Acadia National Park Maine
Acadia National Park falls within the top 10 most visited parks in the US welcoming over 3 million visitors a year! From the moment we entered the park, it wasn’t hard to see why it’s so popular. Rugged coastlines, peaceful forests, and majestic mountains make up endless miles of beauty just off Maine’s coast. Acadia National Park is located mostly on Mount Desert Island (pronounced like dessert or de-zert), connected to the mainland via bridge. In addition, a few smaller islands and a small portion of the nearby Schoodic Peninsula make up the entire 49,000-acre national park. We spent a wonderful October week on Mount Desert Island and wanted to share with you some of the best things to do in Acadia National Park.
Acadia National Park Fee
Before we get to what to do in Acadia National Park, we want to inform you that like most national parks, there is an entry fee. As of July 2018, the cost of entry is $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, or $15 per person (entering on bike or foot). The pass is good for 7 days. You can now buy your 7-day or annual pass online. This fee covers parking throughout Acadia, free use of the shuttle buses (summer months), and maintenance and conservation of the park itself.
You can buy an annual pass to Acadia National Park for $55 if you plan to visit the park frequently throughout the year. Or if you plan to visit a variety of national parks and other federal lands throughout the year, we’d encourage you to buy the America the Beautiful Pass. This pass covers your entry into national parks, forests, and other federal lands throughout the US. The annual pass cost is $80/per year. However, the pass is FREE for military and 4th graders. Those 62 and older can buy an annual America the Beautiful pass for $20 or a lifetime pass for $80!
Best Things to Do in Acadia National Park
Now, let’s get to the fun stuff! For the purpose of this post, we’ll be highlighting things to do in Acadia National Park in summer and fall. A few things we’re going to highlight are inaccessible or require special equipment to access in the winter months, due to heavy snowfall. In addition, the majority of park roads are closed from the first of December to mid-April. If you’d like information about visiting Acadia National Park during the winter, read this. Since we visited in the early fall when everything was still open, it’s what we’re familiar with. So, without further adieu, let’s get to the best things to do in Acadia National Park!
Acadia National Park Loop Road
Whether visiting Acadia National Park as a port of call on a cruise or staying for a few days, most people make Park Loop Drive a part of their visit to Acadia. This 27-mile scenic drive is a great way to access many of Acadia’s beautiful natural attractions, which we’ll highlight next. You can do the drive yourself or take advantage of the Park Loop Drive shuttle route (during the summer months only). Due to heavy snowfall in the winter, Park Loop Drive typically closes between the 1st of December and mid-April each year. For current information on road openings/closures, visit the park’s website.
Things to See & Do Along Park Loop Road
We drove Park Loop Road ourselves, so we cannot comment on the experience of riding the Island Explorer shuttle bus. However, we can tell you, starting at the Acadia National Park visitor center, the journey on the Park Loop Road bus will take approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes. This is the journey time provided you don’t get off at any one of the seven stops. Shuttle stops along Park Loop Road include North Ridge (Cadillac Mountain), Sieur de Monts Spring, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Wildwood Stables, Jordan Pond, and Bubble Pond. (Again, please note, shuttle service is only available during the summer.) The Island Explorer shuttle bus is a great way to avoid parking woes that are common in Acadia during peak time.
However, we would argue that one benefit to driving Park Loop Road yourself is the freedom to stop and explore wherever you want, whenever you want, and for however long you want! The surrounding (above and below) images were taken on minor detours from the drive. It’s quite unlikely that the shuttle bus driver will stop the vehicle if you feel drawn to a particular landscape. The panoramic views of Frenchman Bay are reason alone to do your own driving tour of Park Loop Road. So, if you think you’ll want to stop for photographs or explore further along the route, consider driving yourself.
Sand Beach is one of many Acadia National Park must see landscapes and one of the most popular stops along Park Loop Road. It’s a beautiful cove surrounded by forests atop rocky coastlines. In fact, it’s Acadia’s only sand beach on the ocean. Though you won’t see too many swimmers braving the water. The water temps rarely get above the mid-50s (even in the summer)! The majority of visitors simply stroll along the water’s edge or use Sand Beach as a starting point to nearby hikes. These hikes include Ocean Path (mentioned next), The Beehive Hike (coming up after that), and Great Head Trail. You can read more details about these (and more) hikes in our Acadia National Park Hiking write-up.
