The only designated National Park in New England, most of Acadia’s 30,000 acres sprawl across rugged Mt. Desert Island. The park came to prominence during the late 19th century, when wealthy industrialists began summering in the island's largest community, courtly Bar Harbor. Boston landscape architect Charles Elliot and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. are the luminaries most associated with Acadia's establishment in 1916. Rockefeller developed the park's legendary network of carriage roads and helped fund the park's restoration following a devastating 1947 wildlife fire.
A visit to Acadia National Park provides opportunities for outdoorsy adventures and abundant wildlife viewing -- it's a stellar destination for biking, rock-climbing, kayaking, and horseback riding. Among one of the park’s more superlative features is rocky Cadillac Mountain, which at 1,528 feet is the highest natural point on the Eastern Seaboard.
5…Get Your Bearings
Making the most of your time at Acadia doesn't require a ton of advance planning. The park is easily accessible via the 20-mile Park Loop Road offering dozens of viewpoints and pull-offs, and the well-stocked Hulls Cove Visitor Center (at start of Park Loop Rd., off Hwy. 3 just north of Bar Harbor, 207-288-3338, $20 for 7-day vehicle permit in summer, $10 for 7-day vehicle permit in spring and fall, www.nps.gov/acad) provides plenty of resources, including an orientation video and a 3-D topographical map display. Keep in mind that most park facilities and the Park Loop Road close from December through mid-April. At the visitor center you can also pick up a map of the park's 45 miles of gently graded, gravel carriage roads (closed to motorized vehicles), which traverse some of the most magnificent peaks, valleys, and forest glades in the park. Carriages of Acadia (207-276-5721, www.carriagesofacadia.com) offers horse-drawn carriage tours on these graceful lanes flanked by large blocks of granite, called "coping stones."
4…Sail Down East
With Acadia National Park surrounded by water in every direction, boating is a logical and scenic way to explore. A number of guided sailing and paddling excursions leave from the town pier in Bar Harbor (corner of West and Main Sts.), including trips with Bar Harbor Whale Watching Tours (207-288-2386, Baker Island tours $43, www.barharborwhales.com). In addition to whale- and puffin-viewing cruises, the company offers four-hour, naturalist-led trips aboard the M/V Miss Samantha to one of Acadia's most remote and fascinating sections, Baker Island, which is guarded by a stately 1828 lighthouse.
You can also paddle your way around the park's shoreline on one of the expeditions led by National Park Sea Kayak Tours (800-347-0940, half-day tours $48, www.acadiakayak.com). Half-day trips leave in the morning and afternoon and navigate the gentler, more secluded western waters surrounding the island -- including Western and Blue Hill bays. You'll commonly see osprey, blue heron, harlequin ducks, and gray and harbor seals right from the kayak. The national park service also offers a variety of ranger-narrated group cruises (www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/boatcruises.htm.)
3…Behold the Surf and Sand
Thunder Hole, a dramatic inlet off Park Loop Road, just south of Acadia's Sieur de Monts Entrance, is the ultimate perch from which to observe nature's wrath. Here the crashing surf pounds against a terrace of granite ledges and jagged geological formations, producing awe-inspiring waves and, as the name suggests, thunderous roars. A path with guardrails leads to a surf-splashed viewing area. Exercise caution and stand back from the edge during stormy spells. Last summer three park-goers were swept into the ocean, and one drowned.
Conversely, just a short stroll north of Thunder Hole, you'll find sheltered Sand Beach, an idyllic spot to laze away one of Maine's occasionally sultry summer afternoons, although the area is perfectly scenic in spring. While Maine isn’t known for having much of a swim season, the intrepid may wish to brave the chilly waters that lap this popular crescent of golden sand.
2…Break for Ice Cream or Afternoon Tea
Just outside the park entrance in picturesque Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream (7 Firefly La. and 325 Main St., 207-288-5664, $4, www.mdiic.com) handcrafts some of the most luscious frozen treats in this land. This is high-butterfat, top-quality ice cream that comes in both expected (blueberry, cookies-and-cream, peanut butter) and eyebrow-raising (cinnamon-cardamom, Indian pudding, chocolate wasabi) flavors. Dairy thrill-seekers might should sample the, eh, distinctive Neato Doritos ice cream which is, yes, laced with bits of genuine Doritos.
You'll find a far-more traditional, but not less enticing culinary option within the park boundaries: The Jordan Pond House (Park Loop Rd., about four miles south of the turnoff to Cadillac Mountain, 207-276-3316, $11 to $21 lunch entrees, www.jordanpond.com) has been a refined venue for lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner for more than a century. Tried-and-true seafood classics, such as steamed lobster and shellfish chowder, are the hallmarks of this rustic spot with enormous fieldstone fireplaces on the inside and romantic seating outside on the gracious lawn overlooking Jordan Pond and "the Bubbles," a pair of gently sloping twin mountains. Don't leave without sampling one of the restaurant's famous popovers (try them filled with ice cream and covered with chocolate sauce for dessert).
1…Enjoy a Bird's-Eye Perspective
After a day of exploring Acadia's serpentine shoreline and quaint carriage lanes, head for the 1,532-foot granite-dome summit of the park’s Cadillac Mountain; a winding road just south of the mountain climbs 3½ miles to the top, where a level ⅓-mile loop trail affords sweeping panoramas in all directions. Immediately to the east you'll see Bar Harbor's palatial summer homes, dapper downtown, and sailboat-dotted waterfront. Look farther out across Frenchman Bay and you can see the Schoodic Peninsula, where a smaller section of Acadia National Park is accessed from Hwy. 186, a 45-mile drive from Bar Harbor (but just a few miles across the water as the crow flies).
A smaller parking area off the summit road provides access to a flat rock outcropping that provides exceptional views to the south and west, toward the diminutive seaside villages of Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor, the rise of 1,071-foot Bernard Mountain in the park's western reaches, and -- in the distance -- the southernmost section of Acadia National Park, Isle au Haut, which you can visit only by boat. Ferry service carries passengers to this pristine, isolated island from Stonington, about a 65-mile drive southwest of Bar Harbor.