I originally kicked off this post with the following sentence: I’ve been fortunate to have visited many U.S. national parks over my six years of travel.
But as you guys know, I’m all about preemptively calling myself out on my bullshit, so I was immediately all like, hang on a minute! How many national parks have you actually been to, Lauren?
The answer is five.
Of the nine cumulative months I’ve spent in the States, I’ve only managed to take a look around Big Bend, the Grand Canyon, the Hawaii Volcanoes, Saguaro, and Yosemite. (Dave told me I couldn’t count Mount Rainer, despite having looked at it several times while in Seattle.)
Acadia National Park makes six.
It’s a pitiful showing for someone who’s now been to 20 states, as well as a reminder to do better on my future American travels.
But this post isn’t about my failings as a traveller.
(It’s clearly about my failings as a travel writer to create a coherent blog post.)
No — it’s about how Acadia National Park is my new favourite national park, and how it was one of the highlights of my 2017 travels.
Ahem. Here we go again: yes, I am aware that every single trip I’ve taken this year has resulted in me labelling that experience as my biggest travel highlight, but hey, it’s been an exceptionally good year for me.
WHAT EVEN IS THIS BLOG POST?
Let’s try again.
It was the drive alongside Maine’s coastline that had me itching to spend my summers in New England. I wanted every August to be full of salt-tinged air, spent island-hopping across secluded beaches and wandering the streets of impossibly adorable towns. As I fell in love with stop after stop on our meander north from Portland, I pushed back our arrival time in Acadia by an hour and then one more until the sky was turning a vibrant shade of pink.
Suddenly, getting to our isolated B&B was trickier than I’d expected with only our car’s headlights to guide us along the unlit gravel paths.
Still, life was good. With the windows down and the perfect level of chill in the air, Planet Money in our ears and the scent of fresh pine trees hanging on the breeze, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so much joy and gratitude for the life I’d built myself.
It didn’t last long.
Within minutes of pulling up outside the B&B, Steve, the owner, was inadvertently filling my stomach with guilt.
“You know,” he started out. “Every one of our guests who’ve spent day or two here told us they regret not staying longer.”
I’d feared this to be the case ahead of time, of course — it’s practically a guarantee when it comes to me and travel — but we had so much we wanted to see in New England and so little time with which to see it in. I’d hoped two nights would be enough for us to get a feel for the park before moving on, but after being directed towards the enormous map showcasing the wealth of trails in the area, I already knew we were going to leave with a promise to return in the future.
We quickly learned that Steve was Mr Acadia National Park. He’d been living on the island for a couple of years now, after having spent many more hiking there while living in his hometown of Boston. He was even on a mission to hike every single trail in the park and was impressively close to reaching his goal. Subsequently, he was an incredible source of information, and had we been staying with him for closer to a week, I have no doubt his advice would have been worth the $85-a-night cost alone.
As Dave and I gaped up at the detailed map on the wall, Steve began to reel off his favourite parts of the park. Which trails had yet to be discovered by tourists; where to climb to get a good overview of the park; the toughest hike with the most rewarding views; the flattest trail that’d be good for unfit travellers.
I glanced over at Dave and could see his head was spinning, too. We had one full day to explore the park and we’d just been handed roughly 238 different options. We decided to mull it over at dinner.
On Steve’s recommendation, we drove to Beale’s, a cosy seafood restaurant in nearby Southwest Harbor that he promised we’d enjoy. It wasn’t hard to see why, as the owners were full of banter, the inside was so well-heated that I wanted to stay for hours, and the communal space was full of locals and tourists alike, all united by their love of Acadia National Park. When you throw in that Beale’s has been serving lobster for 50 years, you have a recipe for a delicious evening spent discussing whether we could flag the rest of our road trip to spend a week in Acadia instead.
By the time I’d made my way through a lobster roll and fallen in love with blueberry mojitos, I was brimming with excitement to see what all the fuss was about.
We opted for an Acadia itinerary that would see us heading out on a handful of moderate, hour-long hikes as we cruised our way around the 27-mile loop road that encompasses much of the park. Mount Desert Island, where the park is located, is divided into the busier side of the island in the east and the rarely-visited area, where we were staying, in the west — we’d usually opt for the latter on our travels, but with just one day to explore, we wanted to see what draws the tourists.
We splashed out on the $25 entrance fee, lathered up with sunscreen and insect repellent, and pulled up at our first destination of the day: The Bowl Trail.
It was an intermediate but short trail, coming in at under a mile but marked by a continuous ascent for much of the trek. Coming to the park on a weekday outside of the school holidays and popular summer season worked in our favour here, as despite this being a pretty popular hike, we only passed one other couple on our climb. I have no doubt this part of Acadia would have been swarming with hikers had we opted to visit several months earlier.
The Bowl is the name of the glacial lake that marks the end of the trail, and it’s one of the few lakes in the park you can swim in. Given that we visited in early-October, this wasn’t something I was prepared to add and then cross off my travel wishlist, no matter how adventurous my travels have been this year.
Instead, Dave and I snacked on a bag of wasabi-coated almonds and sunned ourselves beside the lake for half an hour, already enjoying our leisurely take on how to tackle Acadia in a single day.
From the Bowl, we walked westwards and on to the Champlain South Ridge Trail.
