Looking for the best things to do in Acadia National Park or tips & tricks for visiting Bar Harbor, Maine? Here are our top 10 recommendations including scenic drives, hiking trails, and breathtaking views. We also share photos & thoughts from our experiences in Acadia National Park. (Updated September 16, 2020.)
Before we get going, here’s what you need to know if you’re planning on visiting for the popular fall colors season in 2020. As part of the “Keep Maine Healthy” plan that aims to protect Maine people and visitors, while supporting the state economy and small businesses there are certain requirements for travelers.
Maine requires adults who arrive into the state to either obtain and receive a negative test from a specimen taken no longer than 72 hours prior to arrival or a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Maine. Obviously, the latter option is impractical for those wanting to do a long-weekend getaway to Acadia, so be sure to get tested before traveling. (Note: those traveling from Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont are exempt from these requirements.)
Additionally, Acadia National Park is under limited operations for the remainder of 2020. Some facilities may not be available and staffing may be limited. Island Explorer bus service has been suspended indefinitely, public campgrounds are closed, and backcountry camping or overnight parking is not allowed.
Visitors to Acadia National Park should adjust their expectations accordingly. Practice physical distancing, personal hygiene, and wear a face mask (as required by the state of Maine) in public settings where maintaining physical distancing is difficult. On the plus side, Park Loop Road, carriage roads, and most hiking trails are open. For the most part, visitors to Acadia National Park will not have a diminished experience right now.
Next, a bit more about the park’s location on Mount Desert Island. It’s about an hour from Bangor Airport, but most people will likely fly into Portland, Maine (3.5 hours) or Boston, Massachusetts (6 hours). A map of Acadia National Park looks a bit like Swiss cheese, as a lot of land that would seemingly be within the park is still privately owned. This has its pros and cons, which we’ll discuss more below.
Whether you’re looking for a scenic drive, to hear from NPS Rangers about the ecosystem, to go hiking, stargazing, or looking for wildlife and wildflowers, Acadia National Park is a great place to visit–arguably the best National Park on the East Coast, in fact.
While this post offers my favorite things we did in Acadia National Park, it should not be read as an exhaustive guide to everything worthwhile in the park. We love Acadia National Park…but also feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. That’s pretty much par for the course with most National Parks–you can do many of the highlights in a long weekend, but you could spend a lifetime exploring them and still not see it all.
In any case, here are Acadia National Park’s highlights and top things to do…
Wander Rockefeller’s Carriage Roads
The entirety of Mount Desert Island was originally private property, but much of it was consolidated in the heads of wealthy philanthropists. They donated their land to the government for the purpose of establishing the park. Not all landowners on Mount Desert Island were so generous, though. (Can’t say I blame them: if Bill Gates owned some land–probably .01% of the total amount he owns–next to my house, I wouldn’t give my home away just because he gave up his.)
The area donated became a National Park in 1919 as “Lafayette National Park” but had its name changed about a decade later to Acadia National Park. One of the early champions of Acadia National Park was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. While his gift of the land created the beautiful park we enjoy today, it was not entirely selfless.
He and other affluent individuals viewed Acadia National Park as a way to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City, and wanted Acadia preserved as such. This became a point of contention between the wealthy New Yorkers and regular residents of the area, who didn’t want to be left behind as an undeveloped “rustic” area.
This dispute best manifested itself in a controversial automobile ban on Mount Desert Island. The wealthy wanted it car-free, whereas locals wanted vehicles on the island. While Rockefeller himself wasn’t keen on automobiles, he saw the writing on the wall and thought development of Acadia would be a positive thing if well-managed.
He became an advocate for Park Loop Road (for vehicles) as well as the Carriage Roads (for carriages and pedestrians), and ultimately financed and directed the construction of both Park Loop Road and the network of carriage trails throughout Acadia National Park.
Today, both features are two of Acadia National Park’s greatest assets. Were it not for Rockefeller, these carriage roads wouldn’t exist. The design on the carriage roads is beautiful, and they offer a serene place to escape for walking, jogging, or biking. I had a nice time taking leisurely photo walks along them, and most offered some great scenery.
