Acadia’s Maine Experience

Acadia National Park Offers a Geographic Sampler Showcasing the Best of Maine’s Natural Grandeur.

The Northeast’s only national park is a rugged collision of earth and sea — an island a world apart, boasting the highest mountain on America’s eastern sea- board, cobblestone beaches, pink granite cliffs, and lush evergreen forests. And its splendor has seduced visitors for decades.

Steve Silverman first fell under the spell of Acadia National Park as a boy, over 40 years age. The mountains, the ocean, and the mile of hiking trails through unspoiled spruce-fir forest – it was an enchantment that would never fade.

“I would visit with my family every year— it was just a place you could come up to and relax, a very peaceful retreat,” explained 49-year-old Silverman, of Massachusetts.

Even today, he knows the contours of the park by heart. “I’ll bet I know every single trail, I’ve done them so often,” he mused. “Throughout my lifetime, I’ve really only missed coming up here a few years.”

Acadia hikeTime and again he’s returned to Blackwoods Campground, bringing his own children to the park, when they were old enough, to teach them about nature.

The only difference is that these days he’s arriving in comfort — Silverman and his wife, Amy-Jo, travel in a motorhome, along with a cat and two collies — one dog affectionately dubbed “Acadia.”

Though he’s visited as a tent camper, Silverman has found that arriving with an RV has its advantages.

“The first time my wife came up here with me there was 10 inches of rain,” he recalled, chuckling. “A motorhome helps.”

A trip to Acadia by RV is a rustic experience, a fact that appeals to the devotees who keep coming back here. The park offers two wooded campgrounds suitable for trailers and motorhomes up to 35-feet long: Blackwoods and Seawall. Neither offers utility hookups or hot showers.

From early spring to late fall, the campgrounds provide comfort stations, cold running water, a dump station, picnic tables, fire rings, and water faucets. Pay showers and a camp supply store are within 1/2 mile of both campgrounds.

That doesn’t seem to slow RV traffic. Silverman feels that the bare bones amenities may even contribute to the cozy, laid-back atmosphere of the campground — an ambiance that packs people in.

“There’s two different types of RV camping,” he said. “You have your parks and pads and hookups where everything is in neat little rows, and that’s okay.”

“But you just don’t have this type of beauty,” he added, glancing at the thickly wooded campground — a 10-minute walk from the ocean — where pine, spruce and foliage thickets lend privacy to the largest motorhomes.

Even now, Silverman will make the trek to Acadia at least three times a year. “It’s spectacular in the fall,” he said.

Each return trip requires favorite pilgrimages. A hike to the ocean to watch the passing lobster boats. Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, where it’s said that morning light first touches the United States. Chocolate Grand Marnier ice cream at Bill & Ben’s in nearby Bar Harbor.

These are the rituals that define Silverman’s experience, and the lures that draw him back to this park within an island.

The Island Within

Acadia National Park is actually one piece of a larger picture. The 40,000-acre park is located on Mt. Desert Island, (pronounced “dessert”) which sits off shore about two-thirds of the way up Maine’s coast.

It was not only the first national park east of the Mississippi River, but also the first national park built upon land donated entirely by private citizens, according to the National Park Service.

So the park shares space with a smattering of quaint villages and the bustling tourist town of Bar Harbor. The easiest way to get there is through Ellsworth, taking Route 3 East to the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and park entrance — a good place to get your bearings.

Once you’re there, check out the 20-mile Park Loop Road, which links Acadia’s lakes, mountains and shoreline. It’s also one of the island’s central arteries, and a great starting place for a scenic drive.

The movement of continental glaciers gnawed many of the park’s distinctive features. Today, you can find over a dozen glacial-carved mountains, pristine inland lakes and the only fjord in the contiguous 48 states — Somes Sound.

While the island’s mountains and forests offer plenty of hiking trails, other trails hug the rugged Atlantic coastline, where cold waters clash with rocky beaches. While picturesque, it’s not ideal for swimming. Echo Lake provides warmer inland water and soft sand beaches.

Oddly, one of the park’s most popular features is entirely man-made — 57 miles of carriage roads ideal for hiking, biking, jogging, cross-country skiing, or horse-drawn carriage tours. Constructed by Industrialist John D. Rockefeller in 1918, the roads were designed to help the oil baron escape the growing presence of automobiles.

Today, they are linked to the park’s hiking trail system and considered the best example of broken stone roads in America. Cedar signposts at all intersections correspond to local maps and guidebooks, making navigation a breeze. No cars are allowed on the carriage paths.

Be warned: Because of old, low-hanging granite bridges, not all roads through Acadia National Park provide enough clearance for RVs, but most are well marked. Check brochures and maps to make sure.

The park is open year-round and requires a small user fee, which is good for seven days. Pets are allowed, but must be on leash.

Be sure to take advantage of an array of educational programs. Rangers lead nature walks, bridge tours, evening star gazing, children’s nature hikes, mountain hikes, and geography lessons. Evening programs are offered at campground amphitheaters. Check the Hulls Cove Visitor Center for schedules.

