Escape to Acadia National Park
We just returned from our summer trip, and while we jet-setted across the world before our daughter was born, this trip was both adventurous and close to home-- exactly what we needed! Tons of awesome recommendations from friends made Acadia National Park a memorable experience for us. Here I share with you the culmination of all my research and experience, so you, too, can have an epic visit to Acadia National Park.
After our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado exceeded our wildest expectations, I began dreaming up all of the national parks we could visit. Drive just under 5 hours from Boston, and you can be in one of the most dazzling natural spaces in the northeast: Acadia National Park. This makes it a great destination for a long weekend or weeklong getaway. The mountains-meet-sea landscape of the park, sprinkled with pristine ponds and swirling with perfectly engineered carriage roads, should put a visit to Acadia on your list of places to experience!
Outdoor activities are great for family bonding time, and our 1.5 year old daughter is certainly happiest outside. Outdoor vacations work well for toddlers because children have free range to be their curious, active, emotional selves when in nature. There are endless trinkets like pinecones, leaves, and rocks with which to play in nature (we call these "loose parts" in the field of education)—no need for toys! Singing loudly, making animal noises, and even having tantrums are no big deal outdoors. You can eat anywhere you want without worrying about crumbs, and there’s no reason to keep your clothing clean and presentable. This all makes for happy children and relaxed parents—key components of a family vacation!
We found Acadia National Park to be really family friendly. The small size of Acadia compared to other national parks, the range of activities and hiking options available, and its proximity to the adorable town of Bar Harbor make it a perfect family destination.
WHERE TO STAY
Acadia is located on Mount Desert Island in Maine. On the east side, you’ll find Bar Harbor, a bustling town with tons of restaurants, inns, and amenities. Smaller towns include Northeast Harbor and adorable Southwest Harbor, and there is a smattering of other tiny villages. You can choose to stay in a busy town, sleepy town, or tucked away in the backwoods, and all will be just a stone’s throw from the park.
Mount Desert Island has tons of camping options. Our friends at Global Kids Clan had a good experience at Blackwood Campground, which is part of Acadia National Park. You can read about their experience here.
Our family opted to rent a small cottage from Airbnb in the woods outside of Bar Harbor. We love having all the conveniences of home, including a separate space for sleeping, so we don’t have to call it a night when little one turns in at 8 pm.
Wherever you choose to stay, be sure to book early as everything on the island fills up for summer!
HIKES, WIKES, AND BIKES
There are 158 miles of hiking trails with seven peaks above 1,000 feet and over a dozen pristine lakes and ponds to explore. Add another 45 miles of carriage roads perfect for biking, and you could keep yourself busy for a long time! With a toddler who is happy in our structured backpack carrier but also wants to walk on her own, we did a little bit of everything. Here are the hikes, wikes, and biking trails that we recommend:
Cadillac Mountain North Ridge Trail- If you had only one thing you could do in Acadia, taking in the view atop Cadillac Mountain is it. It's the first place to view the sunrise and the highest peak along the Atlantic seaboard in the United States. For views of the island-speckled harbor and the sweeping ocean, you can simply drive to the top… or you can adventure there! One way to hike to the top is on the North Ridge Trail. Park at the base and venture up 2. 6 miles of rocky trail with many exposed areas great for taking in the views. I consider this to be a moderately strenuous hike, so bring lots of water. It took us about 1.5 hours to reach the top and 1 hour back. We brought a picnic to enjoy at the summit! There you’ll also find a water bottle filling station, gift shop, and restrooms.
Bubble Rock and Jordan Pond- Picture an enormous boulder perched on the edge of a cliff--seemingly about to fall off at any moment-- in front of a picturesque backdrop of trees and sparkling pond below. This is Bubble Rock! Park at the Bubble Rock parking lot (arrive early to find a spot), and follow the signs to Bubble Rock. It’s steep in spots, but short (perhaps 1 mile) has easy footing, and there were many children on the path.
You can simply return to the parking if you’d like, but after checking out the rock and taking in the views, we headed down the extremely steep and challenging western faced trail to Jordan Pond. There we had a picnic on the beach and headed counterclockwise around the pond. The pond loop is beautiful and the walk on the western side has raised boardwalk planks, which make a fun change of scenery. We walked to Jordan Pond House (see "Eating Out" below) where we caught the free shuttle bus back to our car.
Beech Mountain Loop- While we experienced sweeping views of fog when we summited, I still recommend this hike. On our way down, the clouds started to break and we caught gorgeous glimpses of Long Pond, and just those tiny peeks of splendor made the hike worth it for us. My imagination tells me the views at the top would be remarkable. We parked at the end of Beech Hill Road and took the 1.2 mile moderately strenuous Beech Mountain Loop trail. Because it’s short and the footing is manageable, we saw many young children on this hike. At the top, there is a fire tower, which is occasionally open to visitors.
Bar Island Land Bridge- Part of Acadia, but right off Bridge Street in Bar Harbor, you'll find a land bridge to Bar Island that's passable in any footwear at low tide. The walk to the island from Bar Harbor is very short and flat (about a 10 minute walk at a relaxed adult pace). It's really something to see! You need to heed the posted warnings and check the tide schedule before you visit. Plan your walk between 1.5 hours before low tide to 1.5 hours after low tide; otherwise, you'll get swept off to sea or stuck on the island for 9 hours. There is a trail on the island, but we were very happy to spend a long time exploring the tide pools and throwing rocks and shells into the water at our toddler's pace.
