Acadia National Park’s eye-popping nature

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Glenda C. Booth

Thunder Hole is a popular attraction in Acadia National Park. At high tide, waves roll into the granite channel, forcing out compressed air from the back with a thunderous roar. Water surges up to 40 feet high. Visitors can take steps down to an observation point next to the chasm.
Kurdistan/Shutterstock

In Maine’s Acadia National Park, you can go from soaring granite mountains to cobblestone beaches, from windy headlands to quiet tide pools, from subalpine creatures to sea urchins — and reward yourself with luscious popovers.

Popovers in a national park? Acadia is best known for its stunning natural resources. But since the 1870s, the park’s Jordan Pond House Restaurant has served baked popovers slathered with Maine strawberry jam and butter at afternoon tea — a tradition begun when teahouses catered to upper crust, summer visitors.

This year, over 350 partners are celebrating the park’s centennial with events all year — including Acadia-themed poetry and art, a science symposium, an exhibit in nearby Bar Harbor’s Abbe Museum about the native Wabanaki people, plus many guided hikes and ranger programs. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Acadia’s 6,000 acres in 1916 have grown to 49,000 today, taking up almost half of Mount Desert Island off the central coast of Maine, where the park is located.

Sculpted by glaciers

Glaciers carved the lobster-claw-shaped island 15,000 years ago. The ice sheet was well over a mile high and stretched 200 miles seaward to the continental shelf and south to Long Island, New York. Glaciers (naturalist John Muir called them “silent sculptors”) molded the island’s landscape — its pink granite mountains, lakes, rivers, beaches, dense forests, bogs and meadows.

They left behind what geologists call “glacial erratics” — rocks of all shapes and sizes, some weighing up to 42 tons — as well as the only true fjord in the lower 48 states, today called Sommes Sound, which splits Mount Desert Island down the middle.

The park’s eastern boundary is the Atlantic Ocean, where waves crash and massage the rugged shoreline, and 12-foot tides come and go twice a day. The sea glistens, and on some days a gauzy blanket of fog descends, adding to the allure.

Acadia was the first national park created east of the Mississippi River, and today is the only national park in the Northeast. It was the first to have land donated entirely by private citizens.

Frederic Church and Thomas Cole painted Acadia’s landscapes in the mid-1800s. Twenty-four movies, including The Cider House Rules, were shot in the park. From the highest point on the U.S. East Coast, Cadillac Mountain (1,540 feet), you can be the first to see the sun rise in the U.S.

Park origins

Hunter-gatherers, who once plied the ocean in canoes, left behind clam shell middens, or dumps, and other clues about their presence.

The Wabanaki greeted the first European explorers in the 1500s, when Giovanni da Verrazano named the area “L’Acadie.” The French and British battled over the region for 150 years, with the British finally winning. But the name of one Frenchman, Antoine de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, stuck, and the island’s tallest mountain is named after him.

In the late 1800s, America’s wealthy began to summer at nearby Bar Harbor in their mansions (which they amusingly referred to as “cottages”) — families like the Rockefellers, Morgans, Astors, Fords, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers. A group of them, also called “rusticators,” formed a land trust in 1901 to protect the island from development and logging, and donated land to the trust.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson designated 5,000 donated acres as Sieur de Monts National Monument. As land donations continued to enlarge the park, Congress made it a national park in 1919, and in 1929, it was named Acadia.

Thanks to John D. Rockefeller, Acadia has an intricate network of “carriage roads,” 45 miles of crushed stone roads, and 17 stone bridges, built between 1913 and 1940.

Designers blended the roads with nature and preserved native trees and plants along the way. On the roadsides are 43,012 rectangular chunks of granite, quarried locally and cut by hand, known as “Rockefeller’s teeth.”

Diverse flora and fauna


Acadia National Park offers ranger-narrated boat tours that visit nearby islands and explore natural and cultural history.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Acadia is all about nature, the obvious and the obscure, from awesome landscapes to delicate ecosystems. A rich diversity of life thrives from the sea to the summits. Acadia is a place to get out of the car, open your eyes and explore.

