Any visit to Acadia National Park should involve a walk in the woods. Whether you're just looking for a short lake-side stroll or a more demanding trek up the Precipice Trail, there are options for most visitors. Perhaps my favorite hike in the park is the 7.4-mile-long roundtrip up the South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain.
Many decades ago you could take a train to the top of the mountain, which at the time was known as Green Mountain. These days most folks drive to the top. But really, if you drive the windy 3.5-mile-long road to the 10-acre summit, can you honestly feel right about rewarding yourself with a cool glass of lemonade from the gift shop there?
Cadillac Mountain is not only the tallest mountain in the park, but also the tallest mountain along the eastern seaboard. From the summit high above the town of Bar Harbor you can enjoy expansive views of the Porcupine Islands and Frenchman Bay. On the summit the Park Service has a .3-mile trail that is lined with wayside exhibits about natural and human history. Portions of this trail are accessible to wheelchair users.
While driving to the top is certainly the most expeditious way to stand on the summit to enjoy the sunrise -- and at certain times of the year from this summit you can be the first in the United States to see the sun come up -- if you don't like rising that early and prefer a more leisurely stroll to the top of Cadillac, search out the trailhead to the South Ridge trail. This hike takes you through cool forests of conifer and up onto the mountain's granite shoulders with great views of Frenchman Bay. While park officials rate this route as "strenuous," if you don't try to race to the top it's not difficult at all. There are great expanses of granite once you start to clear the forest where you can set a while and have a picnic, and, of course, enjoy stunning views.
During our last trek up this trail we encountered “Barbara,” who at the time was a 67-year-old Marylander who told us she had summered in Northeast Harbor every year since she was 4. She said she makes at least 20 treks up the South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain during her stays. She passed us dressed in a denim skirt, broad-brimmed white hat, white shirt, and comfortable shoes. Armed with a hiking pole, she didn't dawdle on her way up to a rock outcrop that overlooks a pond cupped by the mountainside.
“I hike it a lot because if I died, somebody will find me because so many people hike it,” she joked as we shared the sprawling blue view of Frenchman Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Maine from Cadillac’s granite shoulder. “I think it has absolutely wonderful views. It’s gradual going up, and just gorgeous views going down.”
If you're in the park in late summer, a hike up Cadillac could reward you with some great birding. Acadia's HawkWatch location on Cadillac Mountain often provides visitors with a close look at the soaring raptors. Each year, program participants see large numbers of sharp-shinned hawks and American kestrels, while many other raptors pass along with them. The 2009 HawkWatch season was considered a big success. From August 19 through October 14 park rangers, volunteers, and visitors spotted, identified, and counted 2,831 birds for the season. Over the past 15 years (1995–2009), the average number of raptors seen per year is 2,579.
Trail: South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain
Trailhead: Found along Route 3, 100 feet south of Blackwoods Campground entrance.
Length: 7.4 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous depending on your condition
Payoff: Gorgeous conifer forests, fields of granite outcrops, stunning views of Gulf of Maine, Frenchman Bay, and lemonade at the summit!
Traveler trivia: The true summit is near the radio tower behind the gift shop.