Want to get out and stretch your legs a bit? Ocean Path along Park Loop Drive is a great opportunity for doing just that. Plus, it offers some pretty spectacular views of Mt Desert Island’s rugged coastline! With an overall elevation gain of less than 20 feet, it’s a relatively flat trail, perfect for the entire family! Ocean Path parallels Park Loop Road for about 2.2 miles, starting at the upper parking area for Sand Beach and terminating at Otter Point, where you’ll see Otter Cliffs. The cliffs are 100-foot pink granite buttresses that rise up straight out of the water and are popular with rock climbers and repellers.
Ocean Path is a one-way trail, so you’ll need to return back to the lot to collect your vehicle. (If utilizing the shuttle in the summer, get off at the Sand Beach stop (either Route 3 or 4) to begin the walk. The Route 3 bus can then pick you up at Otter Point if you don’t feel like doing the return trip.)
Feeling up for a little more of a challenge? Hike up The Beehive! Yes, up! There are fairly steep portions of this Acadia hiking trail, complete with iron rungs and hand and foot holds. Not only will the hike take your breath away, but so will the views! You’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of Sand Beach and beyond. The 520-foot summit hike is 1.4 miles, whether you go back down the same way you came up or go down the back side of the mini-mountain. The Beehive is appropriately named for its honeycombed eastern face that was sculpted by glaciers.
Shortly after leaving Sand Beach, you’ll come to Thunder Hole, a popular natural attraction along Park Loop Road. Timing is everything when you visit Thunder Hole. To be honest… we weren’t impressed, but that’s only because our timing wasn’t right; the seas were calm on the day we visited. Therefore we didn’t get to experience the thunderous roar caused by waves crashing into the narrow granite channel. This is of course how Thunder Hole got its name! If you’re lucky enough to see Thunder Hole in action from the designated viewing area, just know you may get very very wet! Be sure to visit at high tide for the most rewarding show. Big waves have been known to shoot water up to 40 feet in the air!
Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is the highest mountain on the Eastern seaboard. And at 1,530 feet, it’s also the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast north of Brazil! It’s another Acadia National Park must see attraction, as the summit offers the BEST views on Mt Desert Island! If you’re looking for a strenuous hike in Acadia, Cadillac Mountain is it! Though if you want the views for minimal effort, take the slow winding drive up to the summit.
Many people strive to get to the summit before the sun even comes up. Why? Because October 7 – March 6, it is the first place to view sunrise in the US. Not much of a morning person? Check out the sunset from the Blue Hill Overlook on Cadillac Mountain. No matter what time of day you visit, you’ll love the views from Cadillac Mountain!
Jordan Pond is not only a beautiful place to explore, but it’s also where you’ll find Jordan Pond House restaurant. Overlooking the pond, this restaurant is famous for its popovers, a light hollow roll served with jam. Popovers and tea have been a staple of this restaurant since the 1890s. Enjoying tea on the lawn has been a custom since Nellie McIntire started the summer tradition in the late 1800s.
Even if you don’t visit the restaurant, you should still plan to visit Jordan Pond. This glacier-formed pond has some of the clearest water around. There’s a great 3.4-mile mostly flat hiking trail that goes around the perimeter of the lake. We did a portion of the trail, and turned around when we were ready. We could’ve easily gone all the way around, but our son had been in his baby-carrying backpack for quite some time that day and we wanted to give him (and our backs) a break.
More Things to Do in Acadia National Park
Now that we’ve covered the main attractions off Park Loop Road, let’s take a look at more fun things to do in Acadia National Park!
Acadia National Park Tide Pools
Like with Thunder Hole on Park Loop Road, timing is everything when visiting the tide pools in Acadia National Park. Check the tide charts and be sure to visit during low tide. Aim to arrive a little before low tide to allow yourself time to explore before the tide comes back in. It’s important that you don’t wade or sit in the tidepools as the sea-life within is very fragile. The rocks and algae are very slippery, therefore wear sturdy closed-toe footwear and watch your step!
