A Local’s Guide to Exploring Acadia National Park

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The crown jewel of Maine stretches along the coast of Mount Desert Island, a jagged enclave that creates a small yet significant piece of the state’s renowned coastline. Dotted with pine trees and rocky outcrops that jut into the Atlantic Ocean, the quintessential seacoast attracts visitors from around the world. Forested hiking trails crisscross the region and rolling mountains peacefully coexist between the small towns that call Mount Desert Island home. At the center of it all is Acadia National Park, a sprawling natural expanse that put the island on the map when it was founded in 1929. The area now booms with tourists in summer who come to experience the magic of Acadia.

From historic horse-drawn carriage rides to dozens of hiking trails, it’s tough to know where to begin if you’ve only got a weekend to spend in Acadia. Here are some local tips to make sure you hit all of the park’s highlights.

When to Go

View from atop of Acadia National Park.
Credit: Zack Frank/ Shutterstock

The majority of time spent in Acadia is outdoors, so the warm weather during summer brings the most visitors. If you visit in the high season, be prepared to share the park with a host of other visitors. We recommend sticking to the shoulder seasons of spring and fall to beat the crowds.  

Local Tip: Late April before Memorial Day weekend and September and early October are the best times to visit Acadia. There will definitely be tourists milling about — many of them locals who’ve come to enjoy the park before or after the tourist season. Hiking trails remain uncrowded and low season accommodation rates are in effect during this time.

Where to Stay

Aerial view of Bar Harbor, Maine with mountains peaking in the background.
Credit: Ultima_Gaina/ iStock

The most popular hub to explore Acadia from is the small port town of Bar Harbor. A stay here is recommended for first-time visitors over the smaller towns that border the park like Southwest Harbor, Northwest Harbor, and Seal Harbor. While the lesser-known towns are undoubtedly charming and picturesque, they don’t offer the variety of accommodation and dining options that Bar Harbor does.

Shoulder season rates for Bar Harbor budget motels located within walking distance to downtown start around $100 per night with mid-range and high-end stays ranging up to $500 per night. It’s still possible to find budget options under $200 in July and August, but they are typically located outside of town. Cromwell Harbor Hotel and the Inn on Mount Desert are reasonable options within walking distance of Bar Harbor’s main drag.

Local Tip: Not all accommodations will even be open in April, but the ones that are offer low season prices that will quickly increase as soon as May hits. If affordable accommodation is a priority, book in late April to lock in ideal rates and increase your chances of favorable weather.

What to Do

View of Sand Beach from Great Head at Acadia National Park.
Credit: dkm725/ iStock

A weekend in Acadia just scratches the surface of all there is to do in Maine’s most beloved national park. However, it’s possible to incorporate popular highlights while still getting off the beaten path and enjoying some peace and quiet in nature.

Day 1: Arrival

A guidepost in the port of Bar Harbor showing the way to the waterfront and the beach.
Credit: Carso80/ iStock

You won’t be able to check in to your hotel and settle in until mid-afternoon, so use the day to tackle one of Acadia’s most scenic hiking trails.

Get Your Hike On

View from the trails on Champlain Mountain in Acadia National Park.
Credit: T. Markley/ Shutterstock

The Champlain Mountain to Beehive Loop Trail is a moderate hike that includes a lesser-known path up Champlain Mountain offering panoramic views of Bar Harbor and the Atlantic from the summit. Continue along Champlain South Ridge Trail and soak up vistas of the famous lake known as “The Bowl” before descending to Beehive Loop Trail. Aptly named for its steep sides and precarious perch, the short, 1.5-mile loop trail leads hikers upwards on hair-raising rock scrambles with metal rungs installed at the most vertical segments.

Your reward is unbeatable views of Sand Beach, a swath of uncharacteristic golden sand nestled between two rugged peninsulas. Descend the backside of Beehive and start back across the Ridge Trail to ascend Champlain Mountain again. The trail encompasses three summits (Champlain on the way out and back, as well as Beehive), so it’s a real quad-burner. It’s considered one of the best treks in the park for continuous views since much of Champlain and the entire South Ridge Trail is above the treeline. Well worth the effort!

