Two Whirlwind Days in Acadia National Park: Day 1

By Charleen - September 05, 2021

With Hurricane Henri sending drenching rains as we drove north into the Boston area, we were not sure how our brief visit to Acadia National Park afterwards would turn out. Fortune smiled on us and we enjoyed two mostly rain-free days that left us tired and highly satisfied. Highlights included climbing the Beehive and part of Champlain ridge before the drizzle, closeup seal sightings while kayaking, and misty vistas on the carriage road around Witch Hole Pond before another wave of rain set in.

View of Newport Bay from southern point of the Great Head
About midway up the Beehive
Wild blueberries on the backside of the Beehive
Seagull gazing out at the coast along Park Loop Road 

Acadia National Park has been on our bucket list since photographer David Muench's 2005 National Parks book came out. After dropping our daughter off at college, my husband and I were able to spend two short, but highly satisfying days in the Bar Harbor area of Mount Desert Island.

Our drive through central and eastern Pennsylvania had been marked by extremely heavy rainfall, side effect of Hurricane Henri, and we had to progress slowly due to poor visibility and hydroplaning. Rather than staying through the weekend in Boston to await the possible hit from hurricane storms on Sunday, we decided to drive up to Acadia National Park. While we hoped to get above the worst of the storms, forecasters were raising the possibility that the Maine coast might be hit for the first time in 30 years!

We were able to make last minute reservations at the Days Inn Bar Harbor. This is a conveniently located motel, with neat clean rooms, a king size bed, continental breakfast with microwave for heating sausage biscuits or oatmeal packets, and friendly staff.  I am not sure why it got such terrible ratings, but that undoubtedly helped us get a room in late August. The room had a little sitting area, a refrigerator, a safe and a wall mounted, somewhat noisy but operational, air conditioning unit.
Days Inn Bar Harbor

Day 1. 

Beating the crowds at Sand Beach, Great Head, Beehive & the Champlain South Ridge Trail.

We know a family that travels to Acadia every summer, and the first hike they like to do is the Great Head Trail, followed by the Beehive. According to the Falcon Guide to Hiking Acadia National Park, going early in the morning or later in the afternoon is ideal for these popular locations. We also selected the Champlain Ridge Trail for its coastal views, as it is the closest mountain range to the east coast of Mount Desert Island. 

The Days Inn where we stayed had a little note indicating they had shifted their breakfast time to 6-9 am to better accommodate visitors wishing to view the sunrise. So we got up at 5:30, walked down the road to the Atlantic Oceanside hotel to get closer to the shore, only to find it was too foggy to see the sun rise at 5:43 am. 
No sunrise on a foggy morning
At breakfast, we bought our park passes online, and the front desk clerk helped us with printing the pass so that we could begin enjoying the park before the Visitor Centers opened at 8 am.

We arrived at the Sand Beach parking lot just before 7 am. There were very few cars there, and aside from one other couple, we had the entire beach to ourselves. To the south of the parking area, we could see the famous pink granite stretching from the west end of the beach down towards Thunder Hole. We walked east along the beach towards the trailhead for the Great Head. 
The west end of Sand Beach
Natural sand patterns resembling Chinese landscape paintings of mountains

Although it was misty with relatively short visibility, we thoroughly enjoyed the saturated shades of green plant-life, grey granite with regions of yellow-tan and pink granite, and white crested ocean waves breaking gently upon the rocks. 

At the southern point of Great Head, it was too foggy to see the Old Soaker rock formation that diverts the current to allow one of only a few cold water, shell-based sand beaches in the world.
Southern point of Great Head
View east from the southern point of Great Head

It took 50 minutes with lots of photo breaks to reach the ruins of an abandoned tea house at the eastern point of Great Head, and 30 minutes to return to Sand Beach. 
East point of Great Head with ruins of old teahouse
From beginning of Great Head stem loop trail back to Sand Beach parking lot

By 8:30 am, the parking lot was about 3/4 full, and there were many more people along Sand Beach.

We crossed the Park Loop Road to find the combined trailhead for the Bowl and the Beehive trails at about 8:50 am. A sign indicates that you are entering a wilderness area, and we were pleased to find that we had the trail all to ourselves again. 

This initial segment of the trail, which is shared before the branch point for the Bowl and Beehive trails, is not very steep, but you have to pick your way carefully due to many boulders that litter the way. 

My husband was intrigued by the Precipice Trail leading up to Mount Cadillac. I was not so sure. He had completed the Mud on the Mountain challenge (7.7 miles, 1063 elevation gain with over 25 obstacles), followed by the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge (over 35 miles, 7000 elevation gain). I, on the other hand, am always lagging behind especially going downhill, which I attribute to growing up traversing concrete sidewalks in Los Angeles county. These are a joy to roller skate due to their extreme flat, smoothness, but I never had to develop the coordination to handle uneven terrain. 

