Having grown up and spent most of my life in New England, it seemed somewhat shocking that I’d somehow made it to age thirty-seven having never been up to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. After all, Bar Harbor was about as quintessential a New England summer as the Cape and Islands, places we did frequent growing up. With an oppressive North Carolina summer, our fifteen-year anniversary of ‘togetherness,’ and a trip up to New Hampshire to see family all on the horizon, Stephan and I decided to spend an extra week up north away from the stifling, southern heat and take a detour up the coast of Maine.
Since it was a bit of a last-minute decision – and we’d be traveling with a dog in peak summer season – there was a bit of panic that we wouldn’t be able to find reasonably-priced accommodation anywhere near the National Park. Luckily, we stumbled across Gallagher’s Travels, an unassuming little motel just four miles north of Bar Harbor’s center that had one room left for our desired dates.
The motel turned out to be just lovely. Our room was quiet and comfortable and had two queen beds. Princess Sanchez reveled in having her own huge bed near the front picture window and, when it came time to eventually head home, she unequivocally refused to leave. The room was basic, but had amenities for budget-friendly, in-room meals, including a small refrigerator, microwave, and coffee maker. There was also an on-site laundry, and the staff, including office dog Stella, were exceedingly friendly and helpful.
With only three days on Mount Desert Island, we tried to pack in as much hiking as we could. Most of the Acadia’s trails are shorter hikes (less than 10 miles), with many topping out at less than five miles, so it’s possible to do multiple hikes in one day. Additionally, with many interconnecting trails and 57 miles of carriage roads (free from motor vehicles), it is possible to piece together a longer day hike.
Bar Harbor is a small, seaside community on the eastern side of Mount Desert Island, about two-thirds the way up the coast of Maine. A popular summer destination for New Englanders and non-natives alike, the town of about 5,000 people is famed for its lobster boats and rugged coastline.
After a rainy morning on Bar Island (see below), we decided to spend a couple hours enjoying lunch and wandering around downtown Bar Harbor while we waited for the lingering cloud cover to dissipate. Knowing full well it was peak tourist season, we weren’t expecting a sleepy town center, however we were totally unprepared for the number of people swarming the streets of the tiny village.
The center itself is quite charming – narrow avenues lined with vibrant shops and inviting restaurants. However, giant cruise ships dock almost daily in Frenchman’s Bay during the short summer season, unloading ravenous tourists by the hundreds into a town with just a handful of constricted passageways. Driving and parking were nearly impossible between the mobs of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and we were quite disturbed to see how the uncontrolled congestion overtook a quaint New England town. I later read that in this 2019 season alone, Bar Harbor expected 275,198 passengers from 177 ships (more than 1,500 people per day). While I’m sure the crowds bring valuable economic benefits to the region, I have to think that the tiny port has reached a critical tipping point (of course, maybe there’s a bit of hypocrisy here, as I was, in fact, a contributor to said traffic).
Debate over maximum capacity aside, we did enjoy the small-town charm, and even found a great little café with a nice selection of vegan/vegetarian items. Thrive Juice Bar & Kitchen offered a host of different smoothies and juices, and their lunch and breakfast menus were largely plant-based. The vegetable coconut curry bowl and mango smoothie did not disappoint. After lunch, we headed for Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream, just a block away on the Village Green. The scoop shop offers small-batch ice creams and sorbets, with both traditional and unique flavors. I opted for a dairy-free, nectarine-prosecco sorbet that was one of the best sorbets I’ve ever had… I could have eaten an entire gallon. Sanchez was equally delighted with her scoop of vanilla.
With some intermittent showers in the morning forecast, we were hoping we could find something fun to do outside other than clamber up a slippery, socked-in summit. After a quick search online, I discovered that just a couple miles up Route 3, at the outskirts of Bar Harbor’s town center, was a tidal causeway that led out to Bar Island. Even better, low tide fortuitously fell around 10 a.m. that morning, giving us the perfect window for some rainy-day fun.
The Bar Island Trail is accessed at the northern end of Bridge Street, which ends abruptly at the water’s edge. We were lucky enough to find parking right on West Street coming into town, just steps from the intersection with Bridge Street. The rocky sandbar is accessible for about 3 hours during low tide, crossing Mount Desert Narrows and connecting to a short, wooded trail across Bar Island (total round-trip distance is ~2 miles).
Between the light rain that was falling and the brevity of the trail, we figured it would probably be a quick little jaunt. Sanchez, however, found so much joy out on that sandbar that we were out there for the full three hours until the tide began creeping back in. Our little Thai girl who normally hates the rain – ostensibly scarred from a lengthy monsoon season – was overjoyed to sniff every barnacle-covered rock, roll in every dead crab carapace that had washed ashore, and dig through every pile of snarled seaweed. She was even keen to do some swimming, chasing stick after stick into the 57-degree shallows. We were shocked by her enthusiasm, but thrilled to see her have such a great time!