Visit a Local Watering Hole

After a day on the trails, grab a bite at the Thirsty Whale Tavern in downtown Bar Harbor. This cherished local spot serves up huge portions of fried fish, burgers, and the best “lobstah” roll and cup of “chowdah” in town. Nothing beats a locally-made blueberry soda to wash it all down.

Take an Evening Stroll

Walk off the meal and catch the sunset with a leisurely walk along the waterfront via Shore Path.

Day 2

Close-up of a blueberry muffin from The Independent Cafe in Bar Harbor.
Credit: Maine Foodie Tours/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

Grab an artisan sandwich and coffee from the Independent Café on Main Street in Bar Harbor before biking the park’s famous carriage roads. Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. commissioned the carriage roads in the early 20th century, complete with 16 stone bridges that span the many rivers and streams. Today, the 45 miles of human-made paths are still closed to motor vehicles and are primarily used by bikers as a way to see some of the park’s most scenic points.

Hit the Trails

The pond and bubbles at Acadia National Park.
Credit: Mr. Klein/ Shutterstock

Skip the ever-popular Eagle Lake carriage road — currently closed for construction and crowded with bikers when it is open — and tackle the Around the Mountain Loop. This carriage trail sweeps up over Northwest Harbor offering views of Somes Sound before winding down toward the famous Jordan Pond.

Snap your Instagram-worthy photo with the famous lakes known as “The Bubbles” in the background before hopping back on your bike and completing the loop. If you’re feeling energetic, lock your bikes up at Jordan Pond and hike The Bubbles trail to the iconic rocks looming over the pond for breathtaking panoramas.

Shop

Businesses on West Street in downtown Bar Harbor, Maine.
Credit: AppalachianViews/ iStock

Return to Bar Harbor to shop the cute New England-themed stores. Debbahs is a quirky souvenir shop known for its variety of t-shirts with funny local sayings and references. Don’t miss Cool as a Moose, another Maine-inspired apparel and home goods store.

Eat Like a Local

Put your name in for a table at Side Street Café (expect a wait as it’s a popular spot with locals and tourists alike) and sample the local beers around the corner at Atlantic Brewing Company while you wait. After dinner, wander over the sand flats to Bar Island — only accessible during low tide — and catch the sunset over Mount Desert Narrows.

Day 3

View of the sunrise from Acadia National Park.
Credit: Ran Ding/ Unsplash

Make the most of your last day in Acadia and wake up with the sunrise. While most visitors drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain to catch the first rays of the day, it’s a crowded and common affair. Instead, head to Dorr Point, just one mile south of downtown, and soak up the quiet vibes and peaceful views over Frenchman’s Bay and the Porcupine Islands.

Explore Acadia’s Best-Kept Secret

Schoodic Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean in Acadia National Park.
Credit: Jim Schwabel/ Shutterstock

Head to Winter Harbor’s Schoodic Peninsula — the pristinely beautiful section of Acadia is often overlooked due to its remote location (a 45-minute boat ride or one-hour drive from Bar Harbor) and separation from the rest of the park. You can choose to drive or bike the loop road, but we recommend biking so you can stop frequently to snap photos.

If you choose to drive to Schoodic Peninsula from Bar Harbor, park at Frazer Point. This is the only parking lot before the one-way Schoodic Loop Road begins and the best spot to start and end your journey. The road winds along the ocean, offering long glimpses of coastline lined with pebbly beaches and dense pine-tree covered isles. Make sure to stop at Schoodic Point to wander around the sprawling pink granite headland and admire the waves crashing against the rocks.

Refuel

Wrap up day 3 with a stop at The Bakery in Winter Harbor for sweet treats and refreshing drinks or a filling lunch at J.M. Gerrish Café.

This three-day itinerary may leave you with a bit of muscle fatigue, but you’ll leave with the satisfaction of knowing that you saw the best parts of Acadia National Park and the inspiration to return again one day!

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