. The Islesford Historical Museum, reached by boat from Northeast or Southwest Harbors, tells the story of the local people and their history through displays of ship models, navigation aids, photographs, tools, and artifacts. Neither museum charges an admission fee. The privately owned Abbe Museum relates the history of Maine’s earliest human inhabitants, beginning 11,000 years ago. There is a small fee for entrance to this museum.
Acadia is at its busiest during the summer months, but visitors during the off season will find a much slower pace and some interesting recreational opportunities, including cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
There are two campgrounds in Acadia National Park. Reservations are required at Blackwoods Campground. Fees are $20 per night. For reservations, call 800-365-2267. Sites at Seawall Campground are available on a first come, first served basis. Drive up sites are $30 per night. There are also several nice privately owned campgrounds outside the park’s boundaries that are convenient. Bar Harbor, on the edge of the park’s boundaries, offers lodging, restaurants, shopping, and is a good place to book a whale watching tour.
Whether you go for the back country hiking or just to drive the roads and enjoy the views, any visit to Acadia in any season is a treat. Include it in your next trip to New England.
Thought For The Day – I’m just here because real life won’t have me.