Top 5 things to see and do for first-time visitors to Acadia National Park

If you’re first-time visitors to Acadia National Park this Centennial year, you’ll soon see why generations of families, artists, millionaires and even presidents have been lured by the magnificent scenery.

Centennial logo for Acadia National Park

The official Acadia Centennial logo

The first national park east of the Mississippi, and still the Northeast’s only such park, Acadia boasts about 155 miles of hiking trails, from easy ocean walks to strenuous cliff climbs; 45 miles of carriage roads for biking, walking and riding in a horse-drawn carriage; scenic Park Loop Roads; a lighthouse; and the amazing contrast of deep blue sea and pink granite shores.

There’s plenty to see and do for first-time visitors to Acadia, especially during 2016, the 100th anniversary of the park and also of the National Park Service. But there will also be plenty of company too, with the Centennial expected to draw even more visitors than the 2.8 million who came to the park last year.

Here are the top 5 things to see and do for first-time visitors to Acadia National Park, as well as some insider tips on avoiding the crowds during the busy summer and fall foliage seasons. And be sure to check out our 5 tips to beat the crowds while visiting Acadia National Park, and the park’s official Web site to help you plan your trip:

cadillac mountain

Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park

1. Soak in the view on Cadillac Mountain

The highest peak in Acadia, and the first place to see the sun rise in the United States during certain times of the year, Cadillac is a must-see stop. From here, you can see all of Frenchman Bay, the distinctive Porcupine Islands and down to Bar Harbor.

Helpful wayside exhibits point out landmarks, from distant islands to mainland highlights. The paved 0.3-mile Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, partly accessible for wheelchairs and baby strollers, takes you around for the 360-degree views.

You can drive up a 3.5-mile road to the top, or take one of the guided bus tours with permits to operate in the park, National Park Tours or Oli’s Trolley. (The fare-free Island Explorer bus doesn’t go up Cadillac, but park officials are exploring the possibility of a bus shuttle to the top to ease crowding.)

For the fit and adventurous, Cadillac can also be hiked up via a number of hiking trails, such as the Cadillac South Ridge Trail or Cadillac North Ridge Trail. And it can be biked up via the summit road, although be advised that it’s a steep, narrow and windy route. Gift shop and restrooms are available at the top.

Insider tip: To avoid the crowds during the busy season, visit the top before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., or even at night to see the amazing star-filled sky. If you plan on hiking or driving up to see the sunrise, be aware that Cadillac is the first place in the United States to see it only from Oct. 7 to March 6. At times during the summer, even at sunrise, the road to the summit has had to be closed because of the crowds.

ocean path

Get out of the vehicle while touring the scenic Park Loop Road and you’ll get views like these along Ocean Path.

2. Tour the scenic Park Loop Road

The 27-mile road on Mount Desert Island starts at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. The one-way section of the road takes you to Wild Gardens of Acadia at Sieur de Monts; Sand Beach; Thunder Hole; and Otter Cliff. The two-way section of the road takes you along Jordan Pond and up Cadillac Mountain.

But don’t just drive the road. You can stop at the many pullouts or even in the right lane of the one-way section of the loop road where permitted. Get out of the vehicle to see the sights, hear the sounds and smell the ocean air. Tour the Wild Gardens of Acadia. Dip your toes into the frigid waters off Sand Beach.

Time your stop at Thunder Hole after a storm and as high tide approaches if you don’t want to go away disappointed by hearing just a gurgle instead of a thunderous clap.

As part of preparations for the Acadia Centennial, park officials rehabilitated 30 historic vistas along the Park Loop Road, restoring them to their former expansiveness. Take the time to enjoy the newly reopened views.

Insider tip: Drive early or late to avoid the crowds, or take the fare-free Island Explorer’s Loop Road line, or buy a ticket to one of the guided bus tours. Or take a ferry from Bar Harbor over to the Schoodic section of the park, and ride the Island Explorer around the scenic Loop Road around that less visited area.

jordan pond house

The view from the Jordan Pond House makes for a memorable meal. (NPS photo)

3. Have tea and popovers with a view

The Jordan Pond House, the only dining facility in Acadia National Park, continues a tradition that began in the 1890s, of offering afternoon tea and popovers on the lawn, with the pond and the distinctive twin mountains known as the Bubbles as the backdrop. Lunch and dinner are also served in season.


Afternoon tea and popovers is an Acadia tradition. (NPS photo)

There’s a gift shop and restrooms, and a number of hiking trails and carriage roads that intersect at the Jordan Pond House. You can work up an appetite first by taking the easy to intermediate loop trail around Jordan Pond, or work off some of the calories afterward. The easiest part of the trail is on the eastern shore of the pond, or to the right as you’re facing the Bubbles.