Visitors, from casual walkers to tri-athletes, can venture out on 130 miles of trails to enjoy hiking, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and horseback riding. Most visitors soak in the scenery by driving the 20-mile park loop road, boarding the free Island Explorer shuttle bus, or taking a guided bus tour.

The park has at least 165 plant species, 60 land and marine animals, and over 150 breeding birds, including loons. People often see deer, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, otters, bobcats, black bears, moose and beavers.

Along the shore, under the kelp, are crabs, sea urchins, sea anemones, sea stars and jellyfish. The park has 23 different kinds of moss, with names like moose moss and reindeer moss, and is the southern limit for many flowering boreal plants that grow in Canada and parts of Alaska.

Dazzling scenery never fails to impress, from the granite coastline to 17 mountain peaks, marshes, lakes, ponds, birch and aspen forests, and offshore islands.

Clearly, a highlight is ascending to the top of Cadillac Mountain on a corkscrew, white-knuckle-inducing road. In the summit’s subalpine environment, pink granite boulders are mostly bare except for tiny, stubby vegetation and spruce trees gnarled by the wind. The 360-degree panoramas are breathtaking.

The offshore Porcupine Islands look like puffy green pin cushions. With binoculars, you might spot a seal or porpoise. At the top, it can be cool and windy, but on sunny days, the sun is intense and the ocean sparkles.

Some visitors hear Thunder Hole before they see it. At low tide, the granite channel can be deceptively quiet, merely gurgling. But when the tide rises, the waves roll into the chasm, compressing air in the back. When the air is forced out, it sounds like an ominous thunder clap. Roaring water can surge as high as 40 feet. As one Mainer put it, “Thundah Hole, there’s a lotta watah at high tide.”

A more peaceful spot is Little Hunters Beach, a sheltered cove lined entirely with cobblestones polished by the surf. On this rock-bound coast, Sand Beach is the only sand beach on the park’s ocean side. Technically, it’s a cold-water, calcareous beach — a sand of shell fragments carried from and crushed by the pounding ocean. Here, most visitors are content to sunbathe because the water rarely gets above 55 degrees. 

For the park’s and National Park Service’s centennial, Acadia has named its own poet laureate, Christian Barter, who said, “It’s a place where you have the opportunity to be humbled, and you can seize it if you want to.”

It is a place with power. It is also a place of peace. Maureen Young, from Pittsburgh, found Acadia “soothing.” “It made me feel peaceful,” she said, “at one with nature.”

After popovers, you can find peace in some eye-popping nature, granular and grand, in Acadia.

When to go

The park is open year-round, but some services are closed from late October to mid-May. Summer high temperatures average 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and fall to 50 to 60 degrees in autumn. Winter is long, usually from November to April.

Seasonal highlights: In the spring, wildflowers bloom, loons and other birds mate, and young peregrine falcons take flight. Hibernating animals awaken.

In the summer, the most crowded season, parking is competitive, and lines may form at popular sites. More wildflowers burst forth, warblers raise their young, and bird-watching peaks. There are many ranger programs.

Fall brings brilliant foliage, warm days and cool nights. Birds pass through en route to southern wintering grounds. In winter, adventurous types cross country ski. Up to five feet of snow can coat the park.

There are many lodging and restaurant choices in the nearby towns of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor (known as the “quiet side”), and Northeast Harbor.

The park has two campgrounds. See these sites for more information about these areas: www.BarHarborMaine.com, www.visitsouthwestharbor.com, and http://visitmaine.com/places-to-go/ downeast-and-acadia.

Bangor Airport is 45 miles away; Portland’s airport, 165 miles. American flies nonstop to Bangor from Reagan National Airport. The lowest roundtrip fare in mid-August is $343.

Visit these websites for more information about the park: www.nps.gov/acad/ index.htm, www.acadiacentennial2016.org and www.friendsofacadia.org.