A First-Timer's Guide to Acadia National Park, Courtesy of a Local

Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island are the Northeast’s gems. Rugged Maine coastline combined with bald granite mountains and an oftentimes rustic New England feel coalesce to provide one of the best experiences you will have this summer. However, be aware that it can be packed with tourists, traffic jams, parking issues, and lobster-everything.

Speaking of which, my first piece of advice to you is this: Don’t eat the lobster ice cream. I don’t care how novel you think it is, or how adventurous you feel, but lobster and vanilla do not mix. This “delicacy” is an abomination. Both lobsters and ice cream deserve better.

Aside from this, there is plenty to do in Acadia, from the outdoors to local watering holes to dining, that it’s hard to fit it all into a single trip. Luckily for you, you can go back. That being said, if it’s your first time visiting, I have some tips:

1. Stay on the quiet side of the island

Throngs of summer residents, tourists, and cruise ship passengers come to Bar Harbor, choking the village and driving up vacation rental costs. If you want to sleep outside, I recommend Quietside campground. Blackwoods and Seawall are both good, too, but are more popular. Additionally, areas across the fjord tend to offer a slightly more rustic Maine atmosphere.

I'm fairly certain that this is Beehive peeking out of the mist. Most of the mountains on the island are bald at the top, so layering is important. Mountains tend to generate their own wind conditions for a variety of reasons, so be prepared. Some mosses have evolved to trap heat, and you can measure that it's a fraction of a degree warmer within the tuft of moss if you have the right equipment. [Credit: Charles Fischer]
I’m fairly certain that this is Beehive peeking out of the mist. Most of the mountains on the island are bald at the top, so layering is important. Mountains tend to generate their own wind conditions for a variety of reasons, so be prepared. Some mosses have evolved to trap heat, and you can measure that it’s a fraction of a degree warmer within the tuft of moss if you have the right equipment. [Credit: Charles Fischer]

2. Hike the mountains

Depending on what your activity of choice is, Acadia can offer you a number of great opportunities. You can bike the carriage roads, take climbing lessons, go on a whale watch, or see marine creatures at Diver Ed’s Dive-in Theater. However, for the outdoors enthusiast, there are some must-do hikes.

The big one is Cadillac Mountain; supposedly, the combination of location and elevation makes it the first point on the U.S. East Coast to see the sunrise each day. People flock to the top every morning, and it’s worth joining them at least once. By road, you can drive or bike to the top, and many hikes also lead to the summit – just remember a headlamp.

Beech Mountain is often overlooked, but this short hike up to a fire tower provides you with a great view of the sea.

Beehive is a bit strenuous, and people with a fear of heights will have trouble with some of the small but still fairly safe ledges. Once you reach the summit, you’ll get a truly gorgeous view of Great Head, Sand Beach, and Otter Cliffs.

Speaking of Great Head and Otter Cliffs, while not mountains, they’re excellent for bouldering and rock climbing, and present a great opportunity to examine tide pools, where you can find starfish, eels, and a variety of other sea life.

The last must-see for many folks is Jordan Pond and the Bubbles, twin peaks reflected in a clear pond. After, stop by the Jordan Pond House for chowder and popovers.

There are so many more areas I would like to list here, but it would be far too long. It is worth noting, however, that Schoodic Peninsula is part of Acadia but is not on Mount Desert Island. If you make the trip, you will be rewarded with a hidden gem that is generally free of crowds.

3. Where to eat

While there’s a lot of great food on MDI, I’m mostly familiar with Bar Harbor. There, Two Cats and Cafe This Way are must-visit breakfast and brunch establishments. The food is good quality, the atmosphere is just right, and they accommodate vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets. Also, Maine is known for its blueberries, so blueberry anything is delicious and fresh.

Morning Glory is a great little bakery where you can get foods sourced from local farms. Here, too, they offer vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options; also, for lunch, stop by to grab a sandwich.

Just across the street is Siam Orchid, a Thai restaurant owned by a truly great guy. His seafood is sourced locally, and everything is overall fantastic.

For dinner, come by Galyn’s; if I’m getting lobster, that’s usually where I’ll go. That being said, I don’t think there’s any such thing as bad lobster on MDI. Once there, stick around for dessert.

Along with all listed above, other call-outs are Geddy’s and McKay’s.

You'll see many similar iconic shots of climbers on this exact climb at Otter Cliffs. Most guiding services will take you here and the top roping is well established with metal rings and staples. It's still a good idea to know how to build your own anchors in the many cracks here, though. Beware of the tide, and do not descend near the waves to retrieve lost forgotten gear. Let it go man, just let it go. [Credit: Charles Fischer]
You’ll see many similar iconic shots of climbers on this exact climb at Otter Cliffs. Most guiding services will take you here and the top roping is well established with metal rings and staples. It’s still a good idea to know how to build your own anchors in the many cracks here, though. Beware of the tide, and do not descend near the waves to retrieve lost forgotten gear. Let it go man, just let it go. [Credit: Charles Fischer]

4. For beers and desserts

If you have a sweet tooth and you’ve already been to Morning Glory, try MDI Ice Cream, offering two locations in Bar Harbor with a unique assortment of flavors. Out of the choices, I recommend a waffle cone with Nutella ice cream and chocolate sprinkles.

If you want an adult beverage to top off dinner, then the Lompoc is where all the locals hang out. While the food is a bit overpriced and the music loud, they have one of the best beer selections in town.