Insider tip: Take the Island Explorer to the Jordan Pond House when the bus is running from late June through Columbus Day, to avoid having to circle around looking for parking. The Jordan Pond bus line can be picked up at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, where there’s plenty of parking, as well as at the Bar Harbor Village Green. And if you can’t get a reservation at the Jordan Pond House, you can still have the authentic tea-and-popover experience at the Asticou Inn, overlooking scenic Northeast Harbor instead of Jordan Pond and the Bubbles. The inn’s restaurant is run by Acadia Corporation, the former operator of the Jordan Pond House.

carriage roads of acadia

Take a horse-drawn carriage, ride a bike or walk along the historic carriage roads of Acadia.

4. Bike or take a horse-drawn carriage ride

The 45 miles of carriage roads and the 16 stone bridges along those roads, funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and donated to the park, are another of Acadia’s unique features.

Built between 1913 and 1940, the carriage roads gracefully follow the natural contours of the landscape, around valleys and mountains, providing scenic vistas along the way. Each bridge is unique, with names such as Cobblestone Bridge or Deer Brook Bridge. A carriage road map is available on the Acadia National Park Web site.

Horse-drawn carriage rides are offered through Carriages of Acadia at Wildwood Stables, south of the Jordan Pond House.

Among the popular starting points for bicyclists and pedestrians: Hulls Cove Visitor Center, Eagle Lake parking on ME 233, Jordan Pond House, Brown Mountain Gate House and Bubble Pond parking.

Insider tip: Take the Island Explorer Bicycle Express from Bar Harbor Village Green to the Eagle Lake carriage road starting point, or one of the other Island Explorer lines to Jordan Pond House, Brown Mountain Gate House or Bubble Pond. You can also walk or bike to the carriage road system via the West Street Extension in Bar Harbor, or via Duck Brook Path that connects ME 3 to Duck Brook Road and the carriage road system. (The trailhead for Duck Brook Path is at the southern edge of the Acadia Inn parking lot, kitty corner from the College of the Atlantic campus. You need to walk your bike about half a mile on the path, to Duck Brook Road.) And if you have time, drive or take the ferry from Bar Harbor to the Schoodic section of the park, and try out the new bike paths there.

President Barack Obama hikes Acadia National Park

You can travel in the footsteps of President Barack Obama and family, seen here in July 2010, by hiking the Cadillac Summit Loop or Ship Harbor Trail. (White House photo)

5. Travel on the trails of Acadia history

Imagine walking the same trails as late 19th century and early 20th century rusticators, artists, tourists and summer residents. Or picture yourself following in the footsteps of presidents and presidents-to-be.

Many of the century-old village connector trails, allowing you to stroll from Bar Harbor to Sieur de Monts and beyond, or Asticou in Northeast Harbor to Jordan Pond and beyond, have been restored to their former glory as part of the park’s Centennial efforts.

Great Meadow Loop and Schooner Head Path are two well-graded routes within walking distance of Bar Harbor. The Asticou & Jordan Pond Path that had been an important connector between Northeast Harbor and Jordan Pond in the late 1800s got a major overhaul recently as part of an $800,000 federal grant.

And if your tastes in history lean more toward presidents than rusticators, here are some of the places visited by President Barack Obama during his family July 2010 trip: Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, Ship Harbor Trail, Bass Harbor Head Light and the carriage road system around Witch Hole Pond.

Other sitting presidents who’ve visited the area, before Acadia became a national park: William Howard Taft, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison. A young Theodore Roosevelt, drawn to the area by the landscape paintings of Mount Desert Island by Frederic Church and Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School, hiked Cadillac, which was then known as Green Mountain.

Insider tip: Watch for the Friends of Acadia’s map to the Village Connector Trails, including information about access points.

Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

About Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

Dolores Kong and Dan Ring are co-authors of the Falcon guides Hiking Acadia National Park and Best Easy Day Hikes Acadia National Park, and also blog at They’ve backpacked the 270-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and are members of the Northeast 111 Club, having hiked all major peaks of the Northeast. Dolores, a former staff reporter at The Boston Globe, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Professional and senior vice president with Winslow, Evans & Crocker, Inc. (member of FINRA/SIPC) in Boston. Dan, a journalist and former Statehouse bureau chief in Boston for the old Ottaway News Service and for The Republican, the daily newspaper for Springfield, Mass, is also an operations professional with Winslow, Evans & Crocker, Inc. (member of FINRA/SIPC), in Boston. They are married and live outside Boston.