So, where can you find these little pools teeming with life? Bar Island Sand Bar is a sand and gravel bar connecting Bar Island to Bridge Street in Bar Harbor. The sand bar is only accessible for approximately 1.5 hours on either side of low tide. It’s really important to note the times of the tides here, because the sand bar essentially disappears outside of those 3 hours of low tide. Two other places to experience the tide pools of Acadia are the Ship Harbor Trail and the Wonderland Trail. Both family-friendly hiking trails are located not too far from Southwest Harbor on the “quiet side” of Mt Desert Island. You can read more about these two incredible trails and their tide pools in our Hiking in Acadia post.
Boat Rides in Acadia
Because Acadia National Park is essentially surrounded by water, another great way to experience the beauty of this park is to get out on the water. Go for a sunset sail, join in on a kayaking tour, or head out on a whale watching tour. Taking a boat ride in Acadia is a great way to experience the park from a different perspective!
Atlantic Brewing Company
Do you like craft beer? If so, check out Atlantic Brewing Company. Some of their classic beers include ales, IPAs, and porters, along with some unique flavors like Island Ginger and Blueberry Ale. Depending on the season, you can also try their summer ale or leaf-peeping (autumn) ale. Atlantic Brewing Company has two locations on Mount Desert Island – one in midtown Bar Harbor and another just a few minutes outside of town. Their tasting rooms are open daily late May to mid October. Brewery tours are offered at their Town Hill location every day in season at 2/3/4 pm and are limited to 25 people per tour. They start distributing tickets an hour before the tour starts and are available on a first-come first-served basis.
Acadia Night Sky Festival
If you plan to visit Acadia National Park in September, you just might be able to catch the Night Sky Festival. This annual event is a celebration of the star-filled skies in Downeast Maine. During the festival, attend workshops from internationally recognized speakers and enjoy hands-on experiences. Whether you’re just intrigued by the night sky or are a serious amateur astronomer, there’s something for everyone! Even if you aren’t in town during the festival, be sure to get outside and look up at the night sky during your time in Acadia. Chances are, on a clear night, you just might be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye!
Visit the Quiet Side of Acadia
While Bar Harbor, Cadillac Mountain, and Park Loop Road may get the most publicity for things to do in Acadia National Park, there’s a whole other side of Mt Desert Island that deserves recognition. Known as the “quiet side” of Acadia, the three charming towns of Tremont, Southwest Harbor, and Mt Desert make up this quieter part of the island west of Somes Sound. Sargeant Drive (off Route 198) is a nice scenic drive to the quiet side of Mt Desert Island along the sound’s eastern shore. Somes Sound is home to the only fiord (a smaller version of a fjord) in the continental US.
Following in size behind Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor is the second largest town on Mt Desert Island. 2,000 residents call this charming town home. It is where we stayed during our visit to Acadia National Park because we wanted to steer clear of the hustle and bustle of Bar Harbor and the surrounding area. More on our luxurious home rental in Southwest Harbor at the end of this post!
This town is a great base for exploring the western side of Acadia. It gives you easy access to many excellent hikes in Acadia, including the Wonderland and Ship Harbor trails where you’ll find some of those tidepools we mentioned earlier. You’re also not far from the famous Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, which we’ll talk about in a moment. And there’s a lobster pier in SW Harbor you MUST visit. More on that next! Finally, here’s a fun fact about Southwest Harbor: Every year in July, the town turns a bright shade of pink as locals and tourists alike flock to Main Street to celebrate the Flamingo Festival. Don Featherstone, the inventor of the tacky plastic lawn ornament, is often the grand marshal of the parade.
Beal’s Lobster Pier
Whether you stay in Southwest Harbor or visit on a day trip, you MUST stop by Beal’s Lobster Pier. This family owned fish and lobster pier opened in 1932. The pier is in operation year-round, shipping their delicious lobsters all over the country. The restaurant is only open May through October during the peak tourism season. We were so lucky to have visited Beal’s on their last day of operation for the Fall season on our trip to Acadia. A day later and we would’ve missed out on some serious deliciousness!
Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse
One of the most iconic views in Acadia National Park is Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, as seen from below, along the rocky shoreline at the southern entrance of Blue Hill Bay. Built in 1858, it is the only lighthouse on Mt Desert Island and is still in operation today. You can tour the grounds around the lighthouse, but are not permitted to visit the lighthouse itself. Amateur and professional photographers alike gather at the rocky shore beneath the lighthouse every evening in hopes of capturing the iconic sunset shot of the lighthouse. There is a steep set of stairs leading down to the rocks below. Be sure to wear sturdy footwear for climbing over the rocks.
If you’re a lighthouse enthusiast, you may want to look into Lighthouse Passport, created by The US Lighthouse Society. Each time you visit or view a participating lighthouse, you can receive an official stamp in your passport. Head on over to www.uslhs.org for more information on how you can obtain your Lighthouse Passport.
Best Time to Visit Acadia National Park
In order to enjoy the many things to do we have mentioned throughout this post, the best time to visit Acadia National Park is May through October. This is also the only time that the Visitors Center in Hulls Cove is open. Acadia sees freezing temperatures and an abundance of snow November to April, so unless that’s what you’re looking for, it’s best to avoid these months. And remember, many of the park roads are closed in the winter months. It may also be in your best interest to avoid July and August, if you can, as these are the busiest months in Acadia.
Tips for Visiting Acadia in the Summer
If July or August is the only time you are able to visit, by all means – GO! Just be prepared for the crowds. A few tips for visiting during the busy summer months: 1) Try to visit popular attractions first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon. 2) Take advantage of the FREE Island Explorer Bus we spoke about earlier, so you don’t have to deal with parking. The clean propane powered buses service 10 different routes connecting accommodations and campgrounds with destinations throughout Acadia National Park. 3) Check the cruise ship schedule, even if you’re not arriving on a cruise yourself! Over 180 cruise ships arrive at the Harbor Place dock in Bar Harbor from mid-April through early November. One or two ships in port can mean a difference of thousands of visitors throughout the island. So, if you are able to plan your trip around when there won’t be a huge influx of cruise ship passengers, that might help alleviate the crowds a little bit.
Acadia National Park in October
We visited Acadia National Park in the Fall; mid October to be exact. It was part of our 2-month road trip throughout New England, chasing the fall foliage. It was pretty much the last week before everything shut down for the season, so we expected it to be less crowded. However, we weren’t the only leaf-peepers in town, so it was quite crowded. Our visit also coincided with the Mt Desert Marathon which brought a substantial number of visitors to the island. We knew about the marathon ahead of time and booked a place on the quiet side of the island in Southwest Harbor (more on that next).
Park Loop Road was extremely busy with packed parking lots and loads of other hikers. In fact, the road to the summit of Cadillac Mountain got shut down as we were departing the mountain because the parking lot was at capacity. However, we practically had the Wonderland and Ship Harbor trails to ourselves on the quiet side of Acadia. We avoided the popular town of Bar Harbor, as we’re not big on crowded towns who primarily cater to tourists and cruise ship passengers. All in all it was probably less busy than it is in July or August, but Acadia National Park in October is also popular due to the colorful foliage and crisp fall temperatures.
Where to Stay in Acadia National Park
Finally, let’s talk about where to stay in Acadia National Park. With over 500 campsites and more than 4,500 rooms available on Mt Desert Island, there is no shortage of wonderful places to stay. We typically like to book vacation homes on AirBnB or VRBO when we travel. Having an entire house to ourselves is nice because we enjoy the abundant space along with a full kitchen to prepare meals “at home”.
We found the perfect rental on Mt Desert Island on VRBO (see images below). Spruce Cottage is nestled in the woods within walking distance of the Southwest Harbor town center. It’s a circa 1936 Cape-style home complete with a wood burning fireplace and large wrap around porch. At over 2,000 square feet, with 3 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms, it’s the perfect accommodation for traveling families. To check availability at Spruce Cottage, click HERE. Otherwise, check out these lodging options in Acadia National Park.
TIP: Book Early! As mentioned, Acadia National Park is a very popular destination in Maine. Lodging fills up quickly, especially for those busy summer months.
We hope this post has helped you with planning your trip to Acadia National Park. Have a wonderful time in Acadia!