The Only National Park in the Northeast Feels Like the Edge of the World
With pine-filled islands and cliffs to catch the first sunrise in the US.
The state of Maine may conjure up images of steamy red lobsters, lush green forests, pink boulder cliffs, and lighthouses rising up from a rugged coastline along the deep blue sea. Those colorful, mental postcards become a reality with an actual visit to America’s most northeast state—and all come to a climax in Acadia National Park. Acadia is, as the National Park Service puts it, the “crown jewel of the north Atlantic coast,” and with good reason; it holds the highest summit on the entire eastern coastline, a vantage point offering the first glimmer of the sun as it lifts off the horizon to shine on the continental United States.
This claim to fame is a magnificent sight to behold, which inadvertently warrants a desire for bragging rights and those wanting to, naturally, post it on social media. However, beyond the pic are the 158 miles of hiking trails, 45 miles of multi-purpose carriage roads, and 27 miles for scenic drives that have made Acadia one of the Pine Tree State’s top attractions (before the age of TikTok).
America’s first sunrise from a national park is easily accessible by car (if you have a car reservation), which allures even more people to Acadia—even those who would never dare own a pair of hiking boots. Being the only national park in the Northeast, crowds may be inevitable during the peak season, but if you carefully figure out a game plan before visiting (hint: read on), you can make the best use of your time to experience all the hues of this lonely paradise.
Best time of year to visit Acadia
Acadia is open year round, but the ideal time to go is spring and fall, the shoulder seasons when crowds are manageable and temperatures are favorable for outdoor activities. Park Loop Road, the park’s main thoroughfare to many of its attractions, opens in mid-April, so plan around then through the five weeks after. If you really want to ditch the crowds, it’s best to avoid Memorial Day through Labor Day, when school vacations prompt the caravans of family-filled SUVs. When the rush is over, the autumn weeks from September to early-November bring back some serenity—plus the bonus of the evergreen landscape transforming into a Bob Ross painting with dabbed brushstrokes of yellow ochre and alizarin crimson.
For winter enthusiasts, Acadia can be a magical place December through March—albeit with limited road access—for winter hiking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or ice fishing (with a permit) in designated areas. If you grab a pair of microspikes for your shoes, the gorgeous ice trails are pretty much all yours. Also, the most scenic section of Park Loop Road is still accessible for sunrise opportunities.
However, if you’re like most visitors, you’ll probably go when it’s warm, which is absolutely worth it, even if your circumstances only allow you to visit during the high season.
See the first sunrise in the country
The majority of Acadia National Park lies in the bucolic areas of Maine’s Mount Desert Island, a coastal island just off the mainland about 15 miles long and eight miles wide. The park isn’t clumped into one section of the island, but rather is scattered in patches, with two additional, less-frequented parcels located farther away on the Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut (plus 18 small coastal islands only accessible by boat).
Acadia’s biggest draws are located in one big patch on the eastern part of Mount Desert Island, where you’ll find the NPS’ main Hulls Cove Visitors Center at the beginning of Park Loop Road. The area is also home to Cadillac Mountain, the 1,527-foot mound of quartz-filled granite that gives it its pinkish hue, whose peak holds that spot in the American sunrise hall of fame. However, it may be significant to note here that, while its summit has the height advantage for the view of the first sunrise in the USA, this is only true in the low season, from October to March, when you factor in GPS location and the relative position of the earth to the Sun. (First American sunrise bragging rights actually belong to the humble Maine town of Lubec other times of the year… if you ignore the territory of Guam altogether.)
Nevertheless, people ignore these technical details, and thus Cadillac Mountain still attracts hordes of tourists each morning. Fortunately, the NPS limits the numbers by requiring $4 reservations to go up Cadillac Mountain Road (late May through late October), in addition to the general park admission pass required year round ($30 per vehicle, both of which you can buy online). Plan ahead: spots to drive up Cadillac for sunrise are snatched up as early as 90 days in advance, even if it’s months too early to know if it’ll be cloudy. Alternatively, more spots open up two days ahead of a target morning (when a two-day forecast is more reliable), but the internet rush to snag a spot at that time clogs the servers as much as when Coachella tickets go on sale. The other option is to hike up Cadillac Mountain in the dark on an out-and-back trail that takes about 1–2 hours (one way)—don’t forget your headlamp.
If you still can’t find a way into the show, don’t fret. A designated park vista point like Thunder Hole or Otter Cliff is a great alternative—and arguably better—spot for dawn, even if their lower elevation translates to the sun rising mere seconds after it does from the Cadillac summit viewpoint.
Sunsets, not surprisingly, also draw a crowd in Acadia, even though there are no superlatives to brag about. While Maine as a whole is on the eastern seaboard and the sun sets in the wild, wild west, Mount Desert Island has its own sea-facing west coast. Many flock to the most south-westerly patch of the park, home of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, which nicely frames the setting sun. However, prepare for a traffic jam if you’re not there when most of the photographers’ arrive early to set up their tripods along the rocky coastline (sometimes at the expense of another camera’s shot).