Cruise Ocean Drive
The 27-mile Park Loop Road is to Acadia National Park what Pacific Coast Highway is to the California Coast. While this scenic drive does not always hug the coastline, a long stretch of the road does offer ocean views that are absolutely stunning.
Park Loop Road begins at Hulls Cove Visitor Center and continues past Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliff, Jordan Pond, and Cadillac Mountain. There are several pull-off areas where you can stop for photos, or to admire the view. The road itself is also quite beautiful, meticulously-designed by landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
We’d recommend a drive on Park Loop Road first thing in the morning. Watch the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain, Monument Cove, or wherever, and go for a scenic drive. There are a couple reasons for this: first and foremost, Park Loop Road gets packed with people, many of whom will try to take photos from their cars without pulling off. Second, the drive is most picturesque in the morning, with the sunlight flittering in through the trees, and wildlife active.
Peep Some Leaves
Maybe I’m just way too immature, but the term ‘leaf peeping’ has always struck me as a bit…creepy. “Ole Tom, he liked to sit behind that line of shrubbery, and peak out over to do some leaf peeping. Always used a telephoto lens to zoom right in to catch every detail.”
In any case, leaf peeping is the reason we planned an October visit to Acadia. For those wondering when is the best time to see fall colors in Acadia National Park, it’s around mid-October. That’s what all of our research indicated, and unless you’re coming from the Northeast and can plan a last minute trip, that’s your best bet.
Actual peak fall colors varies year to year, based on precipitation, temperatures, and other variables I probably do not understand. Before our trip, I was glued to various online color projections and forecasts, worried we’d be too early or too late. It turned out we were just about perfect.
Hiking is the most popular activity in Acadia National Park, and there are a wealth of options here, ranging for easy and accessible to lengthy and strenuous.
We did a few hikes in Acadia, including Jordan Pond Full Loop Trail, Ocean Path Trail, and Bubbles Trail. All of these were easy hikes that anyone could do, and took us past serene areas. We aimed to do hikes that would be pretty simple, not too time consuming, and take us past pretty sights. All of our hikes took us along the coastline or out to see the South Bubble Mountain and North Bubble Mountains.
The most popular trails are Cadillac Mountain’s South Ridge and North Ridge Trails. The Beehive Cliffs Trail also looks like a really cool option…so long as you’re not afraid of heights.
Bass Harbor Head Light
Forget Cadillac Mountain, this is the best spot for a sunrise in Acadia National Park. Bass Harbor Head Light is the only lighthouse in Acadia National Park, and is located at such a south-facing angle that it can be a good spot for either sunrise or sunset. The lighthouse gets its name from the village of Bass Harbor in Tremont, Maine where it’s located. Bass Harbor Head Light has a rich history dating to 1855 when it was first planned, with the lighthouse first lit in 1858.
Note that Bass Harbor Head Light has a public parking area that is open 9 a.m. until sunset every day. The lighthouse itself is a private residence for a member of the Coast Guard, and is not open to the public. Accordingly, areas of the ‘residence’ are also considered private property, so tread lightly while hiking out to the lighthouse for sunrise or sunset.
Near the lighthouse is a viewing area that offers a beautiful panoramic view of Bass Harbor and outlying islands. Placards scattered around provide historic information about the grounds, head light, and harbor. This is where you’ll have the best view of the Bass Harbor Head Light itself.
In this general area is a path that leads through the trees and to a staircase. This goes down to the cliff, which ends on some coastal rocks. That’s where I shot the sunrise and sunset photos of the Bass Harbor Head Light for this post. While these rocks are huge and fairly level, you should of course exercise caution and be mindful of stormy or wet weather, as they can get slippery and the ocean is obviously treacherous.
I found the Bass Harbor Head Light to be the most photogenic aspect of Acadia National Park, which is itself an incredibly photogenic park. We revisited the lighthouse several times over the course of our trip, as I could not get enough of it. Definitely not to be missed!
See the Nation’s “First Sunrise”
At 1,530 feet in height, Cadillac Mountain is the tallest mountain in Acadia National Park and the Northeast Atlantic coast. It’s also the first point in the United States to see the sunrise October through March, in case you’re out for some bragging rights.