Water, Water Everywhere

You can’t go far on Mt. Desert Island without feeling the sea around you.

Whether exploring the island’s more populated eastern side — which hosts Bar Harbor and many well-known attractions — or the quieter, more rural western side — great for catching sunsets — the place is imbued with a seafaring feel.

From beach walks, tide pool exploration and lighthouse hunting to watching working fishermen and lobster boats, the ocean is a constant presence. Nature cruises, kayak excursions and ferries to both Canada and Nova Scotia can take you right out onto the water.

The merger of raw, rocky land and the powerful sea provides an authentic Maine feeling. In fact, if you boiled down this state to its purest essence, Mt. Desert Island would surely be the outcome — a geographic sampler of the state’s best elements.

So take time to taste all that is Maine — wild blueberries from farm stands, maple syrup, and abundant seafood, including the ever popular take-out “lobster roll.”

Don't forgetLobster dinners are a must, and available from fancy prix fixe dinners to more casual “lobster pounds” at hometown cafes. Prices range from anywhere from $12.95 to $27, or more. Discounts are often available to early-bird diners, especially during peak summer season.

The island’s harbor towns each reflect their own personalities, from quaint and sleepy fishing villages to vibrant, congested tourist spots.

Upscale Bar Harbor offers the highest concentration of shopping, galleries, breweries, and an array of restaurants. It’s also a chance to stock up on souvenirs and supplies. But navigating the town’s narrow streets can be a nightmare for a large motorhome. If you must, park by the town soccer fields and walk downtown.

Best bet? Take advantage of the island’s marvelous free shuttle-bus system, the Island Explorer.

Buy a park pass to Acadia National Park at the Village Green in Bar Harbor, where the shuttle buses assemble. Then pick a destination — they literally can take you almost anywhere on the island, with the exception of up Cadillac Mountain. Shuttle drivers are knowledgeable tour guides and will drop you off and pick you up just about anywhere, as long as it’s safe.

Mark and Sheila Hansen are true shuttle believers. This Massachusetts couple has been coming back to Acadia since they first passed through on their honeymoon, some 20 years ago.

They simply park their fifth-wheel in Blackwoods Campground, walk down to a shuttle stop and zip off to their favorite destinations — serene Jordan Pond, picnics at Seawall, dinner in Bar Harbor, or hiking that can range from easy to challenging.

“It’s really the only way to go,” Mark Hansen said.

The Cadillac of Mountains

In 1604, explorer Samuel de Champlain was said to have christened the island “l’Isle des Monts-deserts” for its barren, rocky summits — so different from the thick pine forests, lush marsh grasses, and pebbled beaches that lay below.

Of the island’s 26 mountain peaks, Cadillac Mountain is the highest. At 1,532 feet, the mountain provides a magnificent panoramic view of the park, Bar Harbor and island-studded Frenchman Bay.

A three-mile drive will quickly take you up 1,000 feet. Though you can take a tour bus, it’s also easy to tackle by motorhome, with lots of RV parking at the top and ample room at scenic pullouts.

Though windy and sometimes cold at the top, it’s worth the climb. Four different hiking trails also lead to the summit: Northridge Trail, Gorge Trail, West Face Trail, and Southridge Trail.

Once you’re atop the mountain, get out and stretch your legs on easy, accessible walking paths. Visitors often try to arrive before sunrise to catch the first rays of dawn or the day’s last color.

Acadia bay boatsOn a recent trip, we were able to observe long; white fingers of fog slowly steal across Frenchman Bay, swallowing small islands in their wake on an otherwise sunny day — a fascinating, eerie spectacle.

The mountain peak also provides a good vantage point for renowned hawk watching, and is a favorite for star gazing. Bring binoculars.

The island rests in the Gulf of Maine and enjoys an incredible array of wildlife. Signs in campgrounds warn of marauding raccoons, but veteran visitors report that you’ll see less of them now than in years’ past.

The island has been a tourist destination since the 1800s, drawing waves of landscape painters from the Hudson River School, journalists, sportsmen, and urban dwellers looking for respite.

Early visitors — dubbed “rusticators” — often stayed with local families. In time, massive hotels, stately lodges and summer cottages soon began to dot the landscape. By 1880, Bar Harbor hosted 30 hotels and had won a national reputation as a summer retreat for some of America’s most socially prominent families.

Many of the island’s most lavish summer dwellings were destroyed in 1947, when a sweeping wildfire ignited, destroying some 17,000 acres.

You can learn more about the islands early history at the Robert Abbe Museum, located just off the Park Loop Road near Sieur de Monts Spring and the expanded Abbe Museum on Mount Desert Street in Bar Harbor or the Islesford Historical Museum, located on Little Cranberry Island.

But it’s high atop Cadillac Mountain that you fully appreciate the variety of this island — a geographic masterpiece promising lush views and memorable scenery at every turn.

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