The Only National Park in the Northeast Feels Like the Edge of the World
It’s a briny seaside paradise.
Ah, Maine. Mere mention of the state may conjure images of pristine lighthouses rising from rocky seashores, bushes brimming with blueberries, and steamed red lobsters piled on trays next to ears of yellow corn. And nowhere do these mental pictures apply more than in and around Acadia National Park, where 158 miles of wooded hiking trails, 45 miles of car-free carriage roads, and 27 miles of scenic drives have made Acadia one of the Pine Tree State’s most beloved attractions.
Acadia’s granite-topped mountains offer views of the area’s stunningly blue lakes, along with a hearty helping of ocean waves. In fact, the park boasts the highest summit on the entire eastern coastline, offering the first glimmer of the sun as it lifts off the horizon to shine on the continental United States.
Given that Acadia is 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 experiencing all the hues of this Atlantic paradise.
Best time of year to visit Acadia
Acadia is open year round, but those who wish to sidestep both the crowds and cold weather should aim for the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. At these times, you’re more likely to get trails and hot spots to yourself, and temperatures are favorable for outdoor activities—though be warned that the park’s signature granite can make for slippery hiking during particularly rainy days. Park Loop Road, the park’s main thoroughfare, opens in mid-April, offering easier access to most of the park. Meanwhile, autumn weeks from September to early November bring 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, despite the crush of tourists that descend upon the park each summer, there’s something truly special about visiting Maine during the warmer months, when the park takes on a golden, sunlit glow and the air smells briny and sweet. Wild blueberries dot the trails, and post-hike lobster dinners can be comfortably enjoyed outdoors. For summer visitors, the rule of thumb is simply to get started as early as possible each day—and you can always head to the quieter western side of the park to regain some solitude.
Get outdoors and get moving
The majority of Acadia National Park lies in the bucolic areas of Maine’s Mount Desert Island, a coastal island just off the mainland that stretches about 15 miles long and eight miles wide. Attractions aren’t clumped into one section of the island, but rather 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).
Most of Acadia’s biggest draws are located 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. This will likely be your first stop in the park—perfect for nabbing a visitor pass and some recommendations for how to approach your time.
Perhaps the most popular activity in Acadia is hiking, and there are certainly more than enough trails to tread during your stay. One of the most popular ones is the Beehive Trail, named for its moderately challenging climb up a beehive-shaped rock formation overlooking the Atlantic. Iron rungs, steep stone staircases, and exposed cliff sides make for a worthwhile trek, but anyone with a fear of heights will want to sit this one out. Those who dare should start the ascent before 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), the less-frequented Beech Mountain Trail (with an observation fire tower on its summit), and the casual Ocean Path Trail along the southeastern coast. The Bubbles are another popular hike with relatively easy summit payoffs; you should reach awe-inspiring views in less than an hour.
There’s also the easy 3.5-mile trail around Jordan Pond, home to the eponymous Jordan Pond House, the only restaurant within park boundaries. Also accessible via carriage road, the restaurant makes a classic choice for lunch or dinner—but those in the know will time their visit for afternoon tea, when the establishment’s famed popovers pair perfectly with fresh-squeezed lemonade.
The park’s 45-mile network of carriage roads is also worth checking out, with routes winding their way around mountains and lakes. Cars aren’t allowed here, so it’s a great opportunity to clamber aboard a bicycle or horse. You can rent mountain bikes or e-bikes at any number of shops in Bar Harbor and cobble routes together any way you’d like. Alternatively, horseback or carriage rides can be organized at the Wildwood Stables.
Beyond the trails and carriage roads, other natural highlights include Thunder Hole, where the ocean dramatically crashes into a hollowed-out cliff with a monstrous clap (get here early, or you’ll be sharing the viewpoint with lots of people). 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. 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 enjoy the surf, head to one of Acadia’s beaches, like Sand Beach or Echo Lake Beach.
Take in some truly epic sunrises
On the eastern side of the park, you’ll also find Cadillac Mountain, a 1,527-foot mound of pinkish granite whose peak could hold a spot in the American sunrise hall of fame. However, it may be significant to note here that while its summit lays claim to America’s first moments of sunrise, this only holds true during the low season from October to March thanks to its location coordinates and the earth’s relative position to the Sun. (First continental American sunrise bragging rights actually belong to the humble Maine town of Lubec other times of the year.)
