Main Road Trip: Mt. Desert Island

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

Route Details

Length: About 70 miles.

When to go: Open year-round, but some facilities and segments of the loop road are closed in winter.

Lodging: Reservations required during peak season.

Nearby attractions: Bar Harbor, a resort community. Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut, outlying sections of the national park.

Words to the wise: Low-clearance bridge at Stanley Brook entrance.

Further information: Acadia National Park, P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, ME 04609; tel. 207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad/.

Mt. Desert Island, at some 13 miles wide, ranks as the largest of Maine’s myriad islands. A patchwork of picturesque villages dots its jagged coast; founded to reap the harvests of land and sea, today they serve as centers for tourism as well. Mt. Desert’s distinguishing centerpiece, though, must surely be Acadia National Park, which occupies roughly half of the island, plus parts of nearby Isle au Haut and a mainland peninsula. Laced with inviting roadways, the park is a soul-satisfying place for savoring an especially dramatic meeting place of land and sea.

1. Hulls Cove Visitor Center
One of the best ways to learn about the mountains, seacoast, and the many animals and plants that can be found in Acadia National Park is to stop at the Hulls Cove visitor center. The wealth of helpful information available there includes maps of the more than 120 miles of trails that thread through the wilds, a film on the park’s history, and a scale model of the area.

The beauties of the park, however, come at a price: traffic and crowds. Though one of the smallest of the national parks—some 40,000 acres—Acadia is also among the most visited. Thus it’s a good idea to start your day early or to visit during the off-season. Autumn brings dazzling foliage, and winter offers its own very special rewards: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and the stirring sights of seeing the snow-whitened wonderland.

2. Cadillac Mountain
Honed to its present form by long-gone glaciers, the rounded dome of Cadillac Mountain towers some 1,530 feet above the Gulf of Maine, making it the highest point along the whole eastern coast. The view from the peak overlooks not only the majority of Mt. Desert Island but also a vast expanse of sea dotted with countless islands.

Maples, birches, and a variety of evergreens maintain a toehold among the mountain’s pink granite rocks, and trails traverse the slopes, occasionally passing huge boulders that seemingly have been dropped in the middle of nowhere. Called erratics, these stones were transported here from distant peaks by the moving ice of Eocene and Pleistocene glaciers.

3. Park Loop Road

The one-way sector of the 20-mile Park Loop Road hugs the eastern side of the island, with turnouts and parking areas along the way that provide access to viewpoints, trails, and shoreline landmarks.

To gain a quick introduction to many of the park’s plants, visit the Wild Gardens of Acadia. Although only about an acre in extent, the gardens are rich in variety, with samplings of native grasses, ferns, mosses, wildflowers, and trees.

Sand Beach, snugly set between headlands and forests, is a favored spot with sunbathers and swimmers (who must be game enough to brave the chilly ocean temperatures). A trail from the parking lot explores a small peninsula and leads to Great Head, a volcanic rock that looms nearly 150 feet above the ocean.

Farther south, a trail leads to Thunder Hole, a chasm carved into the cliffs by the sometimes raging sea. When strong surf teams with an incoming tide, a booming blast resounds from the hole.

Another trail parallels Otter Cliffs, precipitous granite rocks that rise 110 feet. The view looks out on Egg Rock Island and its lighthouse, as well as Nova Scotia, which appears as a speck on the horizon. Wild roses grow here, and arctic plants thrive in the cool seaside climate. The ocean below also teems with life—harbor seals, starfish, rock crabs, barnacles, squid, herring, and many other marine denizens. Although many of the land animals stay out of sight for safety’s sake, attentive observers might be rewarded with glimpses of foxes, coyotes, snowshoe hares, great horned owls, and hawks.

4. Seal Harbor
Continuing past Hunters Head and densely forested hillsides, the one-way section of the loop road soon joins two-way traffic. At that juncture the drive turns to the south and, after a short stretch, enters Seal Harbor, a pretty town with elegant homes and a sandy beach. At the intersection with Rte. 3, turn to the west for a seaside drive to Northeast Harbor, stopping on the way at the informal gardens surrounding Thuya Lodge in Asticou.

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