15 Best Things to do in Acadia National Park
When my New England road trip brought me to Maine, Acadia National Park, one of many beautiful National parks on the east coast. Acadia definitely topped my list of places to see in Maine. I heard so much about the majestic beauty of Maine’s rocky coastline and Acadia was said to be the crown jewel. With my hiking boots laced up and backpack ready, I was excited to finally explore this beloved national park.
Let me tell you, Acadia didn’t disappoint, it actually exceeded my high expectations. Acadia is one of the great national parks to visit in June. Just before the crowd hits and when the temperature is already summery. The Maine coastline is unlike anywhere else on the Atlantic seaboard and has endless beautiful vistas. With 158 miles of hiking trails, I had plenty of space to discover its bewildering landscapes and native wildlife. The only downside was leaving the park after several days of climbing cliffs, swimming at beaches, and gazing at the sea from rocky headlands.
Acadia National Park is a special place, and I compiled a list of 15 things to do for an unforgettable visit. From iconic viewpoints to hikes made for daredevils, this post has the best sights to build your itinerary. Just make sure your camera (or phone) is fully charged to capture incredible photos to show your loved ones.
15 Best Things to do in Acadia National Park
About Acadia National Park | Best Time to Visit Acadia National Park | Park Loop Road | Cadillac Mountain | Sand Beach | Thunder Hole | Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse | Carriage Roads & Bridges | Schoodic Peninsula | Jordan Pond House Restaurant | Precipice Trail | Otter Cliff | Wild Gardens of Acadia | Ocean Path | Echo Lake | Boat Tours | Isle Au Haut
About Acadia National Park
Established in 1916, Acadia National Park is the star attraction for New England nature lovers. It’s the first national park east of the Mississippi River and the only one in the New England region. The park contains around half of Mount Desert Island, sections of Schoodic Peninsula & Isle Au Haut, and several offshore islands. The park’s diverse landscapes include rock-strewn beaches, jagged cliffs, U-shaped valleys, crystal-clear lakes, peaceful streams, sandy beaches, and more. Altogether, Acadia features about 50,000 acres that showcase the biodiversity and natural wonders of the Maine coast.
Acadia’s immense beauty draws over 3 million visitors each year and ranks in the top-10 most visited national parks in America. From spring to fall, Acadia is a recreational haven for outdoor fun. My adventures included hiking, swimming, cycling, and kayaking, but that only scratches the surface of what you can do. Acadia National Park also has rock climbing, camping, guided boat tours, and horseback riding. After traveling through Maine, Acadia National Park is one of my favorite destinations in the United States and I would return in a heartbeat.
Best Time to Visit Acadia National Park
The best time of year to visit Acadia National Park depends on your specific preferences. Summer (July-August) has the warmest temperatures for hiking, biking, swimming, and camping, but the park is slam packed. Unless you arrive early in the morning, expect congested roads and busy viewpoints. Spring (May-June) has fewer crowds, but the weather and bugs might create an unpleasant experience. Fall (September-October) is the perfect time for fall foliage but expect ‘leaf peeping’ crowds flocking to the park. Winter (December-March) is the time to bundle up for skiing and snowmobiling as many hotels, restaurants, and attractions are closed.
Although the temperatures are chillier than summer, I’d personally choose to visit in the fall. The summer crowds at Acadia National Park can be overwhelming, and I love those gorgeous fall colours.
1. Park Loop Road
A car provided the freedom to properly explore Acadia National Park and Park Loop Road was my favorite drive. At 27 miles long, it’s the primary vehicle route around Mount Desert Island. The roadway navigates you to many of Acadia’s best viewpoints, such as Thunder Hole and Otter Cliff (more on those special places a little later).
To drive the entire route, start your journey at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center in Bar Harbor. This beautiful section of the park provides a fantastic base to reach tranquil ponds, dense forests, and the rocky coastline in minutes. Large portions of Park Loop Road are one-way, but you can always contact the National Park Service for driving info. Fortunately, there are plenty of pull-off observation points and parking lots to soak up the views. If you’re like me, you’ll want to stop at every single one, and the drive could take a LONG time.
2. Cadillac Mountain
Standing at 1,530 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the highest point along the entire Atlantic Coast. It’s also the first place in the United States to watch the sunrise above the horizon for half the year. That makes Cadillac Mountain one of the busiest spots in Acadia National Park in the early morning hours. The views of the glaciated coastline and adjacent Porcupine Islands are a magical sight.