So we compromised by agreeing to try the shorter Beehive trail before making any decisions on Precipice. Although the air and ground were misty and damp, the rocks did not feel too slippery, and the first iron rungs that we tested likewise felt solid without being slippery.  So up the Beehive we went. The dropoffs and narrow ledges were shrouded in fog and there was not a single other soul on the trail.  Thus, we were able to take our time and enjoy the ascent.
At the trail junction. Right for the steep way up the face of the Beehive; Left for the longer way up around the back.
The blue blazes say to go up the face of this formation.

The trail is well marked with blue blazes that indicate the direction you should go. There are some sections with rock steps carved into the side of the rock. After about 5-6 minutes, we reached the first area where the blazes appeared to go straight up the side of the rock, and after you ascend this area, you come to a metal grate bridge.  Another 2-3 minutes took us to the beginning of the metal rungs. 

The trail zig zags across the face of the beehive, so don't wander too far away from blue blazes. There were a couple of places where my husband, in the lead, did not know where to go. But from my vantage point down below, I could point him towards the next blazes. 
The railing on the left is very helpful for keeping yourself pulled in against the mountain.

There is a scary section with a railing set into the rock to help you sidle across a narrow ledge with a log.  After about 17-18 minutes, this was followed by more stairs to a narrow crossing ledge with no rails. We took photos of each other from either side of this, before reaching a wooden bridge. 
Beehive ledge looking forward
Beehive ledge looking backward
Beehive rungs near the top, looking up
Beehive rungs near the top, looking down

Once we reached the summit at 9:36 am, marked by a post, about 38 minutes after we started, we were a little disoriented as to which direction to proceed off the broad top of the Beehive.  Then we spotted the cairn pointing the way to the more gradual descent down the rounded face of the Beehive.  

A post marks the summit
The Bates Cairns are often the only structure pointing out which direction to go along the tops of ridges, which can be so broad you cannot tell which way to continue. Above, Champlain South Ridge Trail.

The Acadia cairns, named after Waldron Bates, a Harvard graduate and chair of the Path Committee of the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association, devised a method of using 4 or 5 rocks to mark the direction of the trail when traversing granite mountain tops. Some of these cairns have reportedly been standing since the late 19th century. 
The back of the Beehive allows for a more gradual descent
It was along this descent that we encountered the first couple of people that we saw. Rather than returning down the Bowl trail to finish the loop to the parking lot, we kept going towards the lake so that we could take the Champlain South Ridge Trail. 
The Bowl - a lake at the junction of the Bowl and Champlain South Ridge Trails
The early part of the Champlain Ridge Trail traces the lakeshore, and is set attractively along two-plank wide boardwalks that trace the shore. Of note, these wooden planks were pretty slippery.  
Boardwalks along the edge of the lake
Close up of lichens, moss and other plantlife
About 30 minutes into the Champlain South Ridge Trail, you get to some areas that require a bit of scrambling to get up the large boulder steps. 
A bit of scrambling is needed on parts of the Champlain South Ridge trail
It is important not to alter or disturb the Bates cairns, as they were often the only markers to indicate how to safely traverse several of the mountain tops.
When it started drizzling, we decided to turn back
At around 10:50 am, we had gone a bit over a mile along the trail and decided to turn around as it had started drizzling. We did not read the signpost back at the beginning of the trail carefully enough to realize that we were only 0.6 miles from the summit, or we might have continued.
Closeup of the forest floor on the Bowl trail back to the parking area.
By the time we returned to the Bowl Trail around 11:30, the entire mood of the place had changed.  It had become a moderately crowded and noisy trail. We could hear a bunch of people on the Beehive, which rose as a barely visible shadow that did not show up on my photos. 

Fighting the crowds at Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Jordan Pond before giving up to seek Lobster.

Not only was the Sandy Beach parking lot completely full, by noon there were tons of cars parked in the right lane of the two lane Park Loop Rd for as far as you could see.  
Parking near Thunder Hole Gift Shop
We drove down the road for a ways before we found a parking spot near the Thunder Hole gift shop.  There was a line to enter the gift shop. They did not have the type of mugs that my husband has been collecting from National Parks, but the lady indicated that the Jordan Lake gift shop had a much larger selection. There were people all around Thunder Hole. But it was after the high tide and there was no thunder to be heard.
Thunder Hole, and video looking north from Thunder Hole
On top of Thunder Hole
A bit further down the road, we stopped to view the Otter Cliffs from Newport Cove. 
Otter Cliffs
Then, we naively thought we would check the Jordan Lake gift shop and maybe even enjoy an afternoon tea there. The lot was full, so my husband dropped me off to check out the gift shop, while he drove to the overflow lot down the street. Unfortunately, there was a long line to everything in this area. We had no cell phone service so I could not tell him skip trying to park and to come get me.  As it turned out, the overflow lot was also full, so he drove back to find me waiting by the shuttle stop.