Normally, I am…but really, isn’t the entire park “close enough” to being the first place to see the sunrise in the United States to just go wherever and watch from there? The above “sunrise” photo was actually taken well before official sunrise time, and would’ve looked the same from Cadillac Mountain as it did from the shore. It’s only the actual cresting of the sun above the horizon that Cadillac Mountain sees ~1 minute before the rest of Acadia National Park.
It’s possible to get to the summit of Cadillac Mountain by foot or by car, with the parking area being convenient and incredibly popular, with a lot of people up there even at 5 a.m. Hiking up the South or North Ridge Trail is about a 3 to 4 mile one-way trek (start the hike at least 2.5 hours before official sunrise), and is the easier option in terms of crowds, but obviously is more work. For the sake of photos, we ended up allocating our sunrises in Acadia National Park to more photogenic spots, and ones away from crowds.
In the end, I sort of regret not just trying to do the hike up to Cadillac Mountain for sunrise. While I don’t think it would’ve been worth it from a photographic perspective (even the best shots from up there look somewhat barren), the dorky bragging rights of posting a photo on Instagram with a ‘casual’ caption that “today, I was the first person in the United States to see the sunrise” would’ve been neat.
Monument Cove & Otter Cliff
Located along Ocean Drive, Otter Cliff is well-known as a place well as a place where otters perform daring acts of high diving into the Atlantic Ocean. How else do you explain the name? While we didn’t see any Otterlympics, Otter Cliff actually is famous for its 110 foot high cliff, the highest Atlantic coastal headlands north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Nearby, Monument Cove is named for its vertical sea stack of granite isolated from the cliff by coastal erosion. I think it’s one of the most iconic scenes in Acadia National Park. Now, if you’re from Utah and are used to entire landscapes like this in your local National Parks, perhaps you won’t be impressed, but…how many of your parks are bordered by the ocean?
Instead of Cadillac Mountain, we opted to use one of our sunrises at Monument Cove. I had seen it in Ultimate Acadia (this is a nice, concise guide to Acadia; better than the overly long Moon Handbook we also got), but it’s omitted from many online resources and seems like an under-the-radar spot to enjoy a nice sunrise. I thought it would be an interesting view that’s distinctly Acadia, rather than “generic” oceanfront.
It was an easy hike, which was a big plus in the dark. My impression is that this isn’t normally a popular sunrise spot, and there were only two other people in the area when we visited. A couple of things to note if you’re into photography. First, the clearing where you’d want to set up is very small, with barely enough room for a few people. Second, check the angle of the sun before you shoot this spot. (I use the Photographer’s Ephemeris for this.) If the sun is too far to the south, the sea stacks in Monument Cove will not be hit by the rising sun.
The biggest downside of Acadia National Park being dotted with so much private property is that it never feels remote or worlds away from civilization like National Parks of the West. In parts of Yosemite, Death Valley, and Sequoia, you truly feel alone with nature, and there are plenty of places in those parks where it’s possible to go with no one around you for miles.
You never get that feeling in Acadia National Park. Honestly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park aside, I’m not sure you get that feeling at many of the East Coast National Parks. Most are comparatively compact, or have this ‘mixed use’ feel.
That downside is also an upside, as it means delicious lobster (or lobstah in the local parlance) is never that far away. While in places like Yosemite, you’re at the mercy of food courts operated by National Park concessionaires who believe cardboard is a cornerstone ingredient in all meals, there are a ton of exceptional restaurants within a short drive of Acadia.
During our visit, we had lobster for literally every meal. I won’t rehash those wonderful eating experiences here as we already have a post detailing the Best Places to Eat in Acadia National Park, but suffice to say, rewarding yourself with a big meal after a long hike is a very satisfying–and essential–part of the Acadia National Park experience!
This just scratches the surface of possible things to do on your visit to Acadia National Park, but hopefully it provides a useful jumping off point for you. As mentioned, a few days is not nearly enough time to see and do everything in Acadia. We’d definitely like to return at some point in the future (probably during fall colors season or even winter), and would ideally spend a 4-5 days in Acadia National Park next time.
Where are your favorite places and things to do in Acadia National Park? Any favorite sunrise/sunset spots in the park? Any hikes or walking trails you’d recommend? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!