Once upon a time, I visited Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park with different people — my mother and stepfather — and a different heart. In my mind, Bar Harbor was quaint and charming, Acadia National Park romantic; I was looking forward to experiencing both with new people — my husband and daughter — and renewed heart. However, my previous trip was simply a different voyage, and Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park have changed. I have changed, too. As slow-and-tiny travel journalists and enthusiasts, our visit to Mount Desert Island clearly delineated how we feel about travel and what we want from it, and raised questions about what others want from it, too. Here is our report.
All Things Mount Desert Island
Still charming and romantic, especially during the peak of autumn, Mount Desert Island is an oasis with many facets. There is the quiet, west side of the island, a place that fishermen call home, historic places are maintained and is made up of some of Acadia National Park. There is the east side of the island, which is home to many famous and wealthy residents, tons of tourists, as well as most of Acadia National Park. The north side is lined with inns, hotels, motels, modern campgrounds, tour buses and cruise ships; the south side is dotted with tidal pools, lighthouses, scenic drives, rustic campgrounds and lobster boats. The locals will send you to the quiet side of the island, and the Chamber of Commerce might send you to Bar Harbor and Acadia. Although considered part of MidCoast Maine, Mount Desert Island is a place all its own.
We visited Mount Desert Island to check out the national park and Bar Harbor, and we waited to do so knowing that there would be fewer tourists after Labor Day. We also had been studying the island map so that we could plan our days. After descending upon the island, we unhitched at our delightful campground and investigated our new “destiny,” as Luna calls it. Headed toward Bar Harbor, we identified some places of interest and took in the scenery. As we entered Bar Harbor, we were surprised: It is very, very busy. Yes, it was leaf-peeping season, and so there were tourists everywhere. But Bar Harbor is packed inherently. The quaint town of my memory is gone. Driving the super-crammed streets was stressful; folks pop out from parked cars, neon signs direct everyone here or there, giving it a vibe of Vegas Strip, only oceanside and without the gambling. It’s not quiet; it’s bustling, perhaps even busting. We knew in an instant that Bar Harbor was not the place for us.
But was I imagining things? Was my desire for less chaos tarnishing my perspective of Bar Harbor? I knew Scot was not impressed. I certainly became disinterested in being there, too stressed trying to navigate the streets among the people, signs and traffic. Locals confirmed my suspicions: Things have changed indeed. A store owner and our campground friends all agreed that Bar Harbor is not like it used to be. They also confirmed that to gain a better sense of Mount Desert Island and the old days (or the way things are normally), head to the west side — the quiet side — for a slower pace, a workaday scene, virtually no lines and the best lobster shack on the island. Our course was set for discovering Mount Desert Island proper.
Mount Desert Island’s West Side If you have a car, navigating this MidCoast island is fun and delightful — well, on the west side at least. If you become lost, it is really no big deal, because it is not difficult to find your way back to where you need to be with all of the looping roads, and you will find amazing things and places along the way — secret tidal pools, bogs and marshes, beautiful hiking trails, quiet neighborhoods and old roads leading to the ocean and more. Even if you don’t have a car, there is Island Explorer public transport set up specifically to check out Mount Desert Island, even on the quiet side.
We headed out to find Thurstons’s Lobster Pound in Bass Harbor — a tip from a local — and the Ship Harbor trail and tidal pool. Thurston’s served the best lobster that we’ve had in Maine. Ship Harbor trail meandered through majestic forest alongside a quiet tidal pool and right out to the open ocean, and the Bass Harbor Lighthouse proved exciting, pulsing with surf. There was some traffic, but no congestion. It made for a lovely day discovering western Mount Desert Island at a slower pace to which we are accustom and prefer.
