Just a few-hour drive up the coast from Boston is a place of curiosity and natural wonder known as Acadia National Park. Soon to be celebrating its centennial year, the rugged yet delicate environment of this first eastern national park is as beautiful and diverse as nearly any in the world. From its glacier-carved mountains and lakes to its dramatic granite cliffs falling to sand and rocky beaches to its forests, meadows and marshes, there awaits an abundance of activities and experiences capable of satisfying virtually any appetite for outdoor adventure.
If you’re searching for an exciting nearby family destination, Acadia offers a version of the perfect New England summer getaway that’s difficult to top. The park is primarily located on the ominously named Mount Desert Island – which is also home to picturesque working harbors, quaint fishing villages, quiet residential neighborhoods and the bustling town of Bar Harbor. Each tourist season, its small year-round population welcomes somewhere in the neighborhood of two million recreational visitors for summer vacations so richly satisfying they tend to keep calling you back for more.
Acadia’s Undeniable Allure
According to Cynthia Ocel, education coordinator at the park, the combination of natural diversity and cultural history is what makes Acadia extraordinary. “Very few parks have an ocean and beautiful forests and lots of fresh water ponds and tide pools,” says Ocel. “There are some cultural elements too that go all the way back to the French explorers and before that the Wabanaki (Native American peoples) … there’s just so much in there.”
Greg Hartford, a native of Maine and founder of acadiamagic.com, grew up taking family vacations to the coast he recalls as little trips to paradise. Hartford also believes it’s the confluence of elements that mesmerize so many visitors to Acadia. “The ruggedness of the coastal area, the waves crashing against the shore … on the other side the mountains that rise up and then open spaces give a sensation that can’t be found anywhere else in Maine. It really leaves a lasting impression,” he says.
Along with its many famous natural attractions such as Sand Beach, Jordan Pond and Cadillac Mountain, Ocel points to a relic of past civilizations as something that sets Acadia apart. “There are 45 miles of historic carriage roads and along that system there’s 17 beautiful stone bridges – each one unique and different,” she says. The carriage roads are a great place for a family bike ride, as well as for walking and running, since they’re not as steep as the trails and you won’t find any cars on them. Families may also experience them by booking a carriage ride from Wildwood Stables or by horseback on an animal of your own.
Shaping Your Acadia Experience
Besides the main visitor center when you first go in the park, Hartford says Sieur de Monts is key for understanding the birth of the park, and a great place to start for families. “There’s a spring house, the original Abbe Museum which has to do with the Native American culture, there’s a Nature Center and what they refer to as the Wild Gardens of Acadia, all in one spot,” Hartford shares.
As for getting around, the ultra-accessible 20-mile plus Park Loop Road takes you in close proximity to many of the most well known scenic attractions, trails and beaches. It’s the best way to take in a lot when you only have a little bit of time.
“I do recommend the [fare-free] Island Explorer shuttle service,” adds Ocel. “You can do one-way hikes with your family, where they drop you off and pick you up on the other side of the trail. You can take your bikes on the buses. Parking can be a problem in the park, so you don’t have to worry about it.”
Hartford encourages families visiting Acadia to venture off the beaten path to park areas ranging from the Western Bay to Bass Harbor to Northeast Harbor to the Schoodic Peninsula. However, be sure not to miss Bar Harbor, where he says man and nature have come together in near-perfect ways.
“Bar Harbor is a place where people go to celebrate their visit with nature,” he explains. “You feel the energy, the smell of the sea air, you see a lot of activities going on and there’s all different kinds of shops and so forth relating to the experience. And of course the Maine lobster, that’s the centerpiece of the food side of things.” Best of all, whether strolling along the busy sidewalks, sitting in the Village Green or Agamont Park or gazing out on the fishing boats and yachts going to and fro, everything you want or need is just a few steps away.
Bar Harbor may be the most heavily tread real estate on Mount Desert Island, but Ocel advises the summer is busy season throughout the park. She recommends planning on getting an early start and being open to exploring later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. “You can really have a very individual, quiet experience, which is hard to believe if you’re at Sand Beach in the middle of the day. And you’ll have a better chance to see more wildlife at those times,” she confides.
A Unique Natural Experience
There’s something about Acadia that’s captivating enough to make kids forget about their video games – parents their busy schedules – and embrace the outdoors. In fact, connecting with children is a central mission of the park service. “These are the people who are going to care about the parks and protect them,” Ocel explains. They offer 10 specific kinds of children’s programs for different ages, all of them family programs where the adults are there. The experience becomes part of your family memories and something you can continue at home.
There are two other specialized activities Ocel points out, the first called Acadia Quest, run by the Friends of Acadia. It’s like a scavenger hunt but for experiences rather than things. You sign up online, form teams and get a packet containing a series of challenges that encourage you to explore and learn. Those who complete the Quest earn badges and are entered into a grand prize drawing. The second is the free Junior Ranger Program, in which kids complete fun activities, participate in ranger-led programs, recite the pledge and earn a special certificate and embroidered patch.