If you visit during summer, prepare yourself for massive crowds to catch the swirling shades of purple and orange decorate the sky. Although I loathed waking up before the crack of dawn, the scenic vistas were worth it. For a less congested viewing from the Cadillac Mountain summit, consider a spring or fall visit. While some off-trail areas escape the heavy crowds, I’d advise against this due to potential damage to the vegetation.
3. Sand Beach
Maine has some gorgeous beaches, and Acadia National’s golden jewel is the popular Sand Beach. Nestled on the east side of Mount Desert Island, this idyllic shoreline perfectly sums up Maine’s natural beauty. Evergreen forest encircles the wide, sandy shores and granite mountains rise above the inlet. Hike the Great Head Trail for a stunning panorama of the 290 yd beach. For a different angle, you can also hike the Beehive Trail to gaze outwards at sea.
I couldn’t resist going for a dip in those turquoise waters and weathered the frigid temperatures. Even during summer, the water rarely exceeds 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 celcius). But it was a heavenly place to cool off after hiking around the area. The only bummer was the crowds, but I expected the beach to be insane during the peak summer season.
Sand Beach is accessible via Park Loop Road, but you must pay an entrance fee in Bar Harbor. If you’re without a car, the Island Explorer Shuttle Bus comes in handy during summer. There are also changing rooms and restrooms beside the parking lot.
4. Thunder Hole
Thunder Hole is one of the most interesting sights I witnessed during my time in New England. The small inlet carved from the rocks doesn’t seem like much upon first glance but wait until the waves pound the rugged shoreline. When you hear the monstrous roar of the surge crashing into the inlet, its sound mimics thunder. If you visit on a rough day, don’t be surprised to see water splashing 30-40 feet above you. Between the sight and sound of the waves crashing into the rocks, you understand how it earns the nickname.
5. Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse
Perched on a sea cliff in the southwest section of Mount Desert Island, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is one of Acadia’s historic landmarks. Built in 1858, the charming lighthouse marks the entrance to Bass Harbor and offers gorgeous seaside views. This is one of my favorite sunset spots in Acadia National Park, and I always have my camera ready here. It stands 56 feet above the water, and there’s a stairway that leads to the cliff face.
The Tremont Historical Society sometimes offers tours of the lighthouse, and you can view the authentic keeper’s house inside. While you’re in the area, I’d recommend walking around the cozy fishing villages of Bernard and Bass Harbor. The sights of fishing boats, yachts, sailboats, and other vessels gave me plenty of photo opportunities.
6. Carriage Roads & Bridges
Go back to a simpler time by traversing along the 57 miles of carriage roads created by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the early 20th century. The road network lets hikers, cyclists, horse riders, and non-motorized vehicles explore more isolated sections of Mount Desert Island. By winter, the carriage roads transform into cross-country skiing and snowshoeing routes.
Through careful design, the beautiful roadways illustrate the natural beauty of Acadia National Park. One of the unforgettable ways to appreciate their craftsmanship is to ride a horse-drawn carriage. I think it’s among the best ways to admire the colourful foliage that dots the landscape in fall. A bike ride through the woodlands is a fantastic alternative when I’m feeling up for more adventure.
7. Schoodic Peninsula
Schoodic Peninsula is all about coastal scenery and witnessing the majesty of the sea. Comprising 2,266 acres, the Schoodic Peninsula is the only section of Acadia National Park on the mainland. Although it’s isolated from Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Peninsula offers startling images of the sea pounding the rocky coast. Drive past the delightful town of Winter Harbor to find rock-strewn beaches, coastal forests, and granite headlands. Thanks to the picnic tables, fire rings, and drinking water in the area, I think it’s a wonderful spot to enjoy a packed lunch.
At the southern tip of the peninsula, Schoodic Point is where I could stare at the sea for hours. Forests encircle the granite and basalt formations while the waves crash against the shoreline. You have a beautiful view of Cadillac Mountain, and there’s nowhere near the crowds to disrupt the sounds of the sea.
8. Jordan Pond House Restaurant
Come for the views but stay for the delicious food at Jordan Pond House Restaurant. Famous for popovers and tea, the elegant eatery has served parkgoers for over a century. Once the weather warms up, the umbrellas come out to provide shade while you gaze outwards at Jordan Pond. If you wish to score a seat at their afternoon teatime, make early reservations. I couldn’t resist the popovers and tea, but the restaurant also offers lobster stew, refreshing lemonade, and ice cream for dessert.
