Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Acadia National Park: Best Hikes and Activities for Kids

Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, is really different from some of the more popular national parks in the western part of the country (including our favorites, Zion and Yellowstone), but its beach and mountain setting gives it a completely unique vibe that we also loved. Here's where you'll find beginner-level via ferrata trails to climb and ocean floors that are exposed during low tide to explore. One important thing to have handy during your visit is a tide calendar that tells you when low and high tides happen during each day, because the water level can play a part in how you enjoy the park.

Another thing to note before visiting Acadia is that you have to buy a parking pass at one of the designated locations or online before driving to any of the trailheads to park. Unlike at most national parks, you don't necessarily have to pass through an entrance station to enter the park. Acadia is spread out all across this part of the region, and you can access the many areas and trails without officially "entering" anything. If you don't want to deal with parking, there's also a free shuttle called the Island Explorer that travels between Bar Harbor and all the major hikes.

And finally, since Acadia is so spread out, it's a good idea to orient the locations you want to visit on a map before you go. Some hikes are very close to Bar Harbor (where you'll likely be staying), while others are located almost an hour away.

What to Do: Sand Beach area

The Sand Beach parking lot is a good starting point for many of the classic Acadia sights, which are connected along a two-mile, one-way hike called Ocean Path. Here's where you'll find the eponymous sand beach where you can hang out and relax for a bit before or after your hike. If you have no interest in resting on a beach, however, I suggest you start your hike along Ocean Path from the Thunder Hole parking lot, which is 0.7 miles past the Sand Beach parking lot. This will cut your hike down to a more manageable 1.3 miles one way.

Thunder Hole is a spot where you can watch the waves rush up a small inlet carved out of the rocky shoreline. When the waves are particularly forceful, water can be thrown up as high as 40 feet in the air, accompanied by a spectacular thundering sound. There's a viewing deck right next to the hole, which is like the splash zone of an amusement park water ride. You can also stand higher up to watch the show from above without fear of getting wet. But you have to get to Thunder Hole at just the right time to see this performance. Go two hours before high tide for maximum effect (here's the tide calendar again).

Continuing down Ocean Path, you'll come to Boulder Beach about a mile later. Here, the shoreline is filled with bowling ball-size rocks that make for fun climbing.

Less than half a mile later is Otter Point, the end of the Ocean Path hike. Here you can take a break and give your kids a snack on the wide, flat granite rocks. There are also tide pools they can explore here. After resting up, just turn around and go back the way you came!

One other hike of note in the Sand Beach area is the Beehive Trail. This hike is the reason why I was interested in coming to Acadia in the first place. It's a vertical, half-mile climb up the side of a peak that includes iron rungs for clambering up.

Now I'll admit that this climb was actually much more dangerous and challenging than I imagined. It's fine for adults who are okay with heights, but because we had our 8- and 10-year-old with us, I was constantly fearing that they were getting too close to the edge of the cliff. They were able to do the whole hike with no problems and even had a lot of fun with it, but I don't know if I'd do it again with kids their age. I was stressed out the whole time.

Fortunately, once you reach the top of the peak, you can hike down the other side of it, which is much less vertiginous and seemed like a walk in the park in comparison.

Still, I was happy that we all challenged ourselves with this hike (and managed to not have any terrible accidents). The views along the path were unbelievable. Where I felt safe enough to pull out my camera, I managed to take some photos.

What to Do: Jordan Pond area

Jordan Pond is gorgeous and there are many ways to view it. The easiest is to take the 3.5-mile Jordan Pond loop that goes around the pond. If 3.5 miles seems like too much for your family, you can, of course, shorten the hike by turning back at any time before the halfway mark!

It's a flat and scenic path that starts and ends at Jordan Pond House, where you can reward yourself with popovers (a delicious and unique baked treat) from the restaurant. The other food is also quite good at Jordan Pond House, especially for a national park restaurant. Make a reservation in advance to significantly cut down on your wait time.

A quick and easy half-mile hike in the area is to the top of South Bubble Mountain (there's also a North Bubble Mountain). Here's where you'll find an enormous boulder called Bubble Rock, which appears to be precariously perched on a ledge — but there's definitely no budging Bubble Rock!

After reaching this lookout point, turn around and head back the way you came. Don't do what we did and continue along the trail, toward Jordan Pond. This way is a sheer descent down the face of the cliff, and it was challenging to say the least! I'm just happy we all made it to the bottom in one piece.

For a completely different Acadia experience in the Jordan Pond area, take a horse-drawn carriage ride along the carriage roads of the park.

Carriages of Acadia at Wildwood Stables runs tours twice a day, and it feels like you've traveled back in time as you ride down the quiet roads built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. You can really imagine what it was like in the past, when everyone traveled by horses along roads like these.

