It can be a bit of a travel quandary: You’re near a must-see natural wonder, but you don’t have the time you need to take it all in.
Should you go anyway and see what you can? In the case of Acadia National Park in coastal Maine, the answer to that question should definitely be yes!
With a bit of planning, even a day or two at Acadia will give you a sense of what the park known as the “crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast” is all about.
It will require an early start, though, so it’s best to arrive the night before and stay in quaint Bar Harbor before hitting the ground running the next morning.
While a longer stay would certainly be better for experiencing Acadia, a day-trip itinerary is doable for those short on time but long on enthusiasm.
Here’s how to spend a day in Acadia National Park.
Absorb The First Rays Of Sun At Cadillac Mountain
Depending on the time of year, an early-morning visit to the summit of Cadillac Mountain could earn you a sublime distinction -- being among the first in the United States to see the sun rise. During the fall and winter months (roughly October through March), the 1,530-foot-high mountain is said to be the first spot in the U.S. to experience the light of day.
And what a rising it is, casting soft hues of yellows and oranges onto the Atlantic Ocean spread out far below.
Park officials advise getting to the mountain early to get a parking space and good vantage point, and it’s best to check the time of the sunrise beforehand and plan your departure accordingly.
Drive to the summit by entering the park at the Cadillac Mountain entrance (the intersection of Eagle Lake Road/Route 223 and Park Loop Road), and head south of the Park Loop Road to the summit road.
There is a large parking lot at the summit, where paved paths will take you to the mountain’s high point. Pick a spot and watch as the rising sun illuminates sweeping views of the bay.
Follow The Boardwalk Along Jordan Pond
After being awed by the sunrise, you’ll want to stretch your legs, and the leisurely 3.5-mile Jordan Pond Trail is just the place to do it.
For a unique lakeside stroll along an elevated boardwalk, begin a counterclockwise hike around the lake. The planks will take you through a marshy area, with gorgeous views of the lake peeking through the pine trees.
After about a mile, the trail transitions to a gravel path that will lead you to the eastern shore of the pond and back to the Jordan Pond House, an Acadia institution known for its airy popovers.
Serene blue waters bordered by lush mountains await as you return to the Park Loop Road from the Cadillac Mountain summit. Heading south, Jordan Pond should be the next stop on your day-trip itinerary.
If you’re visiting between late May and late October (when the restaurant is open for business), the Jordan Pond House would be the place to stop for a late breakfast or early lunch. Another option is to pick up a sandwich or snack in the adjoining gift shop, where you can also buy popover mixes and other Acadia souvenirs.
Cycle Along Rockefeller’s Carriage Roads
From the Jordan Pond boardwalk, head to another of Acadia’s unique transport options: the 45 miles of carriage roads that were built in the early 1900s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to serve as a car-free zone.
Today, the carriage roads provide cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders with a wealth of scenic routes that are separate from the park’s busy roads.
Depending on your cycling skills and interests, you can choose a short spin on the gently sloping Eagle Lake or Jordan Pond trails, or a longer, more difficult ride on the rugged Around the Mountain loop. Bike rentals are available at Acadia Bike, and a convenient shuttle provides transportation during the summer months.
Sink Your Toes In Sand Beach
After an active morning and an afternoon of hiking and biking, a bit of relaxation is in order, and what could be better than some beach time?
Back on the Park Loop Road, continue south and east toward the eastern edge of Acadia’s Mount Desert Island to the scenic cove that shelters Sand Beach. Although the water is likely to be chilly, the beach is the perfect spot for wading, jogging, and watching the rolling surf.
The beach is also a good spot to begin the Great Head Trail, another not-to-be-missed attraction at Acadia.
The 1.7-mile Great Head Trail offers unbeatable ocean views along a coastal headland with some wooded sections. The trail passes by steep drops into the ocean and ends at an overlook that features stellar sea views.
Check Out Acadia’s Only Lighthouse
To learn more about the region’s maritime history, head to the Bass Harbor Head Light, a 1876-era lighthouse that is operated and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Located at the southernmost tip of Mount Desert Island, Bass Harbor is a bit of a trek from Bar Harbor, but the lighthouse is a classic Acadia landmark and worth the drive.
While the lighthouse is not open to the public, visitors can view it up close by taking a short, paved path, or by taking a trail and stairway to view it from the shoreline. The lighthouse is located off Route 102A in the town of Tremont and is accessible by private vehicle.
Dine In Bar Harbor
With daylight waning, head back to downtown Bar Harbor, where fun bars and restaurants regularly serve up local brews, succulent lobster rolls, and creative seafood selections.
For a family-friendly spot with a diverse menu and fun decor, head to Geddy’s on Bar Harbor’s Main Street, just steps from the harbor. The local mainstay offers organic produce, fresh seafood, and seasonal ingredients. For a switch from the ever-present Maine lobster, try the garlic mussels and focaccia appetizer, along with a local brew.
For seafood at an oceanfront location, head to Stewman’s Lobster Pound on Bar Harbor’s West Street, where the Downeast lobster bake is a specialty.
Also in downtown Bar Harbor, Sherman’s on Main Street carries a wide assortment of Maine books and Acadia souvenirs.
If There’s Time
Depending on your interests, the weather, and your schedule, many other Acadia attractions are available as well.
Other stops of interest off the Park Loop Road include the Thunder Hole and Otter Cliff. Depending on the time of day and the conditions, these stops can make for scenic walks and great photo opportunities.
If you have extra time, consider a tour or cruise led by the national park’s knowledgeable rangers. The park offers ranger-guided boat cruises that take in nearby locales such as Frenchman Bay and Baker Island. The Acadia by Sea cruise is also popular.
The park also offers ranger-guided tours on fascinating topics such as the Rockefeller bridges, bats, and the stars over Sand Beach.
If you’re visiting during the fall, the main attraction will be obvious: the glorious colors of the changing autumn leaves. Leaf peeping brings thousands of visitors to the park each year. Although the season changes slightly from year to year, the National Park Service says the peak generally comes in mid-October.
Another seasonal activity to consider at Acadia is birdwatching. The National Park Services lists more than a half-dozen spots in the park where birders can see a wide variety of feathered friends, including hawks, eagles, turkey vultures, and swans.
All out-of-state visitors are required to quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test result. For the latest information about guidelines at the park, check out our full list of national parks requiring changes for visitors.