Acadia National Park

During the entire month of October, we only visited one national park. We spent a week in Door County, WI, visited family in Chicago and Detroit, explored Montreal and Quebec city, and (after our visit to Acadia National Park), wandered all over New England feasting our eyes on fall foliage before briefly returning home to New York City to spend Halloween with friends and run all the errands.

It was a fantastic month, chock-full of highlights—eating loads of cheese in Vermont, watching seals on the beach in Cape Cod, trick or treating in Sleepy Hollow—but our favorite part of all may have been our visit to Acadia.

The only national park in the Northeast and one of only a handful on the East coast, Acadia is a patchwork of protected forests, mountains, and coastline on and around Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It’s jaw-droopingly beautiful, and we lucked out by having beautiful weather and fall colors during our visit. We hadn’t been in Acadia ten minutes before we deemed it one of our favorite parks so far—it was love at first sight.

A 19th-century magnet for the uber-wealthy, Mt. Desert Island has long been home to summer mansions (although the bougious refer to them as “cottages”.) In the early 19th century, many began to worry the island would lose the natural qualities that made it so wonderful to visit, and some part-time residents began urging the government to establish a national park. One of these summer citizens was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and he eventually bought up 11,000 acres of land to donate to what began as Lafayette National Forest and became Acadia National Park in 1929.

We started our tour at the visitor center, where we watched the introductory park video, picked up a Jr. Ranger book and got the skinny on the best sights, so that the next morning we were fully prepared for our first hike: Precipice Trail.

One of Acadia’s funnest features is its ladder trails. Because the mountains here are made of glacier-carved granite, some of the trails employ iron ladders, rungs and rails to make them accessible to visitors who aren’t technical rock climbers or mountain goats. Precipice Trail is the most popular and strenuous of these, and we couldn’t resist checking it out. I strapped Margi to my back, David held on tight to Graham, and we set off for our ascent of the near-vertical trail. 

We started our climb clamoring over boulders as we switchbacked our way through forest at the base of the mountain, following carefully the blue blazes that marked the trail, since it’s otherwise hard to see a clear path up. Graham was a champion climber; in fact, this was the first hike he didn’t complain once about—he was too delighted by conquering each boulder.

Once we got above the tree line, we had one of the best views I’ve ever seen: forest ablaze with fall colors, pink granite coastline, and brilliant blue ocean. We were setting a terrifically slow pace, which was just fine by me because it gave us plenty of time to take in the scenery. We reached a flat spot, had a picnic on the rocks, and continued to the summit of Champlain Mountain, Graham’s very first solo summit and our favorite hike we’ve been on yet.

We followed the less-steep North Ridge Trail to get down the mountain; Graham proved an excellent spotter of the cairns that marked the path and led us all the way back down.

Quads quivering, we headed to Sand Beach to give our legs a rest and played in the sand til dinner.

The next day, we continued our exploration of the Park Loop Road, beginning with a visit to Thunder Hole, a stone cave that roars like thunder when the tide is in and a big wave hits. Next, we climbed down to Little Hunters Beach, where the shore is covered in perfectly rounded pieces of granite called cobblestones. We took our time climbing around the shore, exploring tide pools and listening to the cobbles tap together as the waves came in.

Our next stop was the Jordan Pond House, famous for its afternoon tea and popovers. The popovers are ridiculously overpriced, but we can never resist a baked good, so we stopped for lunch at the restaurant. We were far from the only people who had the same idea, so while we waited for our table, Graham collected leaves and chased monarchs, and Margi and I took a nap on the lawn.

Post-popovers, we headed to Sieur de Monts to check out the Wild Gardens of Acadia, an area with twelve sections of garden, each reflecting one of the habitats found in the area, from meadows to bogs to seaside. This is just the kind of detailed exhibit that fills my nerd brain with joy.

After exploring the gardens, we drove on to Cadillac Mountain to check out the views and catch the sunset. Cadillac is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and from October 7 to March 6, it’s the first place in the U.S. to see the sun, which makes it an immensely popular sunrise-watching spot. Loathe to wake our kids up before dawn, we opted for the sunset view instead; it was spectacular, though the kids were pretty well done with the day by that point and they mostly stayed in the bus to eat tacos and listen to show tunes, as we are all wont to do.

On our last day in Acadia (we would have stayed forever, honestly, but the next day the weather turned cold and rainy and pushed us on into the rest of New England), we headed to the west side of Mt. Desert Island. We were on a mission to find some tide pool critters for Graham’s Tide Pool Bingo Jr. Ranger activity, so we hiked the Ship Harbor Trail, which leads out to a rocky stretch of shoreline and some incredible tide pools. We climbed and picnicked and searched for star fish before heading further around the peninsula to see the Bass Harbor lighthouse.

This side of the park sees far fewer visitors than the east side, and beyond the lighthouse area, we seemed to have the roads to ourselves. We stopped at Pretty Marsh for a hike down to the rocky harbor and some hermit crab observation before heading back to Hulls Cove to get Graham’s Jr. Ranger Badge.

One of Acadia’s unique features is its more than 50 miles of carriage roads, a network of crushed-stone roads established by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and banned to automobiles. Because they’re car-free and well-maintained, the carriage roads are perfect for biking, and from Hulls Cove, we loaded the kids into their bike seats for a ride around Witch Hole Pond.

After a rocky start up an alarmingly steep hill, we spent one of our most pleasant afternoons in recent memory biking 6 miles around the pond, surrounded by colorful foliage, passing stone bridges and bird-filled marshes along the way. The path was a perfect mix of hills, just enough to give us a good challenge (especially with our hefty kids on back) and with a brilliant view of the ocean as payoff.

After our bike, we treated ourselves to some of the best ice cream we’ve ever had, at Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream in Bar Harbor. Bar Harbor, though packed with tourists, is an idyllic little town, complete with a troubadour in the park. 

We’re feeling more contented generally in our trip, as we’re slowing down our pace, spending more time exploring and less time driving. The days we spent at Acadia were entirely pleasant, and while we were there I felt so enormously grateful to be in the world, to experience sunny autumn days, to examine tide pools and play in the sand with my kids. We’ve been bombarded with wonder this year—our eyes have been wide for months now—and I love knowing that so many of these places we’ve come to love are not far-flung, but in our own country. When we’re back in New York, we’ll be near enough to return to Acadia for weekend trips, to build more memories in this place and try to recapture the amazement of experiencing it for the first time.

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