There are no deserts 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 is one of the smallest but 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 the bareness and treelessness of this rocky coast. He nicknamed it the island of desert mountains, or “sterile mountains”. He was not mistaken: the landscape of “Downeast Maine” along the Bay of Fundy, between the “Mid-Coast” region and the Canadian border, is unique to the rest of New England. Here, lush forests give way to granite mountains rising from the sea. It’s the highest along the east coast this side of Rio de Janeiro.
Acadia has a lot to offer visitors, and even locals return time and time again to explore its riches. If you want to visit the only national park in the northeast this side of the Shenandoah Valley, this is definitely worth the trip. Here we explain how to get the most out of your trip to Acadia National Park.
How to get to Acadia National Park
During the peak summer months, driving your car is convenient everywhere except in the park itself. Yes, you can get from Boston Logan Airport to the park entrance in four and a half hours flat. But be aware that the traffic and parking once you’re inside the park can kill your vibe. If you plan to see a few other parts of Maine on your trip (like the restaurant scene in Portland or the preppy beach enclave in Kennebunkport), it’s probably best to drive. If your only goal is Acadia, there are a few other options.
Regional carrier Cape Air offers scheduled flights from Boston to Mount Desert Island. From there it is easy to take a taxi from the airport to your hotel. And as 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 regular shuttle that loops around the island and through the national park, hitting all the major points along the way. The Island Explorer website also has a handy “Car-Free Travel Guide” that lists various public transportation options near Bangor, Maine, as well as Boston.
What to expect
The temperature in New England, especially along the coast, can be variable. Even in the height of summer, cooler nights can dip into the 40s, so definitely pack a few layers. At this time of year, everything is on the table when it comes to New England weather, from dry heat to high winds and even hail. Chances are you can expect daytime temperatures in the high 70s with plenty of sunshine and humidity. Hikers in drier climates might be surprised at how oppressive the heat can be. Pack diapers, 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 go-to resource for trail closures, repair notices, and advisories on which parts of the park may or may not be open at any given time.
As for where to locate yourself, it’s worth noting that there are several villages on Mount Desert Island, the most notable being the charming town of Bar Harbor and the sleepier Southwest Harbor. If it’s your first time on the island and proximity to the national park entrance is your priority, go for something in Bar Harbor. Southwest Harbor is about a 20-minute drive from the state park (more traffic), but, conversely, is much sleepier and more low-key than the often crowded streets of Bar Harbor in the height of summer.
What to do in Acadia National Park
Drive the Park Loop Road
Acadia’s 27-mile Park Loop Road is the ultimate scenic drive, with ocean views, lakeside splendor and dramatic cliffs in spades. It’s a worthwhile drive on its own, but it’s also the most convenient way to access many of the park’s top attractions like Sand Beach, Otter Point, and Cadillac Mountain.
Walk, walk and walk some more
Did we mention you should hike while you’re here? There are over 250 km of hiking trails in Acadia National Park, with options ranging from family-friendly to strenuous. Probably the classic is the hike up Cadillac Mountain, especially at sunrise, as it’s one of 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 top), locals love “The Bee-hive” summit, 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 are treated to views as great as anywhere else in the park. You also only have a fraction of the tourists. And remember, the National Park Service’s Acadia website is a great resource for live updates on trails that may or may not be closed for repair.
See Acadia from the water
Hiking trails through Acadia National Park allow many of the park’s rugged natural features to be explored on foot. Viewing them from the water gives a unique perspective on the geography of the park. Take a tour with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., which offers whale-watching tours, puffin tours, lighthouse tours, as well as a tour from the water of Acadia National Park. You’ll see things you’d otherwise never see in Earth Adventures.
Kayak to an oyster farm
OK, the Bar Harbor Oyster Company oyster farm may not technically be within the boundaries of Acadia National Park. But it’s an activity that any visitor to Mount Desert Island, especially those who love food, should consider. Aquaculture has boomed in New England in recent years, and this small local operation uses its farm tour program to provide insight into the daily life of a modern farmer. The tour runs twice a week in July and August – note that it books up quickly! Guests can kayak to the company’s oyster farm and sample fresh bivalves picked straight from the water.
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. Fortunately, this is not the case. 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 porches, private bathrooms, and private fire pits. The property also has an outdoor pool and hot tub, and highly trained staff can advise on hiking, canoeing, and biking in the national park. You can also brush up on your outdoor skills, like making fires and reading trail maps. New 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 never be able to return to regular camping again.
Queen Anne’s Revenge
Everyone loves a comeback story. The before and after photos on Instagram of this hostel’s recent renovation are breathtaking. Three neighboring 19th century cottages have been transformed into contemporary yet historic hideaways. They are definitely 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 complimentary continental breakfast each morning. Looking for something more substantial? The Inn is conveniently located within walking distance of 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 a view of the national park. The hotel’s restaurant, Stewman’s Lobster Pound, is one of the best in Bar Harbor for classic Maine lobster cooking. Meanwhile, the Paddy’s Hotel Pub is a fun and reliable place for a nightcap. Keep in mind that the hotel is 18+. On an island that can be intensely family-friendly in the warmer months, it’s a welcome respite for adults. 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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