The AFT Guide to Acadia National Park

The first national park east of the Mississippi, Acadia is a patchwork of protected forests, mountains, and coastline on and around Mt. Desert Island in Maine.

A 19th-century magnet for the uber-wealthy, Mt. Desert Island has long been home to summer mansions (although the bourgeois 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.

Read about our first visit to Acadia National Park here.

a tide pool on a cloudy day in acadia national park

Where Acadia is located:

On the coast of Maine, near Bar Harbor. Most of the park’s area is on Mount Desert Island.

Getting to Acadia National Park:

The nearest airport is in Bangor, about an hour from the park. The larger airport in Portland is a 3 hour drive from the park.

Public transportation is not the most convenient way to get to the park, but you can get to Bangor by train or bus from many large East Coast cities, then catch a bus from Bangor to the park. Check here for bus details.

man walking on boardwalk trail in acadia national park

Where to stay in and around Acadia:

The park operates four campgrounds, one of which is only reachable by boat. The other three fill up very quickly and advanced reservations are vital. Compare campgrounds and make reservations here.

There are a number of private campgrounds on Mt. Desert Island; see a list here. Again, you’ll want to make advance reservations, especially on summer weekends and holidays. 

Bar Harbor has many motel and AirBnb-type lodgings, as do other nearby towns. Most visitors stay in Bar Harbor, which makes it a charmingly bustling little town.

little hunters beach in acadia national park

How long to stay in Acadia National Park:

We’d recommend at least 3 days to experience a range of what Acadia has to offer. Spend a day and a half seeing the sites along Park Loop Road and hiking a ladder trail, then another half day biking one of the park’s carriage roads. Then decamp to one of the park’s less-peopled corners: the Schoodic Peninsula, Isle au Haut, or the western side of the park.

If you can spend more time, there are plenty of ways to fill it. If you only have one day, spend your time hitting the major sites along Park Loop Road. 

mom and kids looking at tide pools in acadia national park

When to go to Acadia National Park:

Acadia sees peak visitation in July and August. Though busy, it’s a lovely time to go, especially if you want to enjoy water activities and beaches.

In May, June and September, the weather will still be nice but the park will be less crowded. Fall foliage peaks in October and is a brilliant time to be in the park.

Most of Park Loop Road and many of the park’s facilities close from November through April, but the park is open year-round. Winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

mom and kids hiking in acadia national park
We visited Acadia in early October and the foliage looked like this!

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Paddling
  • Hiking
  • History
  • Scenery
dad and kids with lighthouse on maine coast

Pair with:

Maine’s coast is stunning and worth exploring beyond Acadia. If you’re coming from Portland, get to the park via U.S. Route 1 for beaches, wave-pounded granite outcroppings, and plenty of chances to eat lobster rolls.

mom and kids looking in tide pools on maine coast

Getting around:

From late June to early October, the park runs a free shuttle called the Island Explorer. Since parking can be limited and traffic heavy during these months, we highly recommend taking the shuttle! There are eight routes linking major sites, trailheads, campgrounds and nearby towns.

mom biking with baby in acadia national park

Activities: 

Along Park Loop Road:

Thunder Hole:

A short walk from Park Loop Road is this stone cave that roars like thunder when the tide is in and a big wave hits.

Jordan Pond House:

Famous for its tea and popovers, this pocket of fanciness inside the park is a fun place to stop for lunch or a snack. There’s often a wait, so plan to hang out around the lovely pond and grounds in the meantime.

Cadillac Mountain:

The highest point along the Atlantic seaboard and a very popular spot to watch the sun rise since it’s the first place in the U.S. to see the sun (at least from early October to early March.)

a view of the sunset from cadillac mountain in acadia national park

Carriage Roads:

John D. Rockefeller built 45 miles of carriage roads in the park that wind through some of the area’s loveliest places and are off-limits to cars. You can explore them on foot, on horse, by bike, or by cross-country ski or snowshoe in the winter. 

a view of a bridge on the carriage path in acadia national park

Biking:

Acadia’s 45 miles of carriage roads are ideal for biking. Covered in crushed stone and with a range of lengths and intensities, there are options here for any visitor in biking shape. Good spots to try are around Jordan Pond, Bubble Pond, and the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. Find a map of the park’s carriage roads here.

family with kids taking a bike ride on the carriage path in acadia national park

Boating:

There are over two dozen ponds and lakes in and around Acadia that allow personal watercraft. Some spots allow motorized boats. Each place has its own restrictions; check here for specifics.

