Top 10+ Must-Do on Mount Desert Island and in Acadia National Park

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Bicyclists benefit with a car-free experience with Acadia's delayed opening. Hilary Nangle photoIf I had been asked to advise President Obama and family on what to do while on Mount Desert Island, I’d have given them this Top 10+ list of things to do when visiting Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island:

• Loop-ti-doo

Drive or pedaling Acadia National Park’s Park Loop Road is a must, but do so either before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. to avoid the crowds and to catch the best light for photos. Don’t skip any of the big-ticket sights along the route: Sieur de Monts Springs, home to the Wild Gardens of Acadia, Sweet Waters of Acadia spring, Nature Center, and the original Abbe Museum (but don’t miss this museum’s main site in Bar Harbor for the best intro to Maine’s Native American heritage and culture); Sand Beach (go ahead, brave dipping your toes in the water, brrrrr); Thunder Hole (for the biggest ka-boom, time your visit with an incoming tide); and Cadillac Mountain (everyone raves about sunrise, but sunset is pretty spectacular, too).

• Road-eo

Thank you John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the 57 miles (44 open to bicycles) of meandering crushed-stone Carriage Roads crossing 17 unique stone bridges. Bike ’em, hike ’em, ride ’em, but don’t miss ’em. And afterward…

I scream, you scream

Tea and popovers with jam and ice cream is an island tradition at the park’s Jordan Pond House, where as long as they sit on the lawn, even Beau is welcome (That was then, this is now: I prefer tea and popovers at the Asticou Inn, overlooking Northeast Harbor and within steps of the Eliot Mountain Trail connecting two of the island’s gorgeous gardens, Thuya and Asticou). While that’s a must-do experience, the island’s best cream in outrageously creative flavors comes from Mount Desert Island Ice Cream (I’m salivating just thinking about their salt caramel, mmmmm).

• I can see clearly now…

You’re going to need to work off that ice cream, perhaps with a hike? Among my favorites are Great Head, Gorham Mountain, and Flying Mountain, all moderate with big views from the summits.

• Slimy sea critters! YES!

Diver Ed’s Dive-in Theater Boat Cruise is a way-cool, must-do for anyone with kids who want to see and touch slimy sea critters, view them in their natural habitat, and have a great time while learning about nature.

• Lobstah!

The Oceanarium is a low-tech, high-interest, kid-friendly site that encompasses a lobster hatchery, museum, salt-marsh walk, and more. (It doesn’t appear as much from the road, but trust me on this one). Afterwards, lobster at Thurston’s, overlooking idyllic Bass Harbor.

• A whale of a good time

Pair a visit to the Dorr Museum  of Natural History at College of the Atlantic, where you can view whale-related exhibits (the college is affiliate with Allied Whale), with a Whale-watching tourBe sure to bring heavy-weight clothing; I’ve gone out on days when it’s been near 90 in Bar Harbor, yet I was glad for my wool sweater, hat, and mittens at sea. Note: photo depicts the Bar Harbor Whale Museum which is seeking a new home.

• Birds and bees

Learn about Acadia’s birds and other wildlife on a private tour with biologist and Registered Maine Guide Michael Good of Downeast Nature Tours. Honest: I didn’t get birding’s appeal until I accompanied him one morning. It’s a gentle introduction to what might become a life-long hobby, and if you’re already an avid birder, he’ll help you add a few to your life list. While we’re on the subject of birds, another don’t miss is the Wendell Gilley Museum, housing more than 200 of the local carver’s astonishingly realistic bird carvings.

• Island hopping
Bring a bike aboard the passengers ferries servicing the Cranberry Islands, then get off first at Great Cranberry for a quick pedal and look-see, stopping at the  Cranberry House to see the museum, followed by Little Cranberry (a.k.a. Islesford) for a tour of the museum followed by lobster at the Islesford Dock. Better yet, time the meal to coincide with sunset for delicious views. OR board Capt. Kim Strauss’s Island Cruises’ Lunch Cruise to Frenchboro aboard the R. L. Gott, which he built. Strauss has been navigating these waters for more than 55 years. His narration is lively, he points out sights and wildlife, he’ll haul a few traps, and  you get to visit Frenchboro, an authentic lobstering community, where you can tour the local museum and have lobster at Lunt’s Dockside Deli.