What to Do: Bass Harbor area

The biggest reason for driving almost an hour from Bar Harbor to the Bass Harbor area is to take a picture of the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. This is the iconic lighthouse that you'll see when you google Acadia National Park. You can't go into the lighthouse itself, but you can walk down a path from the parking lot for about five minutes to view the lighthouse in the near distance.

We serendipitously drove up to the lighthouse just as the sun was starting its descent, resulting in some amazing photos that I took while completely blinded by the sunlight  I really had no idea how they turned out until I viewed them later! To be honest, we found other parts of Acadia to be much more fun and interesting, but this photo at Bass Harbor is probably the first one that I'll show people when they ask about my trip.

Just a few minutes from the lighthouse is an easy hike called Wonderland. It starts off in the forest and, about three-quarters mile later, ends up at a beach covered in rocks and tide pools. When the wooded path opens up to reveal the beckoning coastline, it really does look like a wonderland of exploration for the kids. We spent about half an hour there because it was getting dark, but you could easily spend an hour or longer clambering around and looking for sea creatures in the tide pools.

What to Do: Bar Island area

There are so many classic hikes at Acadia, but one thing I really wanted to do that's a bit off the beaten path was walk across the land bridge from Bar Harbor to Bar Island at low tide. Twice a day, the water level drops so significantly during low tide that the waters part to reveal a sandbar from the mainland to the island (here's the tide calendar again). You have about three hours (1.5 hours before low tide and 1.5 hours after) to walk less than a mile to the island, explore it a little, then head back before the water rises to cover the pathway. There's a warning sign before you start out that says if you get stuck on the island, you'll have to wait nine hours for low tide again or hire a water taxi to take you back.

We made it to the island and back within an hour, no problem. Along the way, my kids liked examining the contents of the sea floor, including lots of shells, seaweed, and rocks. There were also countless tiny barnacles stuck to the rocks  I've never seen so many barnacles in my life. We didn't stay to explore the trails on small, uninhabited Bar Island because the kids were being nervous about being stuck on it!

What to Do: Cadillac Mountain 

And finally, I need to mention Cadillac Mountain because it's the highest point in Acadia and not to be missed. But full disclosure: We didn't hike up there; we drove 3.5 miles to the parking lot at the top. And once we got there, we stayed for all of five minutes to snap a few photos because it was just too cold and windy to stay any longer.

If you are driving to the top of Cadillac Mountain, bring some winter wear with you. It will be chilly, if not downright freezing. Our original plan was to drive up at 5 in the morning to watch the sunrise, but I'm so glad we ended up sleeping in instead. If it was already that cold at the time we got our lazy butts to the top (9 a.m.), I can't imagine how brutal it would've been before the sun came up. Still, the views on the drive up and at the top are awesome.

Where to Stay 

We picked the Hampton Inn Bar Harbor for the spacious, family-friendly rooms and free hot breakfasts (although it's definitely hard to pass up the hearty Maine breakfast places found all over Bar Harbor). The hotel is located within minutes of kid-friendly hikes and Bar Harbor's adorable downtown area. There's also an indoor pool and hot tub, which were pretty unremarkable in my opinion, but my kids enjoyed them both after our long days of hiking.

Where to Eat

There's no shortage of wonderful places to eat in Bar Harbor. The lobster and clam chowder is off the hook, but there are plenty of options for landlubbers, too. In the downtown Bar Harbor area, we enjoyed the food at trendy West Street Cafe and homey Side Street Cafe. As I mentioned, Jordan Pond House is a must while you're in the park, for the popovers alone. But our favorite meal of all was at Beal's Lobster Pier in the Bass Harbor area. The menu is extensive, and everything we tried  from the lobster to the chowder to the blueberry pie — was pure perfection.

What's Nearby

We drove up to Acadia from just outside New York City, so it was quite a journey. We decided to break up the trip going up with an overnight in Boston, where we took a Duck Boat tour the next morning before heading out. Our tour guide, Max, was possibly the most entertaining tour guide I've ever encountered. And of course the kids were thrilled when our tour bus drove straight into the Charles River and turned into a boat. All the kids on the tour even got to take a turn driving the boat. I highly recommend the Boston Duck Tour!

Then on the way back home, we stayed overnight in York, Maine, at an adorable little inn called Dockside Guest Quarters. It was located within a few minutes of Strawbery Banke, a living museum across the New Hampshire border where we spent almost three hours. Strawbery Banke is a Colonial Williamsburg-type place that spans a few blocks and features preserved buildings and period actors. The kids got to try their hand at weaving, see a cooper demonstrate his trade, listen to the owner of the general store talk about a brand new cereal called "Cheeri-oats," and play with a bunch of old-fashioned toys. We had to drag them away for lunch.

Also on the way up to Acadia are some other popular southern Maine towns like Kennebunkport, Ogunquit, and Wells. Here's my itinerary for a trip we took to that area a few years ago.

You might also like:
Kennebunkport, Maine, with Kids: What to See, Do, and Eat