For sea kayaking, you can launch your personal craft in Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor or Southwest Harbor. If you’re not an experienced sea paddler, go with a guided tour in Frenchman Bay, on the east side of Mt. Desert Island.

Climbing:

There are several spots in the park popular with climbers, including Otter Cliff and Great Head. Some routes are maintained by local climbers. There are a handful of companies in Bar Harbor that can guide your climb and provide gear.

a kid hiking on the precipice trail in acadia national park

Beaches:

As a coastal park, Acadia has a lot of beaches. Sand Beach and Echo Lake Beach are the best for swimming; both have lifeguards in the summer. Be warned, the water here is COLD, always (though it’s warmer at Echo Lake than in the ocean itself.) But even if you don’t take a dip, any beach is a great place to while away an afternoon. 

a family with kids exploring a rocky beach in acadia national park

Tidepooling:

Acadia’s rocky beaches make great spots for exploring tide pools. Some particularly good spots to head to at low tide include Wonderland and Ship Harbor on the western side of the park, Little Hunters Beach, and the Bar Island Sand Bar. Be careful not to crush any creatures as you walk around and don’t put your feet in the tide pools. 

a family with kids looking at a tidepool in acadia national park

Hiking:

Acadia has a range of beautiful trails; as with most national parks, hiking is the best way to experience Acadia. Though some trails are strenuous, the longest hike in the park is under 7.5 miles, putting pretty much all of Acadia’s 120+ hikable miles within reach of the moderately fit visitor.

a dad and kid climbing precipice trail in acadia national park

Here are a few trails to start with:

Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail:

Most visitors to Cadillac Mountain drive to the top. Show them up by hiking the 7.4-mile roundtrip trail to the North Atlantic’s highest peak.

Ocean Path:

Maximize your coastal views on this 4-mile trail from Sand Beach to Otter Cliffs, passing Thunder Hole along the way.

Precipice Trail:

Summit Champlain Mountain by scrambling up boulders and climbing iron ladders set into the near-vertical mountain face. Read about our experience climbing the Precipice Trail with small kids here. The trail can close in the spring and summer for peregrine falcon nesting.

family with kids hiking through fall foliage on precipice trail in acadia national park
Jordan Pond Shore Path:

A pretty and flat 3.3 miles makes a loop around Jordan Pond. 

Beech Mountain:

Get high with this moderate 1.2 miler and take in the view of Long Pond below. 

Wonderland or Ship Harbor Trails:

Both trails take you out onto the granite shore near Bass Harbor. These are great trails for tide pooling.

family with kids exploring rocky shore in acadia national park
Great Meadow Loop:

A kid- and dog-friendly 2-mile loop through a forested meadow.

Jordan Cliffs Loop:

Another ladder trail, quite a bit longer than the Precipice Trail. Five miles of effort gives you panoramic views of Jordan Pond and the Bubbles, two rounded granite hills.

kid in carhartt overalls climbing ladder trail in acadia national park

Bringing Kids:

Bringing kids to Acadia couldn’t be easier. The park is well-developed, easy to get around via car or shuttle, and full of activities kids will enjoy. The park offers a Junior Ranger station during the summer and the nature center at Sieur de Monts has many activities geared toward kids.

Most of Acadia’s hikes are suitable for kids who have a little bit of hiking under their belts. Our rule of thumb is that healthy kids 3 and up should be able to handle mileage equivalent to their age (so a 3-year-old can do a 3-mile hike, a 4-year-old 4 miles, etc.), as long as there isn’t more than 250 feet of elevation gain per mile. This is obviously very variable! But it can be helpful when planning to know what your kids will likely be able to take on.

two kids hiking in acadia national park

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Acadia National Park.