Although the food was fabulous, the surreal beauty of Jordan Pond won me over for a five-star review. The glacial tarn might be the clearest body of water in Maine, and the forested mountains form a magical panorama. Although swimming isn’t allowed in Jordan Pond, you can launch a canoe or kayak near the restaurant. Afternoon tea and kayaking is a hard combo for me to pass up at this majestic site.
9. Precipice Trail
If you follow my travels, you know how much I love finding a heart-racing adventure. The Precipice Trail is no doubt Acadia National Park’s most exhilarating hike and among the most daring challenges in New England. For those who have a fear of heights, I’d recommend staying away from this one. The roughly 2-mile round trip route requires a steep climb up Champlain Mountain via iron rungs and ladders. And that’s not even the most thrilling (or terrifying) part. You’ll also have to hike along high, narrow ledges that leave you completely exposed off the rocky cliff.
Do NOT underestimate this trail since several climbers have died here. The Precipice Trail is often considered the most dangerous hike in any national park in the United States. If you’re able to stomach the sheer drop below, the views from Champlain Mountain are incredible. From the cliff face, you’ll gaze at the radiant foliage, sparkling water, and rocky islands. Personally, I think it’s one of New England’s best viewpoints but only for those without a fear of heights.
10. Otter Cliff
Another popular viewpoint on Park Loop Road, Otter Cliff offers breathtaking views outwards to sea. At 110 feet, the rocky cliff is among the highest headlands of the North American Atlantic seaboard. The overlook provides a scenic view of forests perched along the edge of the jagged cliffside and rock-strewn coastline.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie up for a thrill, the summer gives you the chance to rock climb the granite face. Wildlife lovers will also adore the scenic viewpoint for the opportunity to spot birds, whales, and other native creatures.
11. Wild Gardens of Acadia
The Wild Gardens of Acadia contain over 300 native plant species of Mount Desert Island. Through the hard work of volunteers, the 13 sections of the garden represent Acadia’s natural habitats. The unique plant communities include coniferous woods, meadow, heath, beach, bird thicket, and several others. Volunteers also provide educational tools to help visitors learn more about the preservation of the natural environment. You’ll find the Wild Gardens of Acadia at the Sieur de Monts Spring and Nature Center 2.5 miles from Bar Harbor.
12. Ocean Path
The roughly 4.5-mile round trip Ocean Path lets you stroll beside the sea and visit popular viewpoints. Starting from the Sand Beach parking lot, the path coasts along the rocky shoreline for stunning vistas. The trail is mostly flat and has many paved sections to allow hikers of any skill level. You’ll also notice some side trails where you can meander closer to the water for amazing views. Just be careful in these areas in case of wet surfaces and large waves crashing against the shoreline. During your stroll, you’ll pass beautiful attractions such as Thunder Hole, Monument Cove, and Otter Cliff.
13. Echo Lake
Echo Lake is a beloved swimming hole in Acadia National Park that attracts many summer visitors. Just north of Southwest Harbor, the lake’s beautiful surroundings feature dense woodlands and rocky cliffs. The crystal-clear waters of the freshwater lake are a heavenly place to cool off after a hike. After going for a relaxing swim, I loved sunbathing on the sandy shores of Echo Lake Beach. The water at Echo Lake isn’t frigid like Sand Beach, so I don’t have to be as brave!
For panoramic views of Echo Lake, use the Beech Cliff Ladder Trail to ascend the vertical cliffs. Using iron rungs, you’ll climb the sheer cliffside to score heart-racing aerial views of the lake and adjacent foliage.
14. Boat Tours
Given Acadia National Park’s picturesque seaside location, I highly recommend reserving time for a boat tour. Several companies offer all sorts of sightseeing cruises to admire the park’s gorgeous scenery. Acadian Boat Tours is an outstanding company that has a wide variety of voyages for you. Their selections include nature cruises, sunset cruises, and fishing trips. My personal favorite is the Puffins, Lighthouses, and Seabirds Cruise to search for adorable creatures offshore.
15. Isle Au Haut
Whenever I’m itching to ditch the crowds at the most popular attractions of Acadia National Park, Isle Au Haut is a relaxing change of pace. This remote island is about 15 miles from Mount Desert Island and only accessible by ferry. After a 45-minute ride from Stonington, you’ll find yourself in a primitive wonderland fit for nature enthusiasts. The hiking trails on the island feature rocky coasts, pristine forests, coves, and rugged cliffs. Although the ferry charges an extra fee, I’d love to mountain bike on the island’s rough roads.
Do you have anything to add to my list of best things to do in Acadia National Park? Please let me know in the section below.
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