Hiking Highlights: The Best of Acadia National Park

Hiking is an activity that has quickly become one of my favourite hobbies over the last few years. I really got into it when I lived in Scotland, a country that has so much natural beauty to offer that you can’t resist pulling on your tennis shoes and heading out to explore. I came to realize that exploring a new trail or lookout is a form of physical exercise that I actually enjoy, so I do my best to find nice hikes to do every time I visit a new place. Today I want to launch the first post of what I’m hoping will be a series: Hiking Highlights. In these posts, I will detail what my favourite hikes are from certain regions, national and provincial parks, and cities, and hopefully give some useful insight and tips for getting the most out of a visit to these places. I wrote a similar post last fall about autumn hiking in Gatineau Park just outside of Ottawa, and hope that these Hiking Highlights pieces will follow along in the same style.

First up is Acadia National Park in Bar Harbour, Maine (USA). I grew up on the East Coast of Canada, and we made several trips per year to visit family friends who live not far from Acadia. I went to the park a few times as a child and in my teens, perched on the back of a motorcycle and marvelling at the beautiful scenery as we drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain, one of the most popular destinations in the park. Despite having visited a few times with my family, I never actually got the chance to see more of what the park has to offer in terms of hiking. When my parents told me that they were going to visit our family friends over a beautiful autumn weekend in mid-October 2017, I jumped at the chance to tag along and borrow my dad’s car to go to the park while they spent time in Augusta, the state capital of Maine.

Acadia National Park is located on Mount Desert Island in Bar Harbor, and is made up of two distinct sections. The eastern side of the park is the most popular and the side that I decided to stick to on my visit. The western side, while just as beautiful, has less hikes and is therefore less frequented than its eastern counterpart by visitors.

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My day started by waking up at an atrocious hour so that I could get the most out of the daylight. The park is about two hours from where I was staying, so I woke up at 5:30 and left by 6. I spent the first hour of the drive in the dark, listening to music and trying to decide on a game plan for the day. I had a list of potential hikes, and wanted to complete as many as I could before it was time to head home. As the sun began to rise, I realized that my original plan of driving to the top of Cadillac Mountain for that beautiful morning light might be thwarted by fog. Regardless, I decided to go ahead with my plan and drive into the fog.

Cadillac Mountain

It had been years since I had been to Cadillac Mountain, and I forgot how gorgeous the view was. I drove all the way to the top to find the majority of the landscape blocked by fog, but there was still something about the atmosphere of being in the clouds that stopped me from immediately turning around and heading back down the hill towards my first hike of the day. Although the main view didn’t appear, the clouds lifted enough that when I decided to head down again, I got a sneak peek of what beautiful autumn colours the day had in store for me.

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Given that I missed the main view of the mountain, I decided to return at the end of the day and was not let down by the absolutely gorgeous sunset. I had this feeling that I was going to have a hard time finding a place to park at the summit, and as I made my way to the top I found my suspicions to be correct: cars were parked bumper to bumper as dozens of people had the same idea that I did. They had the idea for a reason, though; the sunset that we saw was absolutely stunning.

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The Beehive Loop

The Beehive Loop was definitely the trail that I was most nervous about doing. While I enjoy hiking and have done quite a bit, most of the trails that I had completed at this point were easy to moderate, with the occasional “difficult” one thrown in. The Beehive is only 3.2 miles round trip, but quite a lot of it is climbing over rocks and up metal rungs that are hammered into the side of the cliff. I saw pictures and GoPro videos of the hike on YouTube and immediately thought NOPE, but our family friend convinced me to give it a go with the promise that the view was one I wouldn’t forget. And although there were more than a few moments when my heart jumped into my chest a little but, I have to admit that he was right.

The first section of the trail isn’t too intense, with a gentle incline up sloping rock paths. However, once you get closer to the cliff face and start to begin the climb to the top, you get to the sections with rungs to climb up and to hold on to.

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At the time I did the hike, I was in fairly good physical shape but my stamina was nearly nonexistent, and I found myself to be struggling with my breathing when I reached the top. Wondering if the view was worth my heart beating at what felt like fifty times its normal rate, I smiled as I reached the top.

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From the Beehive you can see both Sand Beach and Great Head. 

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The fact that the sky was still quite cloudy meant that the bright colours of the fall foliage, which weren’t quite at their peak yet (it was only October 14th), seemed to be all the more vibrant. This held true on a section of the descent part of the loop, where there were a bunch of maple trees all a beautiful yellow-orange colour.

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Despite my initial reservations about this trail, I’m so glad that I decided to do it. I think that there are so many situations when it’s very easy to underestimate what you are capable of, and this was definitely one of those situations for me. It was a challenge, but not one that was insurmountable.

The Great Head Trail

Given that I was quite limited for time and wanted to pack as much into my day as I possibly could, I decided to choose hiking trails that were located in the same general area of the park. Not far from the Beehive Trail is the sand beach, which is a popular swimming and picnic location.