What are the best hikes for young children?

Some trails that are particularly good for all skill levels (including very young kids) are Ocean Path, Ship Harbor Trail, Wonderland Trail, Great Meadow Loop, Hemlock Road Loop and Jordan Pond Path.

What are your favorite hikes that would work with a baby in a carrier?

Hiking with a carrier is all about YOUR comfort and ability while packing and balancing the weight of a little one! We did the Precipice Trail with our almost 2-year-old in a carrier much of the way and I didn’t feel uncomfortable climbing that way but it was a quad burner for SURE. We also had to take her off my back at a few places where we were squeezing through small spaces. For that reason, I’d probably avoid a ladder trail with a small baby. With a toddler, just be aware of what you’re taking on and only go if you’re comfortable.

Other than the ladder trails, every other hike in the park would be fine with a baby in a carrier! Just make sure your legs are up for carrying the extra weight if you’re tackling a lot of elevation ;).

What about the best non-hiking activities for kids?

Beaches! Tidepooling! Ranger programs! Jr. Ranger booklets! Whale watching! Blueberry picking (there are bushes along Ship Harbor Trail!) The nature center at Sieur de Monts Spring! Animal spotting! Bird identifying! Rock finding! There are soooo many good, kid-friendly options at this park. You really can’t go wrong.

What are some food options in the area?

We’re not big eater-outers, so we can’t give you personal restaurant recommendations. But you’re spoiled for choice at Acadia with its proximity to Bar Harbor, which has lots of well-reviewed restaurants.

Here are a few we’ve heard good things about:

  • 2 Cats — a cafe open for breakfast and lunch
  • Mache Bistro — French food open for dinner
  • Side Street Cafe — mid-priced pub grub
  • Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream — This one we did try and it is confirmed delicious (though we’ve had friends who weren’t as impressed, so I guess take our opinion with a grain of salt!)
  • Rosalie’s Pizza — a local favorite for subs, calzone and (obviously) pizza
  • Cafe This Way — the breakfast sounds amazing!
Tell us some off-the-beaten-path finds, please!

The beaten path in Acadia is the Park Loop Road. It includes most of the highlights that you’ve heard of, and it’s by far the most crowded part of the park.

The western side of the park sees fewer visitors (though you’ll still find crowds in places, particularly around the photogenic Bass Harbor lighthouse.) Even fewer make it to Schoodic Point, which is on a separate peninsula from Mt. Desert Island. This part of the park has spectacular coastal scenery and we’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s their favorite part of the park!

The other section of Acadia is at Isle au Haut, a 6- by 2-mile island that requires a 1.5-hour drive from Bar Harbor and a ferry ride to reach. Once you’re there, you’ll have 2700 acres of national park land almost to yourself. Check the ferry’s website for information on getting there; it takes passengers on a first-come, first-served basis.

Any tips on where to stay in Bar Harbor or surrounding that is reasonably priced?

There are lots of inexpensive motel options between Ellsworth and Bar Harbor. The cheapest option might be a shared dorm room at the Bar Harbor Youth Hostel, if you’re up for it.

Pricing on most accommodations in Bar Harbor is seasonal, so if you can come outside of summer, preferably on a weekday, you’ll likely get a better deal. The other key is to book as early as possible. The good deals will sell out the fastest! There are reasonable B&B’s and inns to be had; just make sure you scoop them up in advance.

What’s the best way to navigate the park?

Use the free shuttle, the Island Explorer. It runs from mid- to late June through mid-October. You can check the shuttle’s routes here.

We can’t recommend this option highly enough. Acadia is one of the ten most-visited national parks in the NPS system and it’s tiny compared to most parks. Parking can be a huge problem in the summer and the roads get congested. Avoid it all by taking the shuttle!

Are there any wildlife-viewing opportunities?

There aren’t a lot of large mammals within the park, but it’s a great place for birdwatching. Peregrine falcons nest in the park in spring. Keep an eye out, too, for smaller mammals and spotted salamanders.