As for recreation, the world is your oyster. In addition to more than 125 miles of hiking trails, summer visitors enjoy everything from biking, boating, fishing, kayaking and rock climbing to guided nature walks, boat tours and more. An activity that seems to capture children’s imaginations is searching for wildlife in tide pools, although Ocel warns it has to be done safely both for you and the small and fragile animals. “Find out from a ranger where the best places are and when the low tide is. That really opens up a whole other world because it’s sea stars and anemones and sea slugs and all sorts of pretty seaweeds,” she says.
Sunrises and sunsets are also typically spectacular from vantages throughout the park. And for lovers of the night skies, Mount Desert Island on a clear night provides a terrific celestial view. “A lot of kids have never seen the Milky Way and this is one place you can,” says Ocel. “We have the Stars Over Sand Beach program that’s very popular with families. Rangers have telescopes and laser points to guide people through the heavens.”
Where to Stay and Play
When visiting a national park, there’s typically a certain allure and inherent benefits of staying within its boundaries. At Acadia, that exclusively means either tent or RV camping. “We have two campgrounds in the park. One is called Blackwood and that’s closer to Bar Harbor. And then Seawall is on the west side of the Island. Both are in the woods but easy access to the ocean,” says Ocel. You can hike right from the campgrounds without using the car and also have the island-wide shuttle system at your disposal. Best of all, there’s the experience of being around the campfire, sharing the sights, sounds and smells with other like-minded visitors. “Kids love it! Give them a marshmallow, a campfire and a stick and that’s really all you need,” Ocel says with a laugh.
Hartford says it’s to everyone’s benefit to get to know the different areas that are on the island. “If you want to be at the center of activity, you want that adrenaline rush of just a lot of people on the streets going from place to place, Bar Harbor is for you,” he says. “If you want to go where it’s a little more quiet and relaxed, check out some of the other places on the western side of the island.”
From camping, cabins and cottages to B&Bs, vacation rentals and upscale hotels, there’s no shortage of accommodations. Simply decide what type of experience you wish to have and go from there. Just remember, the best spots book up early, so it’s prudent to make reservations well in advance.
Wherever you stay, you won’t have to travel far to find plenty of tempting food ranging from clam chowder and Maine lobster to artisan ice cream. And don’t be shy responding to hand-painted signs advertising live lobster as low at $4 a pound. For less than half the price you’d pay at home you usually end up with fresh lobster just plucked out of the sea by real New England lobstermen. There’s simply nothing like it!
Time to Get Going
Whether you’re heading to Acadia National Park for the first time or you’ve been traveling there your entire life, it’s always a new experience depending on which trail or road you go down, what activities you choose or where you stay. “That’s the beauty of it. There’s always something there to discover each time you go back,” says Hartford.
While every summer Mount Desert Island plays host to a variety of captivating events, concerts and festivals, next year’s visitors are in store for something truly exceptional. Says Ocel, “2016 is Acadia’s 100th anniversary and also the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, so we have two reasons to celebrate. We’re going to have a lot more things going on for families and for kids in addition to the regular activities.”
Be sure to check the park website for announcements and updates to the calendar of events. And read on for insider ideas for planning the perfect family getaway.
Check out Activities and Attractions on the next page!
Attractions and Activities
Visit the official park website at nps.gov/acad/index.htm and acadiamagic.com for additional details on the following glossary of highlights and to learn about other popular attractions such as Jordan Pond, Otter Cliffs, Seawall, the Shore Path and Thunder Hole.
• Sand Beach – Uniquely beautiful sand beach made up of tiny fragments of colorful shells.
• Cadillac Mountain – Highpoint on the northeastern coast offering spectacular panoramas and first place in the U.S to see the sunrise (certain times of year).
• Great Head Trail – A moderate trek along the headland near Sand Beach featuring one-of-a-kind views of prominent park landmarks.
• Animal Watching – Hawks in the fall, warblers in spring, whale watching tours out of Bar Harbor daily. The park is home to about 60 species of land and marine mammals; look for busy beavers in the early hours working on their lodges and dams.
• Gorham Mountain Trail – Coastal hike near major sights of the park, place to view sunrise over Schoodic Peninsula.
• Carroll Homestead – Historic 1825 house where families participate in old-time games, view artifacts and listen to stories celebrating the pioneer spirit.
• Echo Lake – Best option for a family swim in a pristine fresh-water lake with some of the warmest water on the island.
• Beech Mountain Trail – Family-friendly trail adjacent to Echo Lake with an old fire tower and fantastic views at the top.
• Boat Rides – Bring your own boat, rent one (with or without captain services) or book a spot on four distinctive ranger-guided tours. Wildlife, lighthouses, stories and exploration of the outer islands await!