• Schoodic sampler
Board the passenger ferry to Winter Harbor, then after weaving through islands and around lobster boats hauling traps,  either pedal or ride the Island Explorer bus through the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park. Don’t forget a picnic lunch (perhaps from Morning Glory Bakery, in Bar Harbor), so you can enjoy it on the slabs of pink granite marking Schoodic Point.
NOTE: While Mr. President and family likely will use private transportation to get around the island, everyone else should use the Island Explorer Bus Service. It’s free with your park pass, it carries bikes, and it hits almost all the highlights in its multiple routes.
Note: If you’re looking for budget lodging, check my Cheap Sleeps Acadia Region page.

34 COMMENTS

  1. And of course I would add that anyone can follow in the Obamas footsteps: stay at the Bar Harbor Regency (they were in the Vanderbilt Suite, http://www.barharborregency.com), eat at Stewman’s Lobster Pound (recently completely renovated — he arrived by boat, http://www.stewmans.com) and unwind with tennis or a dip in the pool at the Bar Harbor Club (www.barharborclub.com). Acadia National Park is one of the nation’s treasures, available to all. And a family vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine (I remember our car trip from MA in 1969) is one that anyone can experience for themselves!

  2. Thanks for this post and all your posts! I grew up in CA, but currently live in NYC with my husband and two kids. I’ve dreamed of coming to Maine for several years and I finally made it here (just last night). So far, I’ve found your site to be the best resource for the things we are hoping to do. Just finalizing our plans for our week vacation here in Maine! So excited!

  3. So glad I found your website! Any suggestions for a solo woman traveler? Traveling from Portland going North. I have 5 days to explore. Arriving Sept. 12. I plan on going to Acadia for the last day of the Night Sky Festival, then I’m open.

  4. I have so much territory to cover for the books that I travel solo a lot in order not to have to kennel our dogs too often. Maine’s pretty safe, as long as you keep your wits about you and follow the same general precautions you would use anywhere (dark street at night in the city–don’t walk it alone, that kind of smarts). If you enjoy outdoor activities–hiking, biking, birding, paddling–you easily can spend five full days in Acadia National Park alone. So much depends upon your interests. If you’ve never spent any time in Portland, you might want to give yourself a few days there. Great small city (more like a big town). Don’t be surprised if you want to move there permanently. There’s a reason it keeps ending up in the top 10 of the best places to live, work, play in national magazine listings.

  5. Hi Hilary, Just found your site and what good timing. My husband and I are going to Bar Harbor next week for my birthday. Great suggestions! I will keep reading your site for more places to visit.

  6. I am traveling with my 6 yr old daughter after dropping off my 11 yr old at whale camp for a week. Which is the best location to stay at Bar Harbor Regency or Harborside Hotel & Marina? Any suggestion would be appreciated. We cannot wait!

  7. Hi Jeanmarie,
    That depends upon your interests. The Regency is just outside of town, not really within walking distance, but it’s a lovely property with grand views. The Harborside is smack downtown on the harborfront in Bar Harbor, making it easy to walk to sights and restaurants, but you sacrifice the privacy.

  8. Hilary,
    Great article! Gives me a lot of great ideas about our stay this coming July. We have camped in the White Mountains a bunch but want to broaden our perspective. What campground would you recommend a family of four with 2 boys (ages 5 and 2) to stay with our 31 foot travel trailer. We would like to do Cadillac Mountain, sand beach, thunder hole….Hopefully alot of the things your recommended in your article. We would like to be able to “book: the campground so it kind of leaves out Bar Harbor Campground. We don’t want to travel 7 hours to have to turn around! What do you think? thanks!

  9. Hi Nathan,

    There are quite a few commercial campgrounds on MDI that cater to RVs and trailers, but none are in the park itself. Without knowing you or your interests, it’s hard to make any specific recommendations (plus, I’m not an RV camper). Check out Hadley’s Point, Bar Harbor, and Smuggler’s Den and Seawall, both in Southwest Harbor. There’s also a KOA at the head of the island. Do note, that campgrounds on the island tend to be quite pricey when compared with other locales.

