Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park was our 61st of the 63 National Parks. Whenever we told anyone who had been there that we were going, they always said Acadia was magnificent. They were right. Acadia is beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Although one of the smaller national parks, Acadia consistently ranks among the most visited parks in the United States.

The main part of Acadia National Park is on Mount Desert Island, with a portion on the Schoodic Peninsula and fragments on islands. This national park protects the natural beauty of the highest rocky headlands along the US Atlantic coast. Acadia preserves about 38,000 acres with another 12,500 acres of conservation easements. Mount Desert Island is a patchwork of parkland, private property and seaside villages. Acadia National Park consists wholly of donated property.

Four distinct Native American tribes, known collectively as the Wabanaki, have inhabited Maine for 12,000 years. Long before Europeans arrived the Wabanaki traveled to Mount Desert Island in seaworthy birch bark canoes. Although it’s entirely possible that other Europeans may have been on the coast of Maine earlier, the first known European to have landed there was Samuel de Champlain on September 5, 1604. He named it “Isles des Monts Desert” with the accent on the last syllable as it is in French. The phrase means “island of barren mountains” not a desert. Today it’s pronounced both as it is spelled and as the French pronunciation (dessert).

The first European settlement on Mount Desert Island was in 1613 and lasted only a few months. About 150 years of intermittent warfare between the English and the French made the Downeast Maine coast unsafe for settlement so it was 1760 before the first English settlers came to Mount Desert Island. It was primarily farming and fishing until outsiders – artists and journalists – revealed and popularized the island to the world in the mid-1800’s. Painters of the Hudson River calling themselves “rusticators” glorified the island in their paintings, “summer people” began to arrive, and Bar Harbor was established as a popular resort.

For a select handful of Americans, the 1880’s and “Gay Nineties” meant extreme affluence. Mount Desert Island, still remote from the cities of the east, became a retreat for the likes of the Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Astors. Not content with the simple lodgings then available, these families transformed the landscape of Mount Desert Island with elegant estates, euphemistically called “cottages.”

Wealth and luxury continued to hold on Mount Desert Island into the 20th century. The Great Depression and WWII marked the end of such extravagance but the Great Fire of 1947, which consumed many of the great estates, dealt the final blow to wealth on the island.

However, Acadia National Park actually came into being because of these wealthy “cottagers.” With the threat of logging and development, in 1901 Charles W. Eliot, George Dorr and other influential members of the summer colony organized the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations to acquire lands for public use. In 1908, Mrs. Charles Homans gave the Beehive and the Bowl to the Trustees and the beginning of Acadia National Park was formed. In 1914 the Trustees gave the American people 5,000 acres on Mount Desert Island to establish a national monument. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, in 1919 Congress created Lafayette National Park, and in 1929 the name was changed to Acadia. George Dorr was appointed the first superintendent. With continuing donations of land, including Rockefeller’s donation of 11,000 acres, and the construction of the Carriage Roads and the Park Loop Road, the park grew.

Bar Harbor is the most well-known village on Mount Desert Island but we didn’t spend much time there. The first day we thought we would have lunch in Bar Harbor and explore a bit but it was so crowded with tourists that it was impossible to find a parking spot. We discovered Northeast Harbor had far fewer people and a good lunch place.

Given our preference for more tranquility, we were quite happy we had booked at a lovely inn on the “quietside” in Southwest Harbor. The Harbour Cottage Inn was perfect for us. The innkeepers were delightful, the breakfasts were delicious and we enjoyed our accommodations in the carriage house. Built in 1870 as an expansion to the first Summer Hotel (1859) on Mt. Desert Island, the Island House Cottage over the years served as an inn and a private residence and became an inn once more as The Harbour Cottage Inn.

We drove the Park Loop Road the first day we were there to get our bearings and check out a few hikes. We did quite a bit of hiking during our visit and the park offered a variety. The Ocean Path Trail hugged the rocky coastline, Ship Harbor Trail and Wonderland Trail meandered through woods and led to magnificent ocean views.

We found that we really enjoyed hiking on the Carriage Roads. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. loved to drive horse-drawn carriages and felt to enjoy the natural world of Acadia there should be byways on which automobiles were prohibited. From 1913 to1940, Rockefeller financed construction of fifty-seven miles of amazing carriage roads and 16 of 17 stone-faced bridges, each unique in design. The roads are aligned with the contours of the land, take advantage of scenic views and blend with the landscape. Their use is restricted to hiking, bicycling, and horses with no motorized vehicles allowed. We enjoyed both the Day Mountain Loop and the Hadlock Loop.

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was built in 1858 to mark the location of the Bass Harbor bar, a hazard to steamships. In 1988, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

We had planned a sailing tour but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and it was cancelled. On that same day, we also had a reservation to drive up to the top of Cadillac Mountain (a reservation system was implemented this year because of the overwhelming numbers of vehicles). The same weather meant that the view from Cadillac Mountain was restricted by fog and rain to about fifteen feet so no dramatic panorama. Perhaps that’s an excuse to go back and try again.

Unusual mushrooms always catch our attention. All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms. In addition to all the biodiversity and life above ground, an underground web of fungal life exists. 95 percent of plants through their roots form partnerships with fungi which act as messengers within a forest allowing trees to send nutrients and warning messages to each other.

The Wild Gardens of Acadia in the park is maintained by a group of community volunteers. It includes over 400 plant species, all indigenous, in sections reflecting the typical habitats found within Acadia National Park. . When we were there, because of covid restrictions and a recent massive storm, a number of the trails were closed but it was still really interesting.

Acadia National Park’s mountains are very different from the mountains in the western national parks and seem to rise almost directly from the rocky shores. The many ponds and lakes triggered the question of what differentiates a pond from a lake. Most would say surface size with the bigger being a lake and smaller a pond but the difference is actually the depth.  Ponds are shallow enough, according to limnology (the study of water bodies), that the sun’s rays can reach the bottom and lakes are deep enough that sunlight can’t reach the bottom. However, Jordan Pond is 150 feet deep. We came to the conclusion that the big difference between a lake and a pond is simply what someone decided to call it.

Acadia National Park is a true gem.

For more information: https://www.nps.gov/acad