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Walking across the sand beach, you will find the beginning of the Great Head trail, which is a 1.4-mile loop that is rated as moderate. It gets this rating because there is quite a lot of climbing up and down rocks at the beginning of the trail. It begins with a steady climb away from Sand Beach, where you get some beautiful views of the turquoise-coloured water that flows in with the tide.

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As I walked along the trail, I noticed that the rock forming the cliff face near the trail head was smooth pink granite. The pink colour was even more evident because it had been quite a misty morning, and the dew coating the rock surface had not evaporated completely yet. Once I had completed the trek up onto the headland, I found the hike to be quite easy and fast. The views at the halfway mark of the trail are absolutely stunning.

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Aside from the bout of climbing at the beginning, the majority of this trail is quite easy. It was the perfect trail for me to do after completing the Beehive because the relative ease it offered allowed my leg muscles to get the stretch that they so desperately needed.

South Bubble Mountain and Jordan Pond Loop

By the time I got back to my car after completing the Great Head trail, I was tired and in dire need of a snack. I had a few hours left before sunset, when I wanted to head to the top of Cadillac Mountain, so I took my list of trails and looked at the ones that I had yet to complete. There were some on the other side of the park that I was interested in checking out, but logistically it made more sense to stay on the eastern side of the park. Given the fact that my energy levels were running pretty low, I decided on combining the Jordan Pond loop with South Bubble Mountain. Adding the two together results in a 2.3 kilometre loop, so I thought that it would be pretty manageable.

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The two peaks that you can see in the centre of this picture are the Bubble Mountains. 

When I set off on the hike, the sky had shifted back to a dull grey and I was scared that the view would be spoiled. Of all the hikes that I completed that day, the only one that I really wanted blue skies for was South Bubble. The walk around Jordan Pond is easy and picturesque, especially with the fall leaves. The Jordan Pond loop is an ideal walk for families with small children or people who may have mobility issues, as its relatively short and flat with beautiful views to boot.

After about twenty minutes of walking, I reached a fork in the trail into the forest that would lead me to South Bubble. For some reason, I had been picturing a fairly easy climb as the mountain looks fairly small from far away. What I wasn’t expecting was a short but nearly vertical climb over rocks through pretty dense forest. If I had been any less determined, I probably would have turned around and went back to the car, but I was determined to reach the top for what I thought was going to be a spectacular view. So I pushed through, and reached the top after about 30 minutes. And let me tell you – I didn’t regret it.

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Once you break through the tree line, you get a fairly good view of Jordan Pond from above. You could technically stop there, but I highly recommend continuing uphill for another 500 yards or so and reaching the actual summit. The view you get from there is unblemished by the top of the tree line and is nearly 360 degrees. I must have sat at the top for about an hour, eating my dinner, enjoying the beautiful landscape and watching the tiny cars meander slowly along the road that hugs the side of the hill on the eastern side of the pond. I made the right choice in hiking this trail at golden hour, because the light was nearly perfect and made the autumn colours pop even more.

If the beautiful landscape wasn’t enough of a reward for completing this hike, there is one more interesting feature at the summit that makes the climb worthwhile: Bubble Rock.

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Bubble Rock seems like something that shouldn’t exist. It’s at least a metre and a half tall and even wider, and is perched precariously on the edge of South Bubble Mountain. It looks like it could tumble over the side with the slightest amount of pressure, but it doesn’t budge (trust me – I pushed against it with all of my body weight and all I got was sore arms and a low of weird looks). It was quite difficult to get a picture with no tourists in it; apparently South Bubble is quite a popular hike just before sunset! Bubble Rock is such a unique sight to see, and it’s understandable why so many people make the trek to see it.

After I was done at the summit of South Bubble, I decided to retrace my footsteps back to my car rather than completing the rest of the loop. The first half is shorter than the second half, and by the time I was ready to head out, my energy levels were decreasing very quickly. The long day was catching up with me, and by the time I made it back to my car I was in dire need of a quick rest and a snack. I munched on a granola bar and took a twenty-minute power nap before heading to the top of Cadillac Mountain for sunset. After that, I drove the hour-and-a-half back to our friends’ house and went straight to sleep.

I was definitely exhausted on the drive back to New Brunswick the next day. I am well aware that I am guilty of trying to cram too much stuff into one day when I travel, but the urge to see and do as much as I can while I’m in a new place is often too great to resist. While I was tired the next day, I don’t regret doing as much as I did during my day at Acadia National Park. It’s the first and only U.S. National Park that I’ve ever visited, and definitely gave me the urge to visit many more. Sometime in the next ten years (maybe as a celebration of finishing my PhD), I would love to do an epic #vanlife trip through what some people call the Golden Circle of national parks through the West Coast, from Zion in Utah to Yosemite in California and Olympia in Washington State. A girl can dream, I guess! If you’ve visited Acadia and really enjoyed a hike that I didn’t cover in this post, please leave it in the comments below.

Happy traveling, friends!

Until next time,

Kaitlyn