I’m always surprised at the people I talk to who live in Massachusetts and have never visited Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert in Maine. Yes, it’s a six hour drive from where we live (not including stops) and yes, I hear the area is pretty crazy-crowded with people in the summer. But there’s spring, when not nearly so many folks are there. It’s cooler (for me a huge plus) and the mountains and ocean nestle against one another like no other place on the each coast. The forty-eight miles of carriage roads within the park are waiting to offer off-road walking and cycling experiences, with stunning views of the mountains and the ocean and fresh-water ponds, all in one outing.
We have visited often enough that we have some favorite spots to head back to that we know offer easy footing for me and, as it turned out, older family members who joined us for part of our visit. Those places that are the most popular for avid hikers are not “Easy Walks,” and so we have slowly accumulated places that, while not isolated, are less traveled and thus more enjoyable for us. Many are on what’s called the “quiet side” of the island, on the west side of Somes Sound. National Park properties are on this side of the island as well, but are not nearly as busy, at least when we visit in late May.
Folks flock to Sand Beach, near Otter Cliffs, but another fresh water swimming beach area to consider is Echo Lake, which is not only handicapped-accessible, it has a wooden deck all the way to the shoreline to allow those who have trouble walking to get out to the waterline.
We spent time at Beech Cliffs, which has what I call a handicapped “friendly” trail that leads up to stunning views of the island. The path does not meet ADA guidelines (it’s the outdoors–cliffs without an elevator are simply not going to offer the gentle sloping required to meet the ADA requirements) but for those looking for smooth footing, the path from the parking area works quite well for many of us. At the top of the cliffs, the rocks are smooth, but one needs to take great care since the drop off is sharp. Traveling with a supportive hiking companion who is able to lend a solid arm for balance is essential to safely enjoying this special trail.
From the same parking area at the end of Beech Cliffs road, we discovered yet another trail that is much more handicapped friendly (at least for the first quarter mile). The Valley trail appears to have been a cart path at one time–broad, mostly flat, and quite easy to navigate.
The park service has done some extensive trail work recently to make this trail more accessible, and while it gets rougher after the fork (to the left the path leads back up to the cliffs on a very steep trail, while to the right the path is better than in the past, but not as friendly for those of us with balance issues.) Some stone steps have been built that bring the walker into a dark glen filled with huge boulders. Ferns clothe the rocks, and the path traverses some lovely wetlands.
Because the path travels between two very steep mountains, the area is shaded much of the time. As we walked, the boulders got larger and more jumbled. My husband had visited this path before me, so he knew the surprise awaiting us. He stopped and pointed. Squatting down, we spied ice filling the crevices underneath the boulders. An ice cave!
Yes it was May. Probably by mid-summer this ice will be gone. But for now, on a late afternoon walk, we were not anywhere near a glacier, and yet there was the sense of peering into a world that was quite different than where we had just been walking.
We tend to stay away from the park’s most popular spots, Jordan Pond being among the best known to many visitors (oh…the popovers at the Jordan Pond House restaurant–yum!) We visited on opening day at the restaurant, and even then there was a wait. We certainly are not the only folks who have learned that May is a great time to visit the park.
But after our lunch, overlooking Jordan Pond, we took a walk, and followed the path of Jordan Stream, which is the outlet at the south end of the pond. The stream flows directly out to Seal Harbor on the south side of the island. But near Jordan Pond a carriage road tracks the banks of the stream. We had never visited this carriage road, mostly because we typically avoid super popular places when we spend time on the island. The Jordan Stream carriage road follows the flowing brook as it tumbles down a series of small waterfalls on its way to the sea. The steadily flowing water offers the comforting music that is so evocative of mountain streams, and is ever-present as you follow the carriage path.
We spent another morning riding our tandem bike to the top of Day Mountain, which offers stunning views of the Cranberry islands, just off shore to the south of Mt. Desert Island. The e-assist on our tandem made the difference between laboring miserably and enjoying the ride with all the weight we must carry to keep me safe from overheating (even on a spring day–yeah, there are real challenges to having comprised body temperature control). We made it to the top, pulled out our picnic lunch, and took in the views.
On our way back down we spotted an eagle soaring overhead. We saw eagles almost every day during our visit. In the past we could count on the eagles hanging out at the Somesville library (no–not for the books–there is a fish ladder directly next to the library at the head of Somes Sound–in the spring eagles often hang out there for an easy lunch). Whether it was simply poor timing on our part, or the eagles have found better feeding grounds elsewhere, this visit produced no eagle sightings in this usual spot. But we saw them elsewhere, even right overhead where we stayed at Somes Sound.
Yes, the weather can get pretty chilly in May at Acadia National Park–if you visit this early you will do well to bring cold weather gear. At some time, especially if it turns rainy, you will be glad you did. But at least for this year, we had only one day when it felt raw. Bring your binoculars, your hiking boots, walking sticks, and a comfortable backpack. If you have bikes, bring them along! If you have kayaks, bring them, and enjoy the easy access to Echo Lake or Long Pond. If you don’t have bikes or kayaks, they are available to rent right on the island. Dress in layers since you will be putting on and peeling off shirts and jackets as you travel. Expect the unexpected. And travel with a grateful heart that this special place has been preserved for us all.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress. She is a co-author of the recent community history, Bellingham Now and Then