Exploring Acadia National Park: Five Must-Do Activities

There's so much that makes Acadia National Park special. Whether you're a hiker looking for a variety of trails with spectacular views, a history buff with an interest in the CCC-era, or a rock climber looking for ocean-side cliffs to ascend, Acadia truly has something for everyone.

My family and I decided the 45,000 acre east coast paradise was the perfect destination for a five day vacation. The three of us have different interests, but finding a way to balance them all was easy with the variety of fun to be had in Acadia. The park is one of the most accessible I've been to; hiking trails are easy to get to, and due to the park's topography, getting up on top of hills with panoramic views can take less than 20 minutes. We packed as much as we could into each of the days, but there were five places in particular that were memorable.

The Duck Harbor Mountain trail climbs all whopping 262' to the summit quickly. But even with long stops at each jaw-dropping vista, Aaron and I made it to the top and back to the Duck Harbor Campground in less than an hour.

Hiking to the Top of Duck Harbor Mountain

Of the 500 campsites in Acadia National Park, only five of them are located on remote Isle au Haut. Accessible only via an hour long mail boat ride from Stonington, ME, primitive Duck Harbor Campground is, in my opinion, the ideal place to spend a night in Acadia. The 12.7 square mile island rewards those willing to make the journey with unobstructed views of the Atlantic, beautiful rocky beaches, stunning cliff faces and miles of hiking trails.

After a restful night in our lean-to, my brother and I opted for a morning hike before catching the first of only two mail boat trips back to Stonington that day. We followed Western Head Road east (map here), then south to pick up the trail to Duck Harbor Mountain. It's the tallest point on Isle au Haut, but at only 262 feet, it's a short trip to the summit. The trail didn't seem nearly as well-used as others in the park and the blazes were hard to find, but we didn't have trouble. Time permitting, we could have followed the Duck Harbor Summit trail up and over the top, then down to the east side of the island to visit Deep Cover, Squeaker Cove and Barred Harbor, looping back to the campground via the Western Head Trail.

Just after sunset, looking east with Bar Harbor far below us on top of Cadillac Mountain. The USGS summit marker is a few hundred feet behind this stunning vista.

Finding the Summit of Cadillac Mountain

Like Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Hawk Mountain here in Pennsylvania, there's an easy way and a hard way to get to the top. The hard way - a hike from the bottom to the summit - is usually the most rewarding. But as important as it is to earn our vistas, it's also important to remember that some parts of our national parks should be accessible to all. The hike to Cadillac's 1,528' summit wasn't an option for us while we were there, but we still wanted to squeeze a trip to the top of the mountain into our itinerary. We opted for the easy way up Cadillac to catch the sunset on our first night in Acadia. It's a special summit; Cadillac is the highest point within 25 miles  of the coastline on the East Coast, and it's the first spot the sun hits when it rises due east in the fall and winter.

Clinging to Cliffs on The Beehive

My brother trying to figure out what to hold on to
while taking in the views on the Beehive.
Before I left, a friend recommended hiking the Beehive trail, one of two of Acadia's most exposed walks. One look at trail photos and I knew the Beehive had to be on our to-do list. The Hive itself is a 500-foot tall rock jutting out of the eastern section of Acadia a few miles up Park Loop Road from the Precipice and right above Sand Beach.  The south side of Mount Desert Island is known for beautiful sheer cliffs, and one of the best ways to see Sand Beach doesn't involve getting sand in your shoes.

The beginning of our one hour, 1.5 mile round trip journey looked like any other trail in Acadia - wooded, rocky, and easy to follow due to frequent blue blazes and signage. About halfway up, things started to look a bit different.

At one point, the trees cleared and we looked up, amazed to see tiny figures hundreds of feet above us picking their way along the ledges and up the trail's strategically placed iron rungs. Proceeding on the Beehive trail, the route steepened significantly and eventually required some hand-over-hand climbing, clinging on to slippery iron hand holds, crossing an iron ladder with only air below, and carefully weaving along an incredibly narrow, incredibly exposed trail. The best part? The Hive rewards hikers with beautiful vistas all the way up, and you can take the much tamer Bowl Trail back down.

The Beehive trail is not for the faint of heart, or the acrophobic, but we made it up just fine! Aaron frequently reminded me not to look down, even though Sand Beach looked spectacular from up there.

