A perfect long weekend in Acadia

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The National Parks are more popular than ever this year, due to COVID worries and a desire for wide open spaces, and for those of us in the Northeast the most popular and accessible park is Maine’s Acadia National Park.  Just 4 ½ hours’ drive from Boston, Acadia can easily be done in a long weekend, it offers attractions for all ages, and it’s equally enticing in spring, summer and fall {while the park remains open in winter, many of the roads are closed, and it wouldn’t be the best time to visit}  

I recently spent a few days exploring the area with my daughter, and here are our tips on how to plan the perfect “escape” to Acadia National Park:

woman sitting and admiring the rocky beach of Acadia National Park Maine

You do need to plan ahead

  • Entrance passes for the park should be purchased online before the trip, and if you’re travelling during peak leaf-peeping season (the first half of October) you’ll need to make timed reservations for certain sections of the park. 
  • Some of the key sights/experiences are very dependent on sunrise/sunset times and on the high/low tides, so you’ll want to be sure to check those times before you plan out your days. 

Where to stay

The park is on an island (Mt Desert Island) and, while you can save some money by staying along the coast nearby (in Ellsworth or other towns) it really is better to stay on the island itself rather than driving back and forth. Bar Harbor, on the eastern side of Mt Desert Island, is the main town. There are lots of hotels, inns and B&Bs. The west side of the island, near the town of Southwest Harbor, is much quieter, with a handful of charming B&Bs and guest cottages. Sprinkled around the island you’ll also find campgrounds and rental properties. 

To me, the main decision was whether to be right IN town, in Bar Harbor, so that we could walk to shops and restaurants or to be just outside town, away from the foot traffic. In this COVID world, since we knew we wanted to stay away from crowds, we opted for the Hampton Inn Bar Harbor. It was the perfect choice – a five-minute drive from town, with an included breakfast, a pool, and free parking – and it’s very popular with families.  In another time, if I were traveling with my husband and wanted to be able to stroll to bars and restaurants in the evening, I would probably have chosen the West Street Hotel on the waterfront, the Harborside Hotel, or the Balance Rock Inn. 

Where to eat

Local dining is normally the highlight of a vacation for me, and probably the part that I spend the most time planning, but that was not the case with this trip. Due to the pandemic, we were not comfortable dining in any restaurants, so we stuck to takeout meals and picnics. The meals that we ordered from Side Street Café, Rosalie’s Pizza, and Leary’s Landing Irish Pub were all perfectly good, but I don’t think they were a fair representation of Bar Harbor’s restaurant scene.

exterior of Thurstons lobster shack in Bar Harbor Maine

That being said, we did try the obligatory lobster roll from Thurston’s Lobster Pound, and it was delicious!

What to see and do

You’ll find plenty of “must do” lists online, and they all tend to include the same things – sunrise at Cadillac Mountain, popovers at the Jordan Pond House, hiking the Beehive Trail, etc.  We combed through those lists, crossed off the things that were not COVID appropriate or were too ambitious for our timeframe and/or fitness level, checked our sunrise and tide tables, and then grouped our wish list by geography so that we wouldn’t be crisscrossing the island back and forth all day. 

Here’s what our itinerary ended up looking like:

to-go food on a blue blanket with the sand, sea and pine trees in the background a picnic on Seal Beach in Maine

Day 1 –  We arrived late in the afternoon, checked in, picked up a to-go dinner, and headed to Seal Beach for a sunset picnic.

Day 2 – We hiked the Gorham Mountain Trail, did a scenic drive along Somes Sound, stopped at Echo Lake, explored Southwest Harbor, visited Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, got a lobster roll at Thurston’s Lobster Pound, and made it back to Bar Harbor in time for the late-afternoon low tide so that we could walk out to Bar Island. NOTE: we did not leave enough time to get out there and hike around the island before heading back, so I would give myself more time next time.

mother-daughter hiking trip up Gorham Mountain in Acadia National Park Maine
The views from Gorham Mountain
Serene and beautiful, Echo Lake is worth the stop

Day 3 – Today was entirely planned around sunrise at Cadillac Mountain, and it was more than worth it.

sunrise over Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on Cadillac Mountain Maine

We had read online that you need to get to the peak an hour before sunrise, so we were there by 4:30 am and it was magical. We sat in the dark and the cold, wrapped in blankets, watching the first rays warm up the sky.

People were still streaming in at 5:30 am when the sun was already risen, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them they had missed the best part! Plus, they had to contend with traffic and parking issues. We avoided all of that, and were already driving back down the mountain before 6am. Afterwards, we visited Sand Beach and hiked along the Ocean Path to Thunder Hole, and then drove the rest of the Park Loop Trail. That afternoon, we walked the scenic trails at Ship Bottom and Wonderland.

woman looking over the rocky bay and evergreen pine trees along the Ocean Path of Acadia National Park Maine
Enjoying the views while hiking along the Ocean Path
rocky beach stones, green pine trees against a bright blue sky in Acadia National Park Wonderland
Bright blue skies, dark evergreen trees and sandy stones painted a perfect picture in Wonderland

Day 4 – We had planned to do the Jordan Pond Loop Trail, and stop at the Jordan Pond House for the famous popovers, but were reading online reviews about crazy crowds and lines, and we opted to just have some breakfast and get on the road back home to Rhode Island.

Overall, we had a fabulous time. And I think we packed a lot into a quick three-night stay. We definitely got our fill of outdoorsy activities and gorgeous scenery, and were – for the most part – able to maintain social distance.

seating over the harbor with the harbor in the background at Thurstons in Bar Harbor Maine

The town of Bar Harbor itself was too busy for our purposes, but I would LOVE to go back there some other time, when crowds don’t feel so scary, so that I can really enjoy the shops, bars and cafes.

In the meantime, if you want some help planning your own “escape” to Acadia National Park, let me know!

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