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!


Beating the Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain

For half the year, Cadillac Mountain’s peak is the first place in the easternmost state where the sun appears. This fact brings many people to the top with hopes of catching those rays.

For this view, one could take the easy approach: Driving to the top, and waiting inside the car to watch the sunrise. But, what kind of outdoors person would take that route? One of the experience’s best parts is the journey it took to see that sight.

Preparation is very important, as it takes a little planning to arrive at the top before the sun comes up. First, consider your stamina, so make sure you eat something healthy the night before. Speaking from experience, four or five hotdogs around a fire would be a bad call.

Second, factor in the temperature. It might be August, but in Maine, early morning conditions warrant your wool and down.

Third, calculate your departure time. To do this, know when the sun rises that day, and work backwards from there. For example, on August 13, 2016, the sun will rise at 5:34 a.m.

One of the experience’s best parts is the journey it took to see that sight.

[Photo: Maddy Jackson]
[Photo: Maddy Jackson]
As for the actual hiking part, know which trail you’ll take. My personal favorite is the South Ridge Trail. If you’re new to the peak, realize you can pick it up from the Blackwoods Campground, but because of the distance, plan to add an extra mile to your trip. Not camping? That’s fairly simple: Just drive and park right off Route 3. If you’re coming from Bar Harbor, the trailhead is directly past the entrance to Blackwoods Campground.

In total, the path to the summit is 7.1 miles round trip, not including that extra mile from the campground. Drivers should expect a 3.5- to 4.0-mile trip to the summit, while hikers, depending on speed, should plan for two to four hours. During my journey, I gave myself three hours, which allowed ample time for snacks, breaks, and finding the perfect place to watch the sunrise.

This would make 2:30 a.m. my departure time. However, if you’re someone who enjoys breakfast, like myself, I would recommend giving yourself an extra half hour or so. Also, so you can get off to a smooth start, without having to search around for essentials, pack up all your gear the night before. This way, by 2:00 a.m., your bag is all ready to go.

As another point, when you’re putting your gear together, don’t forget the headlamp. Most of your hike will be through darker conditions, so visibility is paramount. Additionally, if you haven’t changed your batteries in a while, an extra set might not be a bad idea.

Once you’re on the South Ridge Trail, the first mile takes you through a wooded section with a gradual climb. Not long after, you’ll emerge from the tree line. Here, take a second to turn off your headlamp and look up at the sky. With almost no light pollution, Acadia is one of the United States’ best stargazing parks, and what you’ll see at that time of the morning will leave you speechless.

From here, the trail continues to the summit, with most of the hike concentrated on the mountain’s spine and going over large glacial rocks. Most of the blazes on the rocks or cairns will be used, so keep your eye out for them. Then, the last three-quarter mile or so dips back into a tree cover that really tests your attention in the dark.

As you walk toward the summit, you may find you’re the first to arrive, so you get to pick the ultimate viewing spot. More cars will arrive as time passes, and in watching the scene, you will immediately feel a sense of accomplishment for getting there first.

Of course, you’ll also feel cold and desire the warmth of the sleeping bag you left below, but the chill becomes secondary once you watch those first rays emerge, as the view will likely be one of the most stunning things you have ever witnessed. So, take your time to enjoy the sunrise, and after the hike down, reward yourself with a delicious breakfast in Bar Harbor, because you deserve it!