Mount Champlain offers one of the trickiest hikes in the park — the Precipice trail is essentially a climb straight up a vertical cliff-face — but the South Ridge Trail is the easier route when it comes to ascending the mountain. We climbed half-way up to take a photo of one of the best views of the park, then descended to take on one of the most popular hikes in the park.
Gorham Mountain attracts hordes of tourists as it’s a fairly easy climb that offers some of the best views of the park. At this time of year, though? We only ran into half a dozen people on the ascent.
We walked alone for the most part, gazing down at the rocky coastline while marvelling at how our hiking shoes hugged the granite. It’s super-easy to walk on granite, I discovered, and although the rocks get slippery when wet, they offered nothing but grip on this sunny autumn day.
In short, on this hike, I wasn’t as nervous as I normally am about falling flat on my face while walking. Can I tread on granite for the rest of my life?
Maybe I should superglue a slab of it to the bottom of my shoes?
We reached the summit in under an hour and, thanks to the baldness of Mount Gorham, were hit with 360 degree views over the national park. The views were so breathtaking that this spot would have made for an excellent lunch destination, except we didn’t bring a lunch with us. Definitely a hiking best practice, right?
We had the summit to ourselves, save for a couple of families lounging in the sunshine, posing for Instagram shots, and marvelling at the views.
I’d been exploring Acadia for a couple of hours at this point, and I was already prepared to name it my favourite national park. The air was so fresh.
The descent is always far worse than you think it’s going to be.
We moved slowly and cautiously, lowering ourselves down steep drops and pointing out areas that were likely to bring me to my knees. The ocean remained within our sights for much of the downward climb and acted as a reminder for why Maine was fast becoming my favourite state in the country. There’s something about the sea breeze in this state that feels so healing, and I longed to capture it in a bottle to inhale whenever I next fell ill.
We reached sea level with no major injuries and began our walk back to where we’d parked our rental car. We were creating our own mini-loop here and had roughly a mile to wander along the coast to take us back to where we’d started. As we walked, we kept an eye out for seals, checked out Thunder Hole — a blowhole that was about as exciting as the one I saw in the Catlins — and pondered why it took us so long to get to Acadia National Park. After all, it had everything we love in a destination.
The creatively-named Sand Beach was the next destination on our Acadia itinerary, and while it had looked on the verge of tropical from the top of Mount Gorham, we were soon to discover it was actually home to gale-force gusts.
The sand whipped around us as we padded across the beach before attempting to seek shelter from an overly-exposed rock. Wincing, Dave and I gulped down a handful of sandy wasabi almonds and narrowly made it back to our car before succumbing to frost bite.
It was a gorgeous beach from afar, but on an October afternoon, the winds were chilling and fierce. We set off in search of more adventure.
We stopped off at Jordan Pond House for a coffee to warm our frozen fingers then made our way over to the start of the Jordan Pond Path. This three mile loop around Jordan Pond — the deepest and clearest lake in Acadia — is flat, easy, and sounded like the perfect way to round off our time in the park before sunset.
This lake is most well known for offering one of the best views of the Bubbles. North and South Bubble are basically just two mountains that sort-of-but-not-really look like bubbles. They’re well-known to Acadia lovers, though, so I knew I needed to check them out before we called it a day.
As we approached a nearby viewpoint that would offer the perfect Bubble shot, I grabbed my camera in anticipation. I began to skip down the boat ramp towards the water but somehow managed to get my legs tangled up together and — oh god, this didn’t feel good — abort! Abort! Abort!
Before I knew it, a rock was scraping the skin from my nose and I had a searing pain in my right knee.
I had fallen down again.
While Dave blinked down at me in disbelief, I writhed on the ground like a premiership footballer in the penalty box.
“It hurts so much,” I whimpered up at him. “Why does it hurt?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
I’d managed to land directly onto a sharp rock with my kneecap, which, given how knobbly my knees are, have little to protect them. Damn it, it hurt.
I rolled on to my side on the ramp and grabbed at my knee, waiting for the pain to pass.
Usually the pain passes.
Shouldn’t the searing end within seconds?
I couldn’t help but think about how my planned hiking trip around New England was now slipping from my grasp. How could I hike in New Hampshire the following day if my knee felt as though it was broken?
And that mishap marked the end of our time in Acadia!
When the pain dulled slightly, I was able to pull myself up and stagger slowly to the edge of Jordan Pond to take my Bubble photo, then shuffled my way back to the car and back to the B&B.
It was not, shall we say, the perfect end to a perfect day.
It was, however, a very Lauren end to a perfect day.
I want to say that Acadia felt like the most underrated place I’ve been to in the U.S., but that’s based on nothing more than me personally knowing nothing about it before I arrived. I don’t know anybody who’s ever been, I never hear anyone talking about it or adding it to their bucket lists or excitedly insisting you have to visit, and I probably couldn’t have even told you where it was before I started planning our road trip.
Plus, I have evidence that the statement I wanted to make above was all anecdotal and zero fact and that’s because Acadia is one of the ten most visited national parks in the U.S., seeing three million visitors every year.
So maybe it’s not underrated and maybe I just never paid attention whenever people spoke about Acadia, but I guess that just proves that even the most popular spots on the planet can feel like new discoveries to somebody out there.
Either that or I’m an ill-informed traveller.
It’s probably the latter.
That’s enough self-deprecation for one blog post! I love Acadia National Park, and if you haven’t been before, you should totally add it to your future travel plans. I know I’m already planning to return next summer.