  10. My wife and I enjoyed reading your tips about Acadia! It’s a rainy day today so we may check out a couple of your museum suggestions. We didn’t have a chance to do the island hopping suggestions, but we did take the boat ride to Baker Island which we would highly recommend as well. It’s an outpost of Acadia NP that relatively few people visit and the boat ride takes you past lots of interesting sights. The history of Baker Island (as explained by our knowledgeable guide David Doonan) is fascinating as well. We did a lot of hiking and bike riding on the trails and carriage trails. If you check out the lighthouse at Bass Harbor be sure you take the short easy hike on the Ship Harbor Nature Trail which provides access to some spectacular shoreline and there were very few other people there, at least when we were there. There are so many special places around here it is impossible to choose the top ten!

  11. Love the Baker Island tour! Not only do you learn a lot from the guides, but you also get wonderful views of MDI. Last time I went out on it, we had a great view of the climbers on the cliffs. And yes, Ship Nature trail and the nearby Wonderland are easy immersions into the park’s shoreline. Thanks for the report.

  12. Hilary, Thanks so much for your advice! We left VA on Tuesday and headed right to Kennebunkport. We spent 3 days at the wonderful Captain Jefferds Inn, a must for anyone visiting there! We spend the next two days driving around to York (great family spot), Ogunquit (my fave!); the Rose Cove restaurant has the BEST lobster bisque anywhere! A trip on the schooner “The Gift” was awesome, although we did not see anything jump out of the ocean. From there we spent an hour or so at Cape Neddick (Nubble) lighthouse. I added another lighthouse to my collection! We arrived in Rockland for the Maine Lobster Festival yesterday, and I cannot eat any more Lobstah right now. This evening, we are sitting by the water, overlooking W. Penobscot Bay at the Oakland Seashore Motel & Cabins. You suggested this in your Cheap Sleeps, and it is a gem! Someone actually canoed to an outer island and set off fireworks this evening. Tomorrow, on to Bar Harbor and Acadia! Any must see’s, let us know!

  13. Looking for awesome sunset spots, other than top of Cadillac Mountain. This info will determine where we stay. Any and all specific spots info welcome. IDEALLY, on the beach sunsets!!!
    Thanks!
    Kate

  14. We are heading near to Bar Harbor ME for a family vacation the first week of June of this year. We are excited to be with our 2 kids and 7 grandkids. What suggestions might you have specifically for that time of year and for the ages of the kids (9-15 years of age)? Of course we will do Acadia (one of our favorite spots). We have been to the area twice before but the families have not.

  15. Hi Carolyn,
    For starters, pick up a copy of my Moon Acadia National Park book, which details the area. As for family favorites, begin by checking the Beaver Log for Ranger-led activities, including hikes, cruises, and more. The park also has geocaching, if you’re into that. Of course you’ll drive the park loop and visit the sites along the way, but don’t miss the park sections on other parts of the island for hikes, swims, and mountain biking. Outside the park, popular family activities include Diver Ed’s Dive-in Theater Boat Cruise; Great Maine Lumberjack Show (off island in Trenton); Lulu lobster boat tours; ferry hopping to the Cranberry Islands; the Abbe Museum; and Improv Acadia. Hit Ben & Bill’s or MDI Ice Cream. I don’t think the ferry over to Schoodic is running that early in the season, but that’s a great day trip with bikes. Have fun!

  16. we are heading to mount desert campgound this weekend and was wondering if you knew of any places to go horseback riding. i am having trouble finding a guided trail. we are willing to travel about an hour or so, but not too much farther. thanks!

  17. I’m afraid not, Teresa. Carriage rides, yes; trail rides, not that I know of within an hour’s drive.

  18. Hi Hilary,
    We are traveling to Acadia in June 2015. I am looking for a good guide which includes distances/elevations/difficulty for walking and biking the carriage roads in the park. Any suggestions? Love you suggestions for this area!