Nevertheless, people ignore these technical details, and thus Cadillac Mountain still draws yearound hordes of tourists each morning. Fortunately, the NPS limits the numbers by requiring reservations to go up Cadillac Mountain Road from late May through late October, in addition to the general park admission pass required year-round. 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 the weather. Alternatively, additional spots open up two days ahead of a target morning (when a two-day forecast is more reliable), but the rush to snag a spot at that point can clog the servers like the first day of the Eras Tour sale. The other option is to hike up Cadillac Mountain in the dark on an out-and-back trail that takes one to two hours each way to complete (just 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—and arguably better—alternative spot for dawn, even if the lower elevation translates to the sun rising mere seconds after it does from Cadillac’s summit.
Sunsets, not surprisingly, also draw a crowd in Acadia, even though there are no superlatives to brag about. While Maine’s position on the far eastern seaboard doesn’t do it any end-of-day favors, 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 Light Station, which nicely frames the setting sun. However, prepare for a traffic jam—most of the photographers arrive early to set up their tripods along the craggy coastline (sometimes at the expense of another camera’s shot).
Elsewhere, two modest marked trails on the island’s south coast—Ship Harbor and Wonderland—both lead down to peninsulas whose own western coasts come complete with unobstructed views of the horizon. While there’s no lighthouse for that postcard snapshot, it’s not nearly as congested with fellow gawkers.
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 for souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, sightseeing cruise docks, and lodging options of various styles and price points, Bar Harbor is an inevitable stopover—if not basecamp—for multi-day visits to the national park.
As with any tourist epicenter, not all dining options are winners here, with many restaurants cooking mediocre-to-decent meals for the masses. But you’ll still find a number of places worth the wait for a summertime table. Eat your fill of lobster, steamers, and blueberry pie at C-Ray Lobster, where a plethora of outdoor seating options and a fire pit or two combine for a relaxed environment. For a nicer night out, grab a table at Project Social Kitchen and Bar for a bounty of tasteful small plates in a stylish yet tranquil space. And if you need a casual break from all that lobster, you can’t go wrong with Mainely Meat, an old-fashioned barbecue joint attached to local craft favorite Atlantic Brewing Company.
For those with the time and desire to venture out of Bar Harbor, smaller town options like The Colonel’s Restaurant in Northeast Harbor and Seafood Ketch in Bass Harbor beckon. Honorable mentions for best lobster rolls go to Southwest Harbor roadside stands Rodick’s Takeout and Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound—the latter of which also has a goat petting farm for the (human) kids. However, if you’ve come to Acadia to embrace the outdoors, there’s always cooking out at a campground.
Where to stay in Acadia National Park
Camping epitomizes the outdoorsy experience, and there are several privately owned options located just outside the park or nearby on the mainland. Within Acadia National Park, there are four campgrounds—two of which, Seawall and Blackwoods, are on Mount Desert Island—and all require making a reservation in advance. If the limited shower options at these in-park grounds translate to a no-go, pitch your tent at Mount Desert Campground, where comfortable bathroom and shower facilities may help you rest a little easier.
And if you’d rather not rough it, a vacation cottage offers a happy medium between camping and a full-fledged hotel. On the more rustic end of the spectrum, Bay Meadow Cottages hosts affordable, bare-bones accommodations with fire pits, proximity to the ocean and the park, and a cool old barn turned reception area where you can turn up for travel advice. For even more creature comforts, the updated Salt Cottages are a dream of tasteful nautical-themed decor and fluffy bedding. The cottages are scattered around a swimming pool and hot tubs that feel truly luxurious at the end of a hot, physically strenuous day. You won’t have to sacrifice the campfire experience here, either, as a nightly fire pit comes equipped with an endless supply of s’mores.
Even more divine than the perfect s’more are the celestial bodies above, not only at Acadia’s campsites and cottages, but also 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—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.
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.
Kori Perten is a senior travel editor at Thrillist. She's been visiting Acadia since she was a kid, and it's one of her favorite places in the world.