Our National Parks: Acadia National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Acadia National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Box 177, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
Established 1919
35,000 Acres

The Big Picture: On the "crown jewels" scale, Acadia rates somewhere below aquamarine. Comparisons seem unfair--even guidebooks use such quotidian vocabulary as "wilderness-like" to describe Acadia's relative wilds--but they're inevitable. Yellowstone is "breathtaking"; Acadia is "pleasant."

Acadia was donated piecemeal by the Rockefellers and other society families who wished to create public land for the less fortunate from bits of their hefty estates. What they left us was a chunk of classic Maine coastline replete with waterfowl, tidal pools, lowland bogs and heaths, hardwood forests, and the stony peaks that inspired French explorer Samuel de Champlain to call the largest of the islands on which Acadia sits l'Isle des Monts-deserts--Mount Desert Island.

Perhaps the benefactors did not foresee that these wonders would be somewhat compromised by proximity to Bar Harbor's weekend throngs and by millions of car-borne tourists (Acadia, one-twentieth the size of Yosemite, gets three-quarters as many visitors). But in Acadia, East Coast civilization and what's left of East Coast wilderness somehow coexist, if imperfectly.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 2,728,433 total visitors, 180,560 overnight visitors

The 20-mile Park Loop Road, which is essentially a conveyor belt to Acadia's stoic attractions: the rock-and-sea cacophony at Thunder Hole; Sand Beach, immensely popular because it's one of the few sand beaches in the park; Jordan Pond; The Bubbles, two 800-foot mounds of earth that bear a remarkable resemblance to Jane Russell's bustline; and the 3.5-mile spur to the summit of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic coast. The tradition is to drive up and watch the sunset from the peak--if you can find a place to park. Off the loop, but easily accessible by car, is the Bass Harbor Head lighthouse on Mount Desert Island's southern tip. Just for fun, keep track of the number of times you're told it's the most-photographed lighthouse in Maine.

Where You Should Go: Remember what most visitors don't--that the park occupies not just Mount Desert Island, but also the tip of Schoodic Peninsula, half of 4,700-acre Isle au Haut, and four tiny islets. In summer, you can hitch a $9 ride to Isle au Haut on the mail boat that leaves four times daily from Stonington, at the end of Maine 15 on Deer Isle. Only residents can have bikes or cars on the island, so be prepared to hoof the 30 miles of trails through dark spruce-fir forest and rocky coves. Acadia's most backcountryish campsites--five sites that are reserved months in advance through the park's main number--are on Isle au Haut, about five miles into the forest from the ferry wharf. Or, at low tide, you can walk from Bar Harbor, on the mainland, to Bar Island for two or three hours of bird-watching before the tide comes in.

On Mount Desert Island, solitude is a little harder to come by. On the eastern side, go deep into the park on 50 miles of carriage roads built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. They're good for mountain bikes and tandems (rent bikes for $11-$16 per day at Acadia Bike & Canoe, 207-288-5483), cross-country skiing (rent gear for $12 per day at Cadillac Mountain Sports, 207-288-4532), or horseback riding ($13-$27 a night; bring your own horse and use the ten horse camping sites maintained by Wildwood Stables, 207-276-3622). Otherwise, stick to the island's western side, which has no carriage roads or concessions--in other words, no conveniences--and so has escaped much of the tourist maul. From the Echo Lake Beach parking area you can climb steep Canada Cliff Trail one mile to the 839-foot summit of Beech Mountain, which affords a view of Somes Sound, the only fjord in the eastern United States and a good spot for ocean paddling. Acadia Bike & Canoe rents canoes ($22 per day) and guides one- to five-day sea-kayaking trips ($65-$599) in and around the park.

Don't Forget: Your lightweight hiking boots. Acadia's rocky coasts are hard on the ankles.

Where to Bunk: Call the Inns of the Island bed-and-breakfast network (207-288-9511) and request one of the five rooms at The Inn at Canoe Point. It's right on the water (in fact, it has one of those classic Maine decks that juts out over the ocean), is just across from the park's Hulls Cove entrance, and costs $105-$195 between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, $75-$140 off-season.

Food Is: WASPy. Which in the case of the $5 popovers-and-tea at Jordan Pond House is not a liability.

Park Lore: The most-told joke at Acadia is this: A guide was leading a tour of Acadia when a tourist in his group asked him where all the park's rocks had come from. Being from Maine, the guide gave a standard one-word answer: "Glacier." The tourist, taking this as rudeness, snapped, "Well, then, where did the glacier go?" The guide thought about it and replied, "It probably went back to get some more rocks."

Your Park Service at Work: Acadia is full of inholdings--pockets of private property--that the Park Service wants to acquire so badly it has earned true Big Brother status among locals over the years. The park obtained condemnation rights on Isle au Haut in 1982 and on Mount Desert Island in 1986. At the moment it wants to acquire the quarter-acre site of two cabins, dating back to 1862, that belong to 87-year-old Charles Bowen and his family. Residents who won't sell face what they say are constant inconveniences. One example is that they must import all their firewood even though the park allows fallen and standing deadwood to acumulate as part of its natural management strategy. So it's hard to account for the dock it constructed for visitor use at Duck Harbor ("big enough for the QE2," quips one local), which drove off the eiders that nested there. Locals resent their island having been donated away, but stewardship does have its upside. This summer a $4 million federal grant to restore the park's carriage road system will be matched by funds from Friends of Acadia and David Rockefeller, continuing in the family tradition.

Where the money goes:
Budget: $2,130,200
Science: 0%
Visitor services: 30.1%
Maintenance: 46.1%
Other: 23.8%

Flashlight Reading: The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett (W.W. Norton, $7.95); Appalachian Mountain Club Guide to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park (Talman Company, $5.95).

Fun Index: It'll do, if you don't have a New England summer place you can go to instead. 2.5

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