Does your dream visit to Maine’s spectacular Acadia National Park include secluded beach walks and peaceful hikes along forest trails?
If so, you might want to arrive in the nearby town of Bar Harbor during May or September rather than July or August.
Sure, summertime in Maine is lovely: sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s, all framed by the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. What could be better?
Well, it turns out that you can get a lot of what makes the summer months so fabulous -- without the traffic jams and sky-high hotel rates -- during Bar Harbor’s shoulder seasons in the spring and fall (or even in the off-season from November through March).
Maine tourism consultant Megan Crowder, who works with the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce to promote the area, points out that while summer is undoubtedly the busiest season, Bar Harbor (along with the nearby Acadia National Park) has become a year-round destination.
Many of Bar Harbor’s businesses remain open year-round, Crowder said, and plenty of activities are available, regardless of the season.
Statistics from the National Park Service list Acadia National Park as the seventh most-visited national park in the country; the park welcomed more than 3.5 million visitors in 2018. The bulk of that visitation occurs over the summer months and during autumn’s changing colors.
Sandwiched between those popular times are a few periods when the traffic dies down a bit.
Crowder said that late spring is one of those times. “May is one of the best times to come,” she said. Most businesses are open in May -- especially after about midmonth, and daytime temperatures should be in the 60s.
Of course, vacation times are dictated by a range of priorities and scheduling challenges. So here is a seasonal breakdown, including the pros and cons of visiting Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park during each season.
Maine in May: It might seem a bit counterintuitive to visit a locale so far north in the springtime. But consider the advantages.
Acadia National Park is just coming back to life in May, so the throngs of visitors tend to stay away until the summer months of June, July, and August.
That means that popular park attractions such as Sand Beach and the Great Head Trail will be relatively less crowded in May. While you might encounter hundreds of parkgoers at those sites in mid-July, in May, you’ll likely only see a handful of others.
Another advantage is the drive along Acadia’s Park Loop Road. Traffic jams are common in the summer, but in the springtime, it can feel like you’re truly in the countryside.
Bar Harbor’s lodging is also much more affordable in the spring. In May, you might spend around $150 a night at a chain hotel, while in July, the rate for the same room could be as high as $350 a night.
If you visit in early May, you’ll miss out on Maine’s dreaded black-fly season. The bugs are said to be at their worst from about mid-May through the end of June.
Of course, visiting Bar Harbor in the spring comes with its disadvantages as well.
For one thing, the fact that the national park is just coming back to life means that some services and attractions will not be available until later. For instance, you might find that the restrooms along the Park Loop Road are not yet open for the season.
Likewise, the gift shop at Jordan Pond will likely still be stocking its shelves in early May.
Another problem could arise if you’re set on trying the famous popovers at Jordan Pond House. The restaurant usually doesn’t open its doors until the middle of May, so an early-May visit could result in disappointment.
And then there’s the weather. Although May’s average high temperatures are in the 60s, the weather is more erratic in the spring. Sunny days might be plentiful, but you could just as easily encounter rain or fog.
Summer is the season that most people associate with a Maine visit, so of course that means that most people will be visiting during the summer months.
Statistics from Acadia National Park show that in 2018, about 250,000 people visited the park in May. In June, that number soared to about 500,000, and in July and August, the totals hovered between 760,000 and 770,000.
Certainly, summertime at Bar Harbor has some built-in perks -- long days, warm temperatures, and mostly sunny days.
Acadia National Park, with its coastal location, is especially lovely during the summer months. With weather at its most pleasant, and activities in full swing, the park is a natural choice for families on their summer break.
Summertime is also the best season for swimming, hiking, kayaking, and boat tours.
As anyone who has been caught in a traffic jam on a narrow national park road knows, summer driving can be a hassle in popular areas.
In Bar Harbor and Acadia, summer crowds bring not just clogged roads, but parking frustrations as well. During busy daytime hours, it can be hard to find parking spaces at the popular park attractions and along Bar Harbor’s streets.
In a recent summertime press release, public affairs specialist Christie Anastasia emphasized the parking aspect. “Parking is limited and expected to fill early,” the release stated.
Anastasia suggested that visitors use the fare-free Island Explorer shuttle service to access the Park Loop Road, carriage roads, and hiking trails.
The most congested areas that routinely fill up are Cadillac Summit Road, Jordan Pond, Park Loop Road, Sand Beach, East Lake Road, Acadia Mountain, and Echo Lake Beach.
Lodging prices also tend to rise in the summer, as demand increases.
September and October might be just the window for visitors looking for warm temperatures and waning crowds.
Crowder said that along with May, September is Bar Harbor’s other main shoulder season.
With average temperatures remaining fairly warm (high 60s), September offers most of the weather advantages of the summer months.
Visitor numbers start to decrease in September, dropping to about 600,000 in 2018 from the highs of July and August.
The fall foliage is at its best in October, when a visit to Bar Harbor and the surrounding area will offer classic New England views framed by the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges of the season.
“Columbus Day (mid-October) is usually the peak,” Crowder said, adding that the prime fall-color time tends to fluctuate slightly from year to year.
Fall is the most popular season for cruise ships to dock at Bar Harbor Port.
Throughout September and October, cruise ships stop in Bar Harbor on a daily basis. That means that the town’s streets and some of Acadia National Park’s popular attractions can become clogged with cruisers -- especially from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
By October, temperatures drop into the 40s and 50s, and after about Columbus Day in mid-October, some of Bar Harbor’s businesses close for the season.
Bus-tour numbers also increase significantly in September and October. Park statistics show that in 2018, monthly bus-visitor totals remained below 20,000 for June, July, and August. But in both September and October, the monthly totals topped 40,000.
Perhaps most surprising of all is the growing popularity of Bar Harbor in the winter months.
Crowder said the cold-weather months from November through March offer plenty of outdoor activities. “Winter is huge for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Also snowmobiling,” she said.
While not all businesses remain open through the winter, there are plenty that do. A list on the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce’s website includes dozens of hotels, restaurants, and retail stores that are open for business during the winter months.
For a truly solitary visit, January and February are the months to visit Acadia. Park numbers for 2018 show that 11,974 people visited Acadia in January, and 12,167 came in February.
Wintertime is a great time to hunker down inside in the quaint cottages and bed and breakfasts, many of which remain open year-round.
Obviously, the weather could present a problem in the wintertime. January posts an average high temperature of 30 degrees and a low of 12 degrees, and total cloud cover is frequent as is snow.
Many of the popular warm-weather activities are unavailable during the winter. Whale-watching tours, for instance, tend to end around Labor Day (early September).
Acadia National Park’s Park Loop Road is routinely closed to traffic beginning December 1.