    Ginny

  19. Hi Ginny, You’re going to love Acadia. You might want to pick up the new 2015 edition of my Moon Acadia National Park (due out in May). I provide info on elevation gain/difficulty/distance for hiking trails, but not for the carriage roads. For specific info on the carriage roads, try Carriage Roads of Acadia: A Pocket Guide Paperback – April 16, 2011, by Diana Abrell (not sure whether it has all the specifics you seek, but it’s the best dedicated resource)

  20. Thank you for the great article. We will surely try a lot of your ideas. We are planning a trip to Acadia this August for our family. Our kids are ages 8, 11 and 15. We also plan on bringing our well-behaved dog. Is there any neighborhood you would suggest we try to rent a house in? Or is there a hotel you recommend? We would like to be oceanfront, if possible.

  21. Hi Randi, If you’re traveling with a dog, I suggest you check in with Bark Harbor, in Bar Harbor, which offers advice on pet-friendly places, including a list of lodgings; see http://barkharbor.com/pet-friendly-mdi

    Here’s my page with pet-friendly lodgings state wide–there’s one in Bar Harbor, although it’s not waterfront. https://www.mainetravelmaven.com/2014/07/23/dog-friendly-inn-bb-cottage-and-resort-accommodations-in-maine/

    And The Birches, a waterfront B&B in Southwest Harbor, has a self-catering cottage that accepts dogs: http://thebirchesbnb.com/oldhouse.html
    H

  22. Hi Hilary. I found this article helpful and can’t wait to read more on your site. I arrived here via the Moon.Com website and glad I did. I internet search like I explore on my adventures, something like…”I wonder where this will take me”. I will be spending 10 days traveling the coast of Maine in July, doing a photo shoot/blog/vacation, so all your info and tips will be a wonderful resource. I begin at the Whaleback light and end at the Whitlock Mill light, staying at fine establishments such as The Travelers Inn, the Claddagh Motel, the Seawall Motel and the Blueberry patch! I so look forward to photographing lighthouses, fishing villages and Puffins 🙂
    Well, I better get back to reading your site. Thanks again for the info.

  23. Hi Hilary,

    I am traveling alone to Acadia National Park for 5 days in the first week in September 2015. I am bringing my bike and intend on camping on Mount Desert for some much needed R&R. Do you have any recommendations on food (particularly lobster) near the park? Also, should I bring food and keep in a cooler for several days or try to go out and buy food for every day to cook over stove/campfire. This is my first solo camping trip, while I have all the supplies, any advice would be weclome. Thank you very much!

  24. I’m not an expert on camping, but your best choices are the park’s two campgrounds, Blackwoods and Seawall. Blackwoods is close to the Carriage Road network. You’ll find lobster practically everywhere and in many different forms (stew, rolls, boiled, fancy, even ice cream). You might want to pick up the 2015 edition of my Moon Acadia National Park book. Have fun!

  25. Would like to visit Maine this fall. Is the traffic unbearable at peak foliage time due to leaf peepers for Acadia and the coast and should we visit a different t(earlier) time?

  26. Actually, Maine doesn’t get anywhere near the number of leaf peepers as other states, which is strange, ’cause Maine has the added attraction of that glorious foliage against ocean blues. Acadia’s autumn crowds tend to be on bus tours, and the best way to avoid those is to drive the Park Loop before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. And truth is, if you get off the roads and into the park (walking or biking the carriage roads, hiking, paddling along the shoreline, etc.), the crowds all but disappear. Also, consider the Blue Hill/Deer Isle peninsula and Down East (Ellsworth north along the coast), both of which you’ll have practically to yourself.

  27. Hi, We are coming to Maine for the first time (from Germany) and want to spend 3 days in or near Acadia. We are 2 adults and 3 very active teenagers. We would like to move about mostly on foot or by bike (presuming we can rent bikes). Where would you recommend that we base ourselves? Bar Harbor seems pricey compared to WInter Harbor for example.

  28. Winter Harbor is definitely quieter and less busy and there is a ferry that connects it to Bar Harbor. The Schoodic Section of the park is near Winter Harbor, as is the Donnell Pond Public Reserved Lands–great for hiking. You can rent bikes in Winter Harbor, Bar Harbor, and also Northeast and Southwest Harbors. You might also look in the Southwest Harbor area for lodgings, as it’s on the Quiet Side of the island and tends to have less pricey options. If you stay on Mount Desert Island, you have plentiful biking options on the Carriage Roads.

  29. Hillary, Thanks so much for this web site. Is there somewhere, like a viewpoint, that offers great night sky viewing on the island (Mt. Desert).

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