For marine life, there are lots of places in the park for tide-pooling. You can also take a whale-watching tour out of Bar Harbor for a chance to spot humpback, finback and minke whales and puffins. These generally run from the end of June through August.

What’s camping like inside the park? Are there size restrictions or anything to be aware of with animals?

Camping inside the park is very popular and the campgrounds are almost always full. Some spots don’t allow RV’s; others allow RV’s up to 35 feet. The campgrounds are very strict about making sure all tires and pull-outs stay within the site pad.

Raccoons and birds can get into food, so you’re required to leave all food in a hard-sided container or a car when you’re not on-site.

What are the best things to see if you’re only there for a few days?

For a short trip, we’d recommend spending a day exploring the sites along the Park Loop Road, including a hike along the Ocean Path (gentle) or the Precipice Trail or Beehive Trails (not so gentle.) On a second day, choose a carriage road to bike around on (we loved Witch’s Hole Pond) and do some tide-pooling on the western side of the park.

If you have a third day, you could spend it driving or biking the 6-mile scenic road at Schoodic Point for brilliant views of the coast.

When should we go to see the best colors? I’ve seen photos of fall but any bright colors are great!

Fall colors usually peak in early October. We loved the pink granite around Ship Harbor Trail and the glittering rocks on Little Hunters Beach, too :).

view of Bass Harbor lighthouse through pine trees and granite

Tips from our Readers:

“We LOVED Beehive Trail (Precipice Trail was closed in summer.) Several told us to avoid it with kids, but it felt totally doable. We also the loved the quieter, western side of the park and of course Cadillac Mountain.”

“The buses sponsored by L.L. Bean can be a lifesaver if young (or old) hikers get tired!”

“Don’t forget Schoodic Peninsula. Go to Raven’s Nest! Great sunset views from the point.”

“Do Beehive Trail to start and then Precipice Trail if you’re extremely okay with heights!”

“My favorite thing in Acadia is Little Hunters Beach.”

“Use the buses! It’s a great way to start a hike at one place and end at another.”

“My favorite part of Acadia is the Schoodic Peninsula—slower paced but I love the rocky shore.”

“We loved how dog-friendly it was.”

“My 11-year-old and I tackled the Beehive hike. It was the best hike we’ve ever done together!”

“Thurston’s Lobster Pound has lobster for half the price of anywhere close to Bar Harbor.”

“Don’t go in July/August—wayyyy too crowded!”

“If you have a dog, they open more trails up to dogs in the off-season (after Labor Day.)”

“Watch sunrise on Cadillac Mountain! Also visit Beehive Trail, Sand Beach and Otter Cliffs. (I’m eloping there in Sept!)”

“Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound in SW Harbor. Also the Beech Mountain trail.”

“The Flying Mountain—never busy, easy for young kids, and goes down to a great beach!”

“Compass Harbor! Nice tree walk and then a great spot to wade or explore the rocks!”

“Take a day at Acadia to go tide-pooling at low tide on the “quiet” side of the island. It was one of my favorite parts of the park. And the kids absolutely loved it! They found snails, starfish, crabs and other sea creatures. Plus, the views were so much easier to take in because there were a lot fewer people.

“We did the Ship Harbor Trail and it was one of our family favorites—easy hike, fabulous views, great tide-pooling, loons on the water, and not too crowded even in July.”

“Go early to see the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse because the parking lot is tiny and no parking is allowed on the side of the street.”

“Definitely go to a nighttime ranger program at Sand Beach—one of the BEST ranger programs we’ve ever enjoyed! Also, we love hiking and biking on carriage roads. We used to live in Bangor and highly recommend the park in the late fall and winter months.”

Final tips:

Though small for a national park, Acadia packs a walloping dose of beauty and activity within its borders. Plan ahead, especially if you’re visiting in the summer, so that the crowds don’t squash your style—arrange accommodations in advance, use the shuttle to get around, and have a plan B in case things go sideways. Honestly, though, this is one of America’s most-visited parks for a reason and there’s plenty of goodness to go around :).

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