For a beer and a meal, the Thirsty Whale is where you can grab a pint and a burger. You’ll find better-priced fare there, but keep in mind it can be hard to get a table during peak seasons.

[Credit: Charles Fischer]
[Credit: Charles Fischer]

5. Other Advice

What else should you know? For one, the whole town is very dog-friendly. Also, for getting around during the summer, a free bus run sponsored by L.L. Bean can take you to a variety of locations around the island. Catch it on the village green to reduce the headache of trying to find parking; just pay attention to the schedules.

Along with these points, I can’t write this piece without mentioning my alma mater, College of the Atlantic. The campus is open to the public, and the giant whale skull alone is worth stopping for. You’ll further find a wonderful natural history museum on campus, where there’s usually some interesting installation art. As you walk around, you’ll discover that many of the buildings are comprised of old Rockefeller summer homes, and that they basically have a castle on campus. Eat your heart out, Hogwarts!


Managing Risk in the Alps

It was the morning before our first attempt to climb Mont Blanc in earnest. Summer in Chamonix leaves little to worry about, as avalanche danger is generally low, crevasses are almost entirely exposed, and, when the sun hits the glacier, you won’t have to worry about it being too cold out. The view from our hostel looked up onto the Mont Blanc Massif, Mont Blanc du Tacul, and Aguille de Midi. We could see the massive seracs and glacier that hung silently over the valley.

I was sitting in the sun, playing fetch with the dog that wandered over from the yard next door, when my climbing partner pointed up, just beneath the Tacul. He asked if I noticed anything different. The summer sun was so bright I had to squint to see it, even in my sunglasses, but I could see a portion of the serac had collapsed. He handed me his phone, where a news piece was pulled up from this morning. “Serac Collapse on Mont Blanc Kills Two Climbers,” or something of that ilk, it reported. The guide and two Italian climbers had been traversing beneath the serac, when it gave way and swept them into a crevasse. The two clients perished, while the guide was in critical condition.

I dropped the ball. The dog gave me a puzzled look.

I can’t speak for other climbers, but there is a certain abstract feel to risk and mortal danger. You understand it intellectually, but on a certain gut level, you say, “I’m better than that; it would never happen to me.” You plan for the risks. You choose your route carefully, monitor the weather, set turn-around times, check and double check logistics and gear, run through scenarios in your head, picture your haul system with your eyes closed, and recall your avalanche safety training – you do it all. But for many of us in our twenties and thirties, who haven’t yet witnessed an accident or loss within the climbing community, we simply do not understand on a visceral level the kind of risks that we face.

I think everyone reacts differently to a fatal accident. I could not help but wonder how the climbers perished. Were the clients skilled enough to help the guide arrest the fall of a three-person party? Were they killed instantly on impact? Was the crevasse so deep that they fell to their deaths? Did they bleed out in the darkness? Did they die of hypothermia? It was terrifying. Were they, just days before, emailing with their mothers about how beautiful the Alps are? Were they playing fetch with the dog from next door? Did they have that visceral understanding of risk, or was that limited simply to the guide?

[Credit: Charles Fischer]
[Credit: Charles Fischer]

“But for many of us in our twenties and thirties, who haven’t yet witnessed an accident or loss within the climbing community, we simply do not understand on a visceral level the kind of risks that we face.”

We discussed our plans. Already, my partner and I had encountered setbacks. On an acclimatization trip, when a guide led his clients above our stance on the mountainside, one of them nearly fell through our rope. She smacked me in the head with her ice-axe, and put a crampon through the shoulder of my jacket. It was a series of near misses, any one of which could have escalated into a problematic situation very quickly. Then, a misleading confirmation email, 20 euros, and the language barrier almost landed us without water or shelter for the night at 3,800 meters. These were all errors that were the result of poor judgment, either on our part or on the part of another climber, but they were different from being at the mercy of the capricious hand of the mountain.

In our minds, both of us silently asked the same question: Do we continue as planned? I could remember the words of Keith Moon, EMS climbing guide, during our AIARE I course: “We are agreeing to travel in the backcountry together, and in doing so, we are agreeing to respect everyone’s voice and anyone’s veto.” For a few moments, we played a mental game of chicken – who was going to veto the summit attempt first? Who would be the one to bring a year and a half of training and planning to a close? No one flinched. We agreed that the situation had not changed. Our route was on an objectively safer part of the mountain, and over the next two days, we summitted safely and successfully.

[Credit: Charles Fischer]
[Credit: Charles Fischer]
I will never forget, though, looking up from the comfort of a deck chair to see the scar cut in the glacier from the serac collapse. As climbers, outdoor enthusiasts, and humans, we encounter objective risk every day, and we learn to plan for it, and mitigate it. As kids, we are taught to look twice before crossing the street; as climbers, we are taught to check our knots twice before climbing. We take driving courses as teens, and avalanche safety courses as skiers. We practice fire drills in schools, and self-arresting as mountaineers. We do all of this at home and in the backcountry, until safety becomes second nature. Still, you cannot entirely eliminate risk, and there is a certain amount of it that you must simply accept.

There is no absolute value for acceptable risks, no percents, and you cannot put them into a computer to get a yes or no answer. That answer has to come from inside each of us, with thought and consideration for the people we take into the wilderness with us, and those we leave at home waiting for our safe return. For every one of us, that level of risk is different, but the repercussions are all, potentially, equal. So, the next time you are about to tie the rope or tie up your boots, ask yourself what the potential risks are and how you have prepared for them. If you do this every time you head out on an adventure, you will rapidly become a safer and more confident outdoors person.