Jordan Pond Loop- Among the most highly trafficked trails for good reason, the entire Jordan Pond Loop trail has views of the pristine pond, nestled in the mountains. The whole loop is 3.4 miles with a large section of protective boardwalk and some light scrambling over rocks. Starting at the Jordan Pond House, the far side has a nice beach, perfect for a picnic (no swimming is permitted).
Wonderland Trail- A perfect easy trail for the whole family! Staring with just about one mile of flat trail, you could navigate this section with a heavy duty stroller. It ends with a loop along the spectacular, rocky shore. At low tide, the rocks and tide pools are fun to explore. We picnicked on the rocks, of course. This trail is featured in the new Hike It Baby book and was teeming with children and families. Although it was not a quiet hike, it was certainly joyful, and Wike Baby loved getting a chance to hike on her own.
Compass Harbor Trail- This trail is less than a mile and mostly flat with some stairs along the old farm ruins and rocks leading to the beach. It has beautiful coastal views and opens up to a sweet swimming cove. Supposedly the water is warmer than the ocean, but it’s still too cold for me! The farm belonged to George B. Dorr, known as the father of Acadia National Park. It’s fun to let your imagination take you back in history and imagine his life looking out upon the water and making plans for the park.
The wide carriage roads of crushed rock are closed to motorized vehicles, making them optimal for exploring the park safely on bikes! We hadn’t ridden bikes for years, but I assure you, it’s… just like riding a bike! Muscle memory is an amazing thing! This was also our little one’s first time riding in a bike trailer, and she loved it so much that she giggled tremendously and then took a long snooze.
We rented our bikes and a child trailer from Acadia Bike on Cottage Street in Bar Harbor. They were some of the friendliest and most helpful people I’ve met! From there, we biked two minutes to the Village Green where we hopped on the free Bicycle Express bus, which dropped us off with our bikes at Eagle Lake. It was super convenient and ran every 15 minutes.
Viewing the park from a bike was a new and special experience for us, and I highly recommend it. While you can choose from tons of routes, we took the 11-ish mile loop around Eagle Lake and Jordan Pond, stopping at Jordan Pond for lunch at the quintessential Jordan Pond House (see “Eating Out” below). We saw tons of families on bikes, but there are certainly some strenuous inclines where we saw some children walking their bikes for a bit. Travel this loop counter clockwise to make it a tad bit easier on yourself.
One of the great pleasures of vacationing is eating out and not having to prepare or do dishes. The worst thing you can do is pay for a bad meal when you’re on vacation, and I never like wasting precious adventuring time searching reviews of where to eat. We spent most of our breakfasts at our Airbnb, most of our lunches picnicking in the park, and most of our dinners eating out. Save yourself some time by considering these restaurants we enjoyed:
Jordan Pond House- Famous for their popovers, anyone who visits Bar Harbor or Acadia must have a meal or snack at this restaurant with its spectacular view of the Jordan Pond. You can drive in to dine or stop in along your hike or biking trip. The popovers are served with butter and jam—which attract the bees if seated outdoors. Wash it down with a nice beverage; I can’t recommend the blueberry lemonade enough! They take reservations, although we didn’t make any. Check hours and location here.
Rosalie’s Pizza- Friday night pizza is like religion to our family, so this was our first important find, possibly before the hikes- haha. The pizza at Rosalie’s is so deliciously crave-able after a long day of exploring. Admittedly, we ate here twice, and while it was very busy both times, we didn’t have trouble finding a table. Seat yourself and then order at the counter. Check hours and location here.
Café This Way- This restaurant was recommended to us for breakfast, but we went for dinner. It offers small plates of all types of food, and all were delicious! Wike Baby had the children’s fruit plate, which turned out to be a full meal and included hummus and pita, and I really enjoyed my shrimp and grits. We arrived just before they opened for dinner and waited in a short line to be among the first seated. Check hours and location here.
Atlantic Brewing Company- Started in Bar Harbor itself, this beer is offered all over the island—and it’s good! After carrying baby on his back up and down Cadillac Mountain, Wike Dad announced that he had earned a beer, and we sat on the roof deck of Atlantic Brewing Company with a drink and ordered a snack of tasty tacos. It’s a great way to unwind! Check hours and location here.
2 Cats Restaurant- Best breakfast ever. We went here twice..! The lobster eggs benedict and the lobster omelet were to die for. "A lobster a day keeps the doctor away," that's the saying, right? Served with spicy home fries, you’ll have to order a “cat paws” muffin—yum. As they mention on their menu, good food takes time, so be prepared for a leisurely breakfast! Check hours and location here.
Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium- Ice cream joints with lines out the door can mean only one thing—something worth waiting for is hidden inside! While I usually opt for dessert containing chocolate, blueberry ice cream had come highly recommended, and so I took my chances. AMAZING. Check hours and location here.
With so much exploring, hiking, wiking, biking, viewing, and eating to do, there's just one question: when are you visiting Acadia National Park?