Mount Desert Island’s East Side The east side of Mount Desert Island is crammed with stuff — elite neighborhoods and inns, old motels, lobster pounds, Bar Harbor and all of its activities, as well as the majority of Acadia National Park and all of its traffic-slowing points of interest. Our midweek activity was going to exclude anything related to vehicular or tourist congestion, but we heard about a wonderful free thing to do in Bar Harbor: We could walk to Bar Island — part of Acadia National Park and across the way from Bar Harbor — at low tide. We knew that Luna would love it, so we did it, making our way midday to the outskirts of town, parking, walking and following the path well-marked and traveled to Bar Island. It was totally worth it.
Hanging out at low tide just off of a completely tourist-laden location offers a lot of things. There are folks of all sorts who are able to navigate this island-to-island hop, because it is made possible by man and nature. There were cyclists and kayakers, families with kids, old folks, young folks, couples, people that limped and dawdled, folks that just sat and watched. There were people like us with backpacks and galoshes, examining everything on the ocean floor that becomes exposed when drained of water. There were diners on balconies of fancy hotels watching us waders, and stunningly large cruise ships patiently waiting for and escorting those who participate in coastal cruises, the vessels somehow steadying themselves in such shallow waters.
The only main grocery store is in Bar Harbor, and so is a local fish market. It was a Wednesday, a three-cruise-ship day. Crowds were building. We made our stops, avoiding downtown entirely, and hustled right out of there, grateful for the easy and free access to such a fun adventure, and made plans for Acadia, t-shirt shops be damned.
Acadia National Park “Acadia” has seen many “discoverers.” The first inhabitants were the Wabanaki people. Then, Samuel de Champlain, sailing down the coast in 1604, noting the barren rocks dotted with trees, named the island Mount Desert. Charles Eliot, his father, and George B. Dorr, are credited with bringing Acadia National Park to fruition through land donations and state and federal government advocacy. Woodrow Wilson gave it federal status with Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916. In 1919, it became Lafayette National Park after the Marquis de Lafayette. However, in 1929, the park became Acadia National Park after the French colony of Acadia , which occupied the region for awhile (Mount Desert almost became a Canadian province — a very interesting story). John D. Rockefeller Jr. furthered the enhancements of Acadia with carriage roads and “Rockefeller teeth,” square boulders that line the roadways for travelers’ and nature’s safety. Most of Acadia National Park has been preserved as it was found, its natural beauty intact thanks to many careful and considerate people of the past. Just add visitors. (Wikipedia, “Acadia Weekly”)
Acadia National Park is home to Cadillac Mountain, with the highest peak on the east coast. It is also the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River. It contains beautiful forests, lakes and ocean shoreline, as well as miles of hiking trails. It embodies Isle au Haut and portions of Baker Island and Schoodic Peninsula, north and around and across from Bar Harbor. And some people consider Somes Sound, which is directly in the middle of the island, the only “fjord” (“fjard” to locals) on the east coast. Acadia National Park encompasses forty-seven thousand acres and sees about two million visitors a year. It is a beautiful, colorful, meandering, tangible national park — a snapshot, if you will, of MidCoast Maine.
And it is a very busy place for such a small island.
Acadia has two main roads — a one-way loop road, which eventually meets up with a two-way loop. Visitors are allowed to stop in the right lane to observe anything they find striking, so other drivers must be alert. Major attractions are Thunder Hole, any of the ocean vistas, Bubble Rock, Jordan Pond and Cadillac Mountain. This small park — with tour buses, public transportation, hikers, bikers, stopping-and-starting vehicles, indecisive drivers, beautiful scenery, bucket loads of cruise ship passengers, carriage roads and more — makes for moderately harrowing navigation. However, for a twenty-five dollar, seven-day pass, one could do a lot in Acadia, especially if lodging in the park. If you can tolerate traffic, lines and a bit of organized chaos and have some money to spend, Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, Maine, just might be the place for you.
In fact, this trip began with us staying in Blackwoods Campground, a rustic campground off-the-grid in the national park. But it was growing colder in Maine, and we had begun to use our propane-fueled heater. We also stayed in Rockport for longer than we had planned. By the time we entered Mount Desert Island, we needed some utilities, including WiFi, and settled on a campground that had been on our radar ever since we set foot in Maine. We went to Hadley’s Point Campground on the north side of Mount Desert Island, and it turned out to be the highlight of our trip.
