One of the few national parks near the Atlantic Ocean, and the oldest one east of Mississippi River, Acadia National Park is comprised of several islands off the coast of Maine and a few small towns. Of the park’s 47,000 acres, more than 30,000 are on Mount Desert Island, with much smaller parcels on Isle au Haut and the mainland Schoodic Peninsula.
More than 12,000 acres are still private land, managed by the park through conservation easements which we hope will stay in place for many more generations.
According to the National Park Service, it was a group of early 20th-century visionaries who donated most of the land that became Acadia National Park. They admired the region’s rugged beauty and diversity of habitats, ranging from seashore to dense evergreen forests and high granite peaks. You may hear locals pronounce the island as Mount DESert or Mount DeSERT; navigator Samuel Champlain named it Isle des Monts Deserts in 1604 because of the “barren mountains” he saw from his ship. Therefore, the French pronunciation with the accent on the last syllable, as in the sweet, after-supper treat, is often used.
Families visiting today, just like their forefathers, can camp in the park or check into a cozy B&B in Bar Harbor, the very quaint main town on the eastern shores of Mount Desert Island.
Getting Around Acadia National Park
If you’re not camping, plan to make daytrips into Acadia National Park’s boundaries to hike the many trails; photograph the striking tide pools that form near the shore; or mountain bike along the park’s former carriage roads.
Motorized vehicles are not permitted in the park, so you’ll have to catch the Island Explorer, an eco-friendly, propane-fueled bus which runs along the coast, hike or bike in, or join a horse-drawn carriage ride. The Acadia management is so serious about this that they’re committing resources to a Car-Free Acadia, something to look forward to.
Not to worry; there are several bike rental shops (some with a kid’s trailer) in “downtown” Bar Harbor as well as outfitters who do horseback riding tours or cruises along the shoreline.
Having Fun with Kids in Acadia National Park
The park is open all year round but most National Park Service facilities operate only from late April to mid October. As in all the national parks, the Junior Ranger Program encourages the youngest visitors to pursue different activities to earn their Junior Ranger badge. After purchasing the booklet in Acadia’s Visitor Center, families can help kids draw their favorite animal, join a scavenger hunt, participate in a ranger-led program or other fun.
If you’re not ready to pursue this honor, sign up for a ranger-led program. They begin in mid-May and include talks in the Visitors Center, escorted walks and hikes, evening programs, and children’s programs. In season, four different narrated boat cruises are offered so children can see the seals, porpoises, and bird life inhabiting the park. Cruises are two hours or longer, and the lectures on island life and maritime history are most fun for school-age kids.
Maine’s coast is temperate by day and chilly at night, even in the height of summer when temperatures vary from 45ºF to 85ºF. The rugged granite coastline plummets down rocky cliffs to beautiful sand beaches, but the churning Atlantic surf is quite cold. Except perhaps for a few late August days in the midst of a heat spell, swimming is only for the hardy and the very strong. Instead, count on beach combing and castle-building during your stay.
Hikers will find 120 miles of trails all through the pine, fir and spruce forests, ranging from easy to challenging. The Park Rangers can suggest hikes suited to all abilities and fitness levels. Experienced hikers may want to climb the steep slopes of Cadillac Mountain (1,530 feet), the highest point on the U.S. Atlantic coast, or its smaller cousin, Around Mountain. Local outfitters in Bar Harbor offer mountain climbing classes for all levels as well.
Acadia National Park’s 45-mile-long carriage road system was built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. These lovely shaded paths are full of mountain bikers in summer and cross country skiers in winter. The stonework that lines the paths and trail walls has been restored to its patrician splendor. It’s easy to imagine the Rockefeller clan astride their horses, enjoying the paces on these well manicured trails.
Families based in Bar Harbor in summer will find many vendors offering excursions for whale watching, sea kayaking and canoeing. There are scenic sailing trips near shore, including some that stop for a grilled lobster lunch, a Maine specialty. In winter, snowmobiling along The Loop and cross-country skiing have become popular sports.
If your kids are into science, look into the Schoodic Education and Research Center (9 Atterbury Cir, Winter Harbor, ME 04693, 207-288-1310) , located within the Schoodic District of Acadia National Park. SERC is one of many National Park Service research learning centers that encourage scientists to study the local environments, contribute to decision-making; and share their research results with others. Certain programs are open to the public.
Trip Planning Details for your Acadia, Maine Park Visit
Backcountry camping is prohibited in Acadia National Park, but there are two main campgrounds, Blackwoods and Seawall. In fact, the Civilian Conservation Corps was involved early on in clearing brush and setting stones for the park, and built the Seawall Campground.
Acadia’s peak season in June, July and August, with summer weekends requiring advance reservations. Black flies are most prevalent in the damp months of May and June. In winter, deep damp fog and/or snow are common and keep away all but the serious snowsports lover. It’s recommended that visitors check in with the Park Ranger staff on the weather (it’s very changeable with a 40 degree range of temperatures in any given day), hiking trails, and road conditions before venturing deep into the park. The Acadia National Park Headquarters, the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, is open year round, and the Visitor Center is open between April 15 and late October for assistance. Many roads are closed in winter due to ice.
Families should consider Bar Harbor, Maine as their destination since no motorized vehicles are allowed within the park’s boundaries. From Boston, it is a 268-mile drive and a bridge leads from the Maine “mainland” out to Bar Harbor, the largest town on Mount Desert (also written Mt. Desert) island. Families touring in Canada may enjoy the adventure of a sea voyage on The CAT Ferry which sails regularly from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Bar Harbor.
It’s expensive, but you can fly into Bar Harbor’s local airport, 12 miles from the village, or land in Bangor International Airport and rent a car; it’s about 50 miles away from Mount Desert Island. Many visitors also arrive by cruise ship, on one of the 70 vessels that make Bar Harbor a port of call on their Eastern Seaboard route to the Canadian Maritimes. Bar Harbor is a scenic port, but really cannot be appreciated in a half-day skirmish with thousands of other passengers trying to find the seclusion of Acadia’s pristine wilderness.
Within Bar Harbor, families will find tasteful souvenir shops, seafood restaurants and ice cream parlors, a movie theatre, some small museums and a lot of small town charm. The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce provides lodging and other practical information. Plan on making hotel reservations months in advance for summer weekends; campgrounds can be booked through the National Park Service.
For more information and campground bookings, visit the Acadia National Park website.
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