According to the Acadia National Park website, an average stay in the park is three to four days. I was lucky enough to spend six days at Family Nature Summit, an outdoor camp, with my granddaughter. I devoted a day to driving the Park Loop Road, making many stops.
In a way, driving the Acadia Park Loop Road is similar to the "drive a while, stop a while" experience on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but with ocean views as well as mountains.
The park website recommends three to four hours to drive the road and enjoy the stops along the way. I suggest that you take your lunch and water so you can spend the day touring. The road offers such a great way to get an overview of a major part of the park. Who knows what unexpected you'll find?
The 27-mile scenic loop starts at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. The road is open April 15 through November, but a small section stays open year-round. You can drive the loop or go green. From late June through early October, take the free Island Explorer bus, sponsored by L.L. Bean and Friends of Acadia.
Usually I have a tendency to stop and read every information board at the beginning of the loop and then skip some of the end attractions. Try to pace yourself and leave enough time for all the major highlights. Ideally, you'll want to be as enthusiastic at the last stop as the first.
Here are my highlights, in the order that you'll meet them.
A View of Frenchman Bay
Frenchman Bay separates Mount Desert Island from the Atlantic. It was back in 1604 that the French navigator Samuel Champlain explored the area and named the island Isle de Desert because the rocky tops looked bare like a desert.
People have been arguing about the island's pronunciation just about from the very beginning. Visitors pronounce it desert. Some locals say dessert, but the island doesn’t look like a blueberry pie, which by the way is the best dessert here.
From 1613 to 1760, the French battled the English for possession of this and other North American islands. When the conflict was over, the British established the first permanent settlement. Nevertheless, the area still shows its French history with many signs in English and French.
Bar Island is the largest town on Frenchman Bay. Many islands of various sizes are sprinkled throughout.
From the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the loop road makes a sharp left and starts a one-way section.
Sieur de Monts Springs
The springs are at the heart of several attractions at this stop.
George Dorr, a wealthy Bostonian, purchased the land in 1909 to protect the springs. He built a Florentine-style canopy to further shield the water from debris and piped it to an artificial pool. The flow has diminished and isn't bubbling anymore. In Dorr’s days, the upper crust (aka blue bloods) used the springs as the center of their social gatherings. On a nearby rock, Dorr carved “The Sweet Waters of Acadia.”
Dorr (1853-1944) named the spring "Sieur de Monts" in honor of Pierre du Guast, the French noble man who was commissioned Lieutenant Governor of New France by King Henry IV in 1603. Some consider the springs the heart of the park, and I have to agree.
When I asked a park ranger how Dorr made his money, she quickly corrected me--“Mr. Dorr.” George Dorr came from a wealthy Bostonian family and was one of many affluent people to have a home on Mt. Desert Island. As a gentleman scholar, Mr. Dorr made it his mission to protect the island. His determination led to the creation of Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916. Three years later, the monument became Lafayette National Park. It was renamed Acadia National Park in 1929. Mr. Dorr became the park’s first superintendent.
The Bar Harbor Garden Club created the Wild Gardens of Acadia here. The gardens are designed as a maze of short paths around plants and trees from a dozen different habitats, including roadside flowers, beech, pine upland, and mixed woods. You'll find several types of ferns, jack in the pulpit, and of course, blueberry bushes. Stone benches and rocks dot the garden. Children can go on a Junior Botanist scavenger hunt, with clipboard and pencil provided.
The Nature Center is a modest wooden building with exhibits and displays for young children. Here you can buy books and maps and talk to a park ranger.
Up the hill from the springs, another wealthy visitor, Robert Abbe, a New York surgeon, founded the Abbe Museum in 1928. Today the main exhibit in the museum focuses on the heritage of the Wabanaki native people who guided European and American explorers, cartographers, tourists and artists from the 1600s to the present day. The museum also has a branch in Bar Harbor across from the village green. Though well inside Acadia National Park, the museum is not connected with the park and charges a fee ($6 for adults, $2 for children).
Beaver Dam Pond
You can spend hours at Beaver Dam Pond, a small, round pond accessible from a road pull-off. Beavers are nocturnal but you'll see their work in dams, lodges, and freshly chewed trees. If you come early morning or evening, you might get lucky and spot a beaver. The site is great for observing ducks and many species of songbirds.
Trailhead for the Precipice Trail
The Precipice Trail may be the most challenging and popular trail in the park. Though it's only a mile long, it offers iron bars and ladders in some of the steep sections as it climbs the east face of Champlain Mountain. Unfortunately, the trail was closed when I visited because of nesting peregrine falcons and so I didn't get to climb it.
The fee entrance station is just before Sand Beach. Though it’s called Sand Beach, most of the “sand” consists of crumbled clam and mussel shells. Still it’s very popular on a warm summer day. Few people actually swim since the water temperature is never much over 55 degrees.
The advice for Thunder Hole is to you ought to plan to arrive at the site midway between low and high tide, because that's when the Hole is at its most active state. It's hard to time it perfectly since there’s so much else to do on the Park Loop Road. Whenever you get here, Thunder Hole will be impressive. The site and parking area are busy most of the day.
Thunder Hole is a crack in a small cave on the coastline where waves surge into the hole. Water and air explode out of the cave with a roar. A walkway and fence keep visitors away from the hole and from falling into the sea. Yet in August 2009, seven visitors were washed out to sea, including a 7-year-old who drowned, when they came to see the high surf associated with Hurricane Bill.
There are no sea otters at Otter Point or any place on the East Coast. Still, this is a dramatic point where waves crash on the granite wall. After the crowds at Thunder Hole, the quiet, reflective nature of the point may be a good place for lunch. Visitors sit on the rocks, contemplate the scenery or their lives, read and picnic.
The road returns to two-way before the next stop.
Jordan Pond is a magnet for boaters, sightseers, and lovers of good food. In the middle of the day, parking at Jordan Pond is difficult. Continue to the north parking area and walk back on the trails.
John D. Rockefeller built the Jordan Pond Gate Lodge as a gatehouse in 1932. It was designed to look like a hunting lodge and serves as the start of the carriage road system. Park personnel now live in the Gate Lodge, but you can admire the outside.
Jordan Pond may look like an alpine lake because it's surrounded by mountains on three sides. However the water drains into the ocean in two miles. You can kayak, canoe, and fish in the pond, but not swim because it's also the water supply for the nearby community of Seal Harbor. At the far northern end of Jordan Pond, you'll see two rounded hills, called the Bubbles.
The crowds here are mostly concentrated around Jordan Pond House. Outside the restaurant, visitors wait their turn to make a reservation. Many have come to eat the famous popover, a pastry made of eggs, milk and flour, and baked in a kind of muffin tin. Popovers are served with butter and jam, similar to Yorkshire pudding. A single popover is $4. The restaurant opens at 11:30 am and serves lunch, tea, and dinner. Rumor has it that visitors line up at 9 a.m. to get in for lunch and a popover.
Acadia Shops, a concession, runs the restaurant and gift shop.
Several trails will take you up Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain in the park at 1,527 feet above sea level. However, most visitors drive up the 3.5-mile road.
On top, you can walk the half-mile path that encircles the summit. On a sunny day, the views are spectacular from the Maine woods to the north to the open Atlantic Ocean to the south. On a foggy day, you'll see...fog.
Either way, the top of Cadillac Mountain might be cool, so bring an extra layer of clothing. You'll find restrooms and a small concession store off the parking area.
Some call driving the Park Loop Road, Acadia for non-hikers, but I'd call it a good way of experiencing the Top of the Pops attractions. For your next day, go hiking.