Acadia National Park, located on stunning Mount Desert Island, Maine, is one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. for good reason.
Incorporated in 1919 as the first national park east of the Mississippi, Acadia remains the only national park in the Northeast U.S., and is ranked in the top 10 most-visited national parks yearly.
Originally christened “Lafayette” National Park, the name was changed to Acadia in 1929. Today, the park is actively renaming its trails and other areas to reflect their original, Native American names, a work in progress as of fall 2020 that we were thrilled to see.
Known for its abundance of romantic, rocky sea views and beautiful trees sloping down towards the sea from the North Maine Woods, Acadia is home to all sorts of wildlife (loon birds, moose, bears, you name it!) and 47,000 acres of protected land to explore.
The downside? Acadia is popular for good reason, but it is definitely popular, meaning that on a given day the park can be packed to the brim with visitors.
There are a lot of activities to choose from, as well as fantastic accessible options, making the park enjoyable for all ages as well as skill, mobility, and activity levels. However, the most transited areas (like the Bubble Rock, Cadillac Mountain summit, and Jordan Pond) can get mobbed with tourists.
But never fear– we have your tips ready for a beautiful day in Acadia, as well as a trail combo recommendation if you’re looking to get away from the crowds but still experience Acadia’s “must-see” attractions.
By the way… If you’re interested in a quieter, more contemplative day outdoors, we recommend Baxter State Park (home to Mt. Katahdin) wholeheartedly. You can read all about Baxter (we’re obsessed!) here.
Acadia Tips to Know Before You Go
- Swing by the Hulls Cove Visitor Center first when you arrive. It’s filled with super-friendly park rangers, maps, and all the information you need for your day. The rangers give excellent trail and parking advice, and can even map out specific trails based on what you want to see and how much time you have. Special shout-out to our ranger, who warned us that it would be much colder in Baxter the next day than it was in Acadia– our extremities thank you, sir!
- As we always say… arrive early!!! The parking lots fill up very quickly, and while there is a decent amount of parking available (especially compared to, say, Baxter), the park often gets quite crowded and no parking is allowed on the side of the Park Loop road (unless otherwise marked.) If the lots are all full, chances are you may have to get creative and park on a side road or near one of the campgrounds, which can really eat away at your time for exploring. Note that the Jordan Pond House Restaurant (infamous for their popover pastries!) parking lot is for restaurant customers only, and though we’re not sure if that’s enforced by towing or not, we firmly believe it’s better not to risk it.
- During peak season, you will likely have to reserve parking ahead of time at the Cadillac Mountain peak for a particular time slot. While a lot of people like to see the sunrise and/or sunset here, you should try to check out the vistas sometime during the day, too! While you can hike Cadillac, we recommend driving up to save your energy for other trails and things to do in the park. Keep in mind it gets intensely windy up here, so layer accordingly. One last Cadillac tip– if it’s overcast, your sunrise experience will be very up in the air. We woke up at 3AM for the sunrise once, and the fog was so thick you could barely see your hand in front of your face. Check the forecast and plan accordingly!
- Speaking of passes, it costs $30 per car to enter the park, or $15/per person on foot. You can see other related fees (RVs, groups, etc.) here. If you’ll only be visiting Acadia, you can buy the day pass ahead of time here, which allows you to print it out and head straight to the trailhead. If you’re planning to visit another National Park within the same calendar year, though, consider springing for an “America the Beautiful Pass,” which allows you entry to all national parks for a yearly fee of $80. There are discounts for military, 4th grade students, seniors, and more available as well.
- Dogs are allowed on most trails in Acadia, but they should be leashed at all times. In a particularly heart-stopping moment on a mountain peak, the wind was so fierce that one hiker’s unleashed dog could’ve been literally blown off the cliff. Don’t be that person.
- If you brought your bike, don’t miss the carriage roads! These roads– built in the late 1800s by families known as “cottagers,” (uber-wealthy families who built summer mansions they referred to, somehow un-ironically, as “cottages”)— are a biker’s dream– flat, well-maintained, with beautiful tree canopy and no cars! You may recognize some of their former owners– the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Carnegies, and others all vacationed here, building the interconnected network of roads for their carriages. Sadly, many of the homes were destroyed in a huge fire in 1947, which also destroyed much of the park, but the roads still remain today. You can rent bikes at Acadia Bikes or Bar Harbor Bikes for the day, or, if biking isn’t your cup of tea, you can also horseback ride or nature-walk along the carriage roads.