We decided to venture back to Bar Harbor for lunch, stopping at a scenic pullout for a fantastic view of Eagle Lake around 1:30 pm.
Eagle Lake from Park Loop Road
If we had another day, we would try climbing the Bubble peaks, followed by a late afternoon visit to Jordan Lake.

A scenic, if touristy place for Lobster.  

Parking in Bar Harbor was also a bit difficult, and we were well on our way back out of the town before we found a spot on Main Street -- we noted the parking meter had a maximum of 4 h, and wondered how we would park for our 4 h kayak trip the next morning.  Thankfully, our kayak outfitter had the perfect solution when we stopped in to chat after our lunch.

We had a late lunch at Stewman's Lobster Pound.  They have a fun sign up front, and a relatively short wait for an outdoor table overlooking the docks of the harbor. This table area was covered by an awning, with the ability to lower clear plastic windows to block the wind. 

We ordered the the Downeast Lobster Experience and a second 1 1/4 pound lobster, advertised as being caught right in the harbor. The former came with New England Clam chowder, mussels, corn and potatoes and a blueberry pie. The latter came with corn on the cob. They were attractively presented, but I was disappointed when I tried to eat the claw -- my favorite part of a lobster.  
Downeast Lobster Experience
The lobster was not as good as the ones I have had in Boston and Halifax. Instead of cracking, the shell was soft, and I ended up having to peel the claw open. A ton of sea water poured out, and the claw meat was very small compared to the size of the shell, and tasted watered down without much flavor. The tail was somewhat better. The blueberry pie a la mode was quite tasty. 

After spending over $110 for lunch, we were still faintly hungry, so we sought some ice cream, but were turned off by the scooper wearing his mask well under his nose. 

After reading the dining guide, I think I figured it out. Lobsters come into the harbor to hide among the rocks when they molt. Whereas just before molting, the shell is stuffed full of meat, right after molting, the vulnerable lobster has soaked up as much seawater as it can in order to expand its new shell. That must be why lobsters and crab legs that have shells that bend instead of yielding a satisfying crack tend to be disappointing with meat that tastes watered down.  It literally is. 

While soft shell lobsters are only about 75% of the price of hard shell lobsters at markets such as Parsons Seafood, we were not given a choice at Stewman's. And lobsters harvested in the harbor are more likely to be soft than lobsters caught in traps farther out.

The College of the Atlantic

This small college has a lovely campus right on the shore.  Apparently they only offer one major -- Human Ecology. They have their own gardens, hiking trails down to the shore, and boat dock. Best of all, they have an electric car charger -- The Charger of the Atlantic, which is free and can be reserved on their website.

Dinner at Havana. 

Having had a late lunch, we did not mind waiting until after 8 pm for dinner at Havana. Upon entering the restaurant in the pouring rain, we immediately smelled something good. In retrospect, it was probably their famous seafood paella, but the seater convinced us that it was her favorite appetizer, the Proveleta with andouille added. 

They start off with two tiny amuse bouche bites. In our case, it was a cucumber slice topped with a sliced bit of radish, a grape and some creme fraiche. 

The bread and butter service was fantastic. We got two slices of blueberry corn bread and two slices of a multigrain bread accompanied by a garlic-bean spread, ancho-infused sesame oil, and some cinnamon honey butter. 
Bread, Proveleta, Chicken and Filet
The proveleta was disappointing. Not only was it not the source of the delicious smell upon entry, but also it was difficult to eat. There is a single large slab of bread covered with a huge slab of grilled cheese and mounded with pickled onions, with two large bisected sausages. It was too large to pick up, and the bread was difficult to cut through without knocking all the much softer cheese and toppings off.  I think it would be better served with just the cheese, onions and mustard on the plate, and a side of bread slices that you could slather with the grilled cheese and toppings. And the andouille was likewise hard to cut and did not add to the dish.

My husband ordered the charbroiled filet mignon, reporting that it was perfectly cooked to his liking. It came with a wild mushroom demi glace and roasted brussel sprouts with blue cheese and walnuts, but he left the corn-poblano casserole uneaten.

I ordered the Peruvian marinated chicken breast.  It was well-cooked and tender.  I enjoyed the jalapeno cilantro sauce, fried smashed whole potatoes and red onion slaw, but felt it was a bit salty for my tastes.  

Click here to read about  Day 2. Sea kayaking & Carriage Roads

🐾 Print out your park pass in advance, so you can get to an early start.  
🐾 Visit the popular areas as early as you can, and certainly before 10:00. During the high season, don't bother with the Visiter Centers or Jordan Pond gift shop between 10 am and 3 pm. 
🐾 If all you want is a National Park Service stamp, you may be able to bypass the line for the gift shop if there is a ranger sitting outside with a stamp pad.


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