Note: Be sure to look up the exact time of low tide, because that three-hour window (1.5 hours on either side of low tide) is pretty accurate, and the tide comes back in unexpectedly quickly. We saw several people wading through nearly waist-deep water in spots on their return to the mainland.
Champlain South Ridge & Gorham Mountain Trails
We headed over to Champlain Mountain after lunch on our first day in Acadia. The morning rain had cleared, and the afternoon forecast was looking better and better for a summit hike.
Champlain’s South Ridge Trail is accessed via The Bowl Trailhead, across the street from a large parking lot for Sand Beach that’s right along Park Loop Road. When we initially saw the number of cars in the lot, we feared the trail would be a crowded nightmare. Fortunately, however, we saw only a handful of people on the hike. Thus, we assumed most of the cars belonged to sun-seeking beachgoers (or those walking the Ocean Path Trail).
South Ridge trail begins with a gentle climb through the forest before quickly opening to a small, granite-strewn clearing. A signed path to the right leads to the Beehive, an exposed trail that navigates sections with steep steps and iron rungs. If you are not up for the steep scramble (dogs also are not allowed on this trail), continue on the path to the left for The Bowl. After a short distance, you’ll arrive at The Bowl, a small, freshwater lake with Champlain’s summit soaring overhead. The trail continues around the lake’s perimeter before rising above most of the evergreens and onto the granite hillside. A look back affords a lovely view of The Bowl, with the Atlantic Ocean outstretched in the distance.
As we made our way up the granite slopes between The Bowl and the summit, we noticed the wild blueberries had begun to ripen. We plucked a couple berries from a bush, and handed them to Sanchez. Exceedingly delighted with the sweet fruit, she quickly began foraging for her own berries. As the bushes became more numerous, her excitement similarly amplified. Before we knew it, we were having to drag her out of the undergrowth as she wildly chomped at every fully-ripened blueberry she laid eyes (or nose) on.
When we finally reached the summit, we met a lovely couple from New Jersey who took to Sanchez immediately. After Sanchez gave them a warm hello, the girl unexpectedly pulled a plastic spoon and jar of almond butter out of her bag, and offered Sanchez a generous treat. Sanchez licked the spoon clean and stared with beseeching eyes toward her new friend. Immediately, the girl pulled out a second utensil and offered her another scoop.
While Sanchez happily snacked on her nut butter, we took in the summit views – classic Acadia with small, forested islets dotting the sapphire waters of the Atlantic.
On our descent, we decided to take a quick side trip to Gorham Mountain, just to get a little extra distance and time on the trails. We were surprised to find that the trail to Gorham’s ‘summit’ was just under a mile, and that the summit was a short mound of granite ensconced in the surrounding evergreens. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the peek-a-boo views looking up to Champlain and the surrounding hillsides, and Sanchez is always eager to blaze a new path through the woods.
Notes: Champlain’s South Ridge Trail is ~4.5 miles round-trip. The side trail (out-and-back) to Gorham Mountain’s summit (at only 525’ compared to Champlain’s 1,058’ summit) is about 1.5 miles round-trip. It should also be mentioned that dogs are not allowed to swim in most freshwater lakes/ponds around Acadia, as they are public water sources.
Distance: 6.0 miles
Elevation gain: 1,496 feet
Cadillac Mountain, South Ridge Trail
Acadia’s highest peak at 1,529 feet, Cadillac Mountain’s summit is a popular spot for watching an oceanside sunrise or sunset. What it is not, however, is a serene summit where you can enjoy a PB&J with a view.
Before even considering this as a hike, I knew there was a paved road that wound up Cadillac Mountain. I knew that atop the summit was a parking lot. And I knew that it was the middle of peak season. Knowing all of that information, I still have to ask myself, ‘why the hell did you ever decide it would be a good hike?!’ Maybe it’s because we were looking for a little more distance, or maybe because it seemed like the ‘classic Acadia’ thing you just had to do. Regardless, I would never choose this hike again.
While much of the trail was surprisingly peaceful, and larger open sections did afford some panoramas of the surrounding coast, the summit was besieged with boisterous people who had driven up for their iconic view of the islet-flecked bay. I should also note that, because Cadillac is right near Champlain, you get virtually the same summit view (albeit a bit more panoramic from Cadillac’s taller crest). For posterity’s sake, here’s a summit shot with an adorable Thai mutt. It was the only photo I bothered to edit, as I was so annoyed with my senseless decision to undertake a hike that culminated at a friggin’ parking lot.
Note: If I could redo my morning hike, I would choose neighboring Penobscot and Sargent Mountains. There are a number of trails crisscrossing the two mountains, but I believe the loop I’d looked up, including both summits and Jordan Pond Path, is around five-miles. The hike looked gorgeous, and it was the one we ran out of time for and otherwise sacrificed for this disappointing trek.