Camping in a Pleasant Neighborhood Near a Secluded Ocean Beach Has Its Benefits
There are so many things to consider when camping at a place like Mount Desert Island. There is the time of year: In summer, one books way in advance; if it’s off-season, one considers temperature. There are camping options in the national park, or north, south, east or west. There are campgrounds with full hookups, partial hookups or no hookups. There are corporate campgrounds and family-run campgrounds. Campground owners come in all varieties. There are campgrounds that offer online reservations, and those that don’t. Paved, pools, playgrounds; oceanside, forested, near or far. For us, our camping options were narrowed by three factors: We needed a campground that was open until Columbus Day (many close by then), had at least a partial hookup and was in the vicinity of 4G so that Scot could work a little. Based on reviews and location, Hadley’s Point Campground was our home for five days.
Hadley’s is a beautiful campground with space for every kind of camper, including many brand new cabins. There are wide-open fields for kids, picnics and church service on Sunday; very secluded tent sites way back in the woods; and cozy sites for big rigs that utilize full hookups. The staff is loaded with information as well as ample brochures to support them, and they are all very kind. All of their facilities are clean and modern. There were two playgrounds, and Luna had lots of roadway and trails for riding her stick horse. It was a great stay.
Furthermore, just about a quarter-mile down the road from the campground is Hadley’s Point Beach, a calmer, secluded side of the ocean. We saw magnificent sunsets there. An occasional family would set up a small fire to dine at dusk. Other folks parked their cars and joined along in watching the changing skyline. Most people hustle and cram to see the sun go down around Mount Desert Island on Cadillac Mountain, but we had our own private show. It was spectacular.
There are many, many lodging options on Mount Desert Island. If we return, we will stay in Acadia in order to experience more of nature on the island. Blackwoods Campground is a rustic camground on the east side of the island near Thunder Hole. In retrospect, I’m glad that we didn’t stay there, because it is so congested. Seawall Campground is on the west side of the island, and many folks have told us that it perfect in its seclusion and nearness to the ocean and trails. However, there is a new campground on Schoodic Peninsula called Schoodic Woods Campground. Recently opened in September 2015 and closing Columbus Day, it will reopen on a regular basis when the season begins. It offers ninety campsites, water and electric service and more on a first-come, first-served basis. This is a great option for campers seeking a slightly modern, more remote camping experience away from the congestion and within the national park boundaries. This appeals to us.
As we ended our time on Mount Desert Island and headed to our next “destiny,” we discussed how we felt about our time there. Luna said it was not “magic,” but that it was “nice.” Scot and I agreed. We had a good time; we were glad that we had visited, but it is not our style. The congestion, the rush to see things, the paths well-traveled don’t give way for as much creativity and adventure, at least they don’t for us. Furthermore, we had been completely enthralled and spoiled by five weeks in the other part of MidCoast Maine in Rockport. There we took day trips and visited our special places on our own time without lines or haste. It wasn’t a snapshot of Maine, it was an entire chapter of it. Traveling to Mount Desert Island extended our time on the coast, but it didn’t enhance it.
With all of that information, it made us think a lot about how others travel. What is it that one seeks when going somewhere and immersing oneself in a culture, a setting, an idea? Are you low and slow, free and easy, high, mighty or able? Do you need a snippet, a snapshot, a sonnet or a song? Do you want to be challenged or guided? Do you want a path less-traveled or more? We know that joy can come from anywhere: What might not be so awesome for us may be an utter delight for others. No matter what, travel exposes. If you are able to wait a little while or look a little further, you just might see the bottom of the ocean or a super secret sunset. Or maybe what you get is what is available to you in the time that you have, and that is just enough, too. Either way, the ability to see how the rest of the world is doing is okay by us.
We are grateful for our time in Acadia. The coast of Maine is simply beautiful.