Alternatively, two easy, marked hiking trails on the island’s south coast—Ship Harbor and Wonderland—both lead down to peninsulas that have their own western coasts with unobstructed views of the horizon. While there is no lighthouse for that postcard snapshot, it’s not nearly as crowded.
Climb up the “Beehive” and other best hikes
While the rise and fall of the sun are the big to-dos in Acadia, there is still an entire day in between to enjoy and experience nature. Park rangers at the aforementioned Hulls Cove Visitors Center (and throughout the park for that matter) are invaluable for recommending how you can approach each day of your stay.
Natural attractions of the park include Thunder Hole, where the ocean dramatically crashes into a hollowed-out cliff with a thunderous clap. Down the road, there’s rock climbing at Otter Cliff,; gear and guides should be organized ahead of time with private companies based in nearby Bar Harbor, including Acadia Mountain Guides and the Atlantic Climbing School. The park’s 45-mile network of carriage roads are primed for mountain bike tires or horseshoes—for horseback or carriage rides that can be organized at the Wildwood Stables. For those looking for some manicured beauty, Sieur de Monts is the site of the park’s botanical gardens, along with a museum and nature center. And if you just want to relax and do nothing but lay out on a towel with a book, head to one of Acadia’s beaches, like Sand Beach or Echo Lake Beach.
Perhaps the most popular activity in Acadia is hiking, and there are certainly more than enough trails to tread on during your stay. One of the most popular ones is the Beehive Trail, named for its moderately challenging ascension up a beehive-shaped rock formation overlooking the Atlantic. The summit view is worth the effort of hiking and climbing a few ladders, but get there early—i.e., start after you view the sunrise—because by late morning, the entire trail can resemble a roller coaster queue at Disney World.
Other worthy hikes include the Penobscot Mountain Trail (with a few moderately challenging rock scrambles), the steep Precipice Trail (for those who want a real challenge), less-frequented Beech Mountain Trail (with an observation fire tower on its summit), or the casual Ocean Path Trail along the southeastern coast.
There’s also the easy 3.5-mile trail around Jordan Pond, location of the eponymous Jordan Pond House, the only restaurant within park boundaries. Lunch and early dinner options include salads, stews, and sandwiches, in addition to platters of those red crustaceans Maine is synonymous with. This historic restaurant may close at 5 pm, but fortunately lobster, in its many forms (i.e. steamed whole or in rolls, bisque, nachos, or pizza) can be found in all the towns just outside park boundaries—especially in the main town of the island, Bar Harbor.
Get Lobstah in “Bah Habah” and beyond
More than a few souvenir T-shirts, magnets, and other tschotskes affectionately poke fun at the regional pronunciation of Bar Harbor, the island’s biggest (and most touristy) town. A hub of souvenir shops, bars, eateries, sightseeing cruise docks, and lodging options of varied styles and price points, Bar Harbor is an inevitable stopover, if not basecamp, for multi-day visits to the national park.
Like in any tourist epicenter (e.g. Times Square), don’t expect the best dining options here, with many, but not all, restaurants merely cooking mediocre-to-decent meals for the masses. Arguably better food options can be found in the smaller towns, like at The Colonel’s Restaurant in Northeast Harbor and Seafood Ketch in Bass Harbor.
Honorable mentions for best lobster rolls go to Rodick’s Takeout and Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound, both roadside stands in Southwest Harbor—the latter of which also has a goat petting farm for the kids. However, if you’ve come to Acadia to truly embrace the outdoors, you shouldn’t dine in but cook out, at a campground.
Where to stay in Acadia National Park
Camping epitomizes the outdoors experience, and there are several privately-owned options just outside park boundaries or nearby on the mainland. Within Acadia National Park, there are four campgrounds—two of which are on Mount Desert Island: Seawall and Blackwoods—and you must make a campsite reservation. Not only does “roughing it” allow you to completely become one with Mother Nature, it allows you to sit by a campfire—in your own space away from the crowds—to perfect your marshmallow roasting techniques over the flames.
However, more divine than the perfect s’more are the celestial bodies above, not only at Acadia’s campsites, but at the open spaces that the NPS recommends for stargazing: Jordan Pond, Ocean Path, and Sand Beach. Far from the lights of Bar Harbor—and even farther away from the metropolises of the northeast completely—light pollution is virtually non-existent. On a clear night, especially in July and August, the sky shimmers with more stars than you’ll see anywhere close to civilization. The clarity can be so intense that it’s possible to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.
As much as many visitors of Acadia National Park may be concerned with seeing the rising and setting of the sun, it’s best to remember that the night sky is just as—if not more—spectacular. Visit for a night or two and find out for yourself.