Distance: 9.5 miles
Elevation gain: 1,909 feet
Ship Harbor Trail
After a morning hike to Cadillac Mountain’s congested summit, we were all feeling pretty overstimulated. Anxious to find a quiet refuge away from throngs of summer tourists, I did another quick internet search and learned that the western half of Mount Desert Island was touted as the ‘quiet side’ of the island. With this encouraging morsel of information, we piled back into the Subaru and headed for the Ship Harbor Trail in Southwest Harbor.
About 30 minutes from our motel, which was right near the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the Ship Harbor Trail is a short, wooded path that winds around the craggy coastline of Ship Harbor. The coastal landscape is classic Acadia, with rugged stacks of 420 million-year-old pink granite tumbling to the sapphire-blue sea. The sea cliffs here are much less dramatic than Otter Cliff and the others towering along the Ocean Path Trail, but the tradeoff is fewer people and more serenity. There are also a couple of sandy coves which Sanchez really enjoyed. The popular Sand Beach (back along the Ocean Path Trail) is not open to pups during the summer months, so this was a great place for Sanchez to chase a few sticks in the calm water.
Because we didn’t get started on the trail until mid- to late-afternoon, we decided to check out sunset at nearby Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. About a mile from the Ship Harbor Trail, the squat little 19th-century light sits perched alongside a stunted sea cliff at the southwestern tip of the island. As the sun began to dip lower on the horizon, a small crowd gathered on the narrow, rocky outcropping. While some stubborn, low clouds thwarted a sky suffused with color, it was definitely a pretty spot to enjoy a relaxing sunset.
Distance: 1.7 miles
Elevation gain: 184 feet
Acadia & St. Sauveur Mountains
Still bitter with my decision to hike Cadillac twenty-four hours later, we returned to the quiet side of the island for a trip up Acadia (681’) and St. Sauveur (679’) Mountains. The trailhead is situated right off of 102, the island’s main north-south road, just across the street from a small parking area. We opted to hike the trail in a counter-clockwise loop, beginning with Acadia and turning south along Somes Sound to St. Sauveur.
From the minute we stepped on the trail, we knew we made a better decision with hike selection. Heading to Acadia’s summit, there were several steep sections with huge granite boulders for Sanchez to clamber up. During our early morning ascent, we met only two other hikers on the trail. The summit was quiet with just a few other hikers arriving shortly behind us, all pausing to enjoy a snack and a peaceful view of Somes Sound.
The descent down the sound-side of Acadia was surprisingly steep, requiring a bit of scrambling to climb down the huge granite blocks. Sanchez, of course, was in sheer delight. She would launch herself down the vertical slabs and romp until she reached the end of her 25’ leash, turning to stare up anxiously at her far-less-nimble hiking companions.
The ascent and descent of St. Sauveur Mountain was much more gradual, requiring none of the scrambling we found on Acadia. This section of trail was also completely devoid of other hikers, which was such a welcome surprise after the previous day’s excursion. As we neared the summit, the trail wound around a section of open granite, giving way to lovely views of Somes Sound. Much to our surprise, we arrived almost abruptly at St. Sauveur’s summit, which was tucked away in a quiet pine grove – one small crown of granite bounded by vibrant evergreens with not a sliver of a view in sight. Regardless of the shrouded summit, this is a lovely, less-trafficked loop that we enjoyed immensely.
Note: There are some intersecting trails on St. Sauveur, so take care to look for signs to stay on the Acadia Mountain/St. Sauveur loop. We took a left and inadvertently descended down the steep Ledge Trail, only to find that it terminated at a small parking lot about 0.8 miles from our original starting point. Not wanting to walk along the main road, we climbed back up the Ledge Trail until we reached the intersection with the main loop trail.
Distance: 5.9 miles (including an out-and-back side-trip on the Ledge Trail)
Elevation gain: 1,890 feet
Final thoughts on Acadia:
- The ‘quiet’ (western) side of the island is indeed quieter and certainly worth exploring. You lose some of the more dramatic, perhaps iconic, landscapes of the eastern side, but you also lose the summer crowds (worth it!).
- Don’t go up Cadillac – or do anything else, for that matter – just because it’s touted as a ‘must-do.’ Given the amount of traveling we’ve done, we have become well-acquainted with this truth. We stupidly ignored it; we instantly regretted it; we, again, learned from it… and then we (mostly) got over it.
- Treat yourself to something from Mt. Desert Ice Cream… so delicious!
- The elevation may be limited but the scenery is boundless. Get outside and enjoy!
- If you’ve got a well-behaved, trail-loving pup who’s enjoyed Acadia’s scenery and followed the park rules, he/she can get a ‘Bark Ranger’ badge (collar tag) from the Hull’s Cove Visitor Center. Sanchez was so proud to become an official Bark Ranger!