- If you’re visiting in the winter, you can take advantage of amazing cross-country skiing opportunities, as well as ice-fishing on one of the many lakes and ponds in the park. If you do visit in winter, note that Park Loop Road is only open for scenic drives from April 15-December 1, but Jordan Pond Road and a portion of Ocean Drive are plowed/open year-round.
- If you have the spare time, you should absolutely budget some time just for driving around Park Loop Road. You’ll get breathtaking vistas of the rocky cliffs and trees, and there are lots of places to stop for photos. After several hours of hiking, it was lovely to drive around a bit prior to ascending Cadillac Mountain.
There are over 150 miles of trails in Acadia, but most people (especially on their first visit) tend to cluster in the Jordan Pond, Cadillac Mountain, and Bubble Trail areas. While gorgeous, these areas were super crowded when we visited, so we wanted to find a way to still see these “must-sees” without being surrounded by people the whole time.
If you’re seeking a flat, easily accessible walking path, consider the Jordan Pond Full Loop, which is 3.3 miles around and very easy, with beautiful water views and boardwalks to protect the habitat around it. However, as we said above, this area is mega-crowded. After only a bit of walking, we were starting to get a little antsy with how many people were there, so we took the first detour we saw– which ended up being the Pemetic Mountain Trail.
If you’re walking along the Jordan Pond Trail in an eastward direction, you’ll come across the junction of the Jordan Pond Trail and the Bubble Trail. Go on the Bubble Trail for a bit, but only until it crosses Park Loop Road (you’ll know you’re crossing it because it’s paved!)
Rather than going up to Bubble Rock now (don’t worry, you’ll see it later!) cross the road and keep walking until you hit the Pemetic Mountain South Ridge Trail. We saw, literally, less than 10 people the entire time we were on this trail. It takes you up through the gorgeous, heavily-wooded forest and pops you out on the last bit of the ascent of Pemetic Mountain– complete with Acadia’s signature granite formations and sweeping, 360-degree views of the tree-line and water below you. It can get extremely windy up here but the views are unbelievable!
When you’re ready to descend, you can go back the way you came (South Ridge trail) or take the North Ridge Trail. In order to see some different scenery, we chose the North Ridge Trail… but we’re not sure we recommend it for a descent. It was extremely steep, with lots of rock scrambles and portions that you had to descend on hands and knees. One portion even had horizontal wooden poles installed to slide down like monkey bars! Unless your shoes have very good grip, this wasn’t as fun as the ascent and it was very, very slow going.
While you’re descending, don’t miss a peek down into the Northwest Trail ravine route! If you’re feeling adventurous, this is the most challenging way to hike Pemetic, and features ladders and ledges to assist you. A little too slippery for us!
Once you get back down to the Bubbles Parking Area, look for the “Bubbles Divide” sign. From there, it’s a short hike up the South Bubble Trail to the infamous Bubble Rock formation, seemingly balanced on the side of the cliff (see Alex trying to push it off below!)
Note that the North Bubble Trail option is very beautiful (perhaps even more so than South Bubble), but quite a bit longer– so if you’re feeling a bit tired from Pemetic, South Bubble is perhaps the best choice.
Once again, as this is a short, well-maintained, easy path, it’s very crowded! After only seeing a few people the whole time we were on Pemetic, it was a bit jarring to be dodging and weaving so many people.
From Bubble Rock, you can continue back onto the Jordan Pond trail, ending up where you started. If you’re not too tired, you should absolutely finish your loop around the Pond now! Keep an eye out for loon (above right photo!) or other birds and wildlife.
Full disclosure, this wasn’t necessarily supposed to be our “hard hiking” day— but we were thrilled to have accidentally discovered a way to bypass the crowds while still seeing Acadia’s most popular sites. The Pemetic Trail was definitely challenging– we would rank it a difficult moderate trail, but the elevation is only 1248 feet, and the views are spectacular. And best of all… crowd-free! This is quite a feat for a park as popular as Acadia, and we feel that we had a much more fun experience because of this.