Visiting the Jordan Pond House and Hiking the Jordan Pond Shore Trail

Popovers at the Jordan Pond House!
Of all the things a first-time visitor should know about Acadia, it's the existence of Jordan Pond and everything that goes with it. The 186-acre pond looks more like a lake, and with nearly four miles of shoreline to explore, hiking the Jordan Pond Shore Trail is a must. My favorite part of the loop was seeing the Pond from different vantage points and getting spectacular views of the Bubbles. The Pond itself is the result of glacial ice flowing along the valley, which was also responsible for the formation of the Bubbles.

After the loop, there's no better way to refuel than with tea and popovers at The Jordan Pond House. It's the only restaurant in Acadia and its traditions date back to the late 1800s when tea houses were established to cater to Acadia's growing population of summer visitors. The original building burned to the ground in 1979, but the building in its place today is a must-see destination in Acadia. It's still a bustling gathering place and the popovers are well worth the wait. (We made reservations a few days in advance and didn't have to wait! Also, definitely consider taking the Island Explorer shuttle to get there; parking was next to impossible.)

The Bubbles from the southern end of Jordan Pond. Beautiful, clear water and a spectacular summer day!

Seeing Jordan Pond from a New Perspective via a Hike up the Bubbles

After stuffing ourselves with popovers and lounging on the lawn at Jordan Pond, we drove a little further along Park Loop Road to the Bubble Rock Parking Area to pay the Bubbles and Bubble Rock, a glacial erratic, a visit. The weather was turning a bit, but my brother and I opted to run up the Bubble Divide trail to the South Bubble (766') anyway thanks to a recommendation from Paul (@peymojo). I was elated and felt like a kid on the playground running up the trail, hopping from rock to rock and racing the oncoming clouds with Aaron.

The trail around the South Bubble and Jordan Pond.
A half mile of giggling and goofing around later, we arrived at one of the most spectacular vistas of our entire week-long visit to Acadia. Over the South Bubble, the valley opened up and revealed the entirety of Jordan Pond, the Jordan Pond House and the ocean beyond. Signs cautioned hikers not to throw rocks over the cliffs, as the Bubbles are a climbing destination (I wish we'd had another day to take advantage of). It was absolutely stunning. Rather than continuing over the Bubble and down to Jordan Pond, we backtracked to the parking lot. The North Bubble is an easy addition to the hike if you have time.

If we had more time, I'd have loved to climb Sargent Mountain, visit the Bass Harbor Lighthouse, go rock climbing and climb Acadia Mountain! Even though Acadia National Park is relatively small, there's so much to do! If you've been to Acadia , are there other hikes you'd suggest for folks making a visit? Have you done any of the hikes or visited the spots listed here? Leave a comment!


Trail Sherpa said…
We spent a week in Bar Harbor a few years back.  Our timing was perfect.  It was the last week of the season.  That means a few of the restaurants had already closed but more importantly it meant an upgrade to the Presidential Suite since there were but a handful of guests in the hotel.  Score!

I can't wait to get back there and retrace some of your steps.  We did Cadillac Mtn and a few others but I want more!

Your post just might inspire me to book that next trip sooner than I thought!!!
k8tlevy said…
 Thanks for the note, Tim! There's just so much to do there. I definitely need to make another trip someday. We went sea kayaking in Bar Harbor and spend some time on Sand Beach too, but I couldn't write about all of it :)

It sounds like you really lucked out with the upgrade! I'd go back in the off-season; it was super, super crowded on the park roads.
Katie Martens said…
Take the ranger-guided tour out to Baker Island (uninhabited)...we saw seals and porpoises on the way there, and got to hike around the island, while learning about it's history from the ranger. Not as adventurous as the Beehive, but still beautiful! Also, check out Anemone Cave @ the Schooner Head Overlook parking area...it's not on the Acadia Nat'l Park map (that they give you @ the entrance) anymore because they try to discourage people from going there. Just make sure you have a tide chart with you, because @ high tide, the cave is mostly underwater!
Katie said…
Katie, man, I wish I'd had these tips earlier, everything sounds amazing! I'll definitely check out the cave next time, that sounds really cool. More often than not the stuff off the maps is the best. Thanks for the tips!