Where Mountains and Sea Converge

Stunning ocean vistas, pristine beaches, quaint harbor villages and  America’s smallest national park make Mount Desert Island a traveler’s delight.

For five wintry months, visitors standing atop Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island, in the northeastern part of Maine are the first to see the sunrise in the United States. Named not after the car brand but after French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the mountain—the highest point on America’s North Atlantic coast—is one of more than 20 craggy peaks on the rocky island, itself a geological wonder created millions of years ago. The island’s stunning ocean vistas, kilometers of trails, freshwater ponds, beaches, tide pools and quaint harbor villages attract more than two million visitors annually. Although much of the island is richly forested, the upper reaches of its granite summits are barren.

Acadia National Park, the smallest of the U.S. national parks, makes up about half of the 280-square-kilometer island, which is almost bisected by the deep waters of Somes Sound, a popular attraction for kayakers and boaters that brings to mind the fjords of Norway. Hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing, birding, beachcombing, horseback riding and picnicking are all enjoyed, but few people swim—the ocean water temperature rises only to a bone-chilling 13 degrees Celsius during the summer. Rain and Maine’s famous fog also greet visitors, who are advised to bring a variety of clothing for the frequently changing weather conditions. 

“The scenery is really dramatic. The way the mountains meet the sea is something very unique and beautiful,” says John Kelly, a park planner who’s been at Acadia National Park for 14 years. “Visitors typically spend three or four days in the park, with July and August being our busiest months. We have ranger-guided boat and bus tours, a variety of programs for children and adults, and a free island-wide shuttle bus that runs throughout the summer.”

Home to Native Americans for thousands of years and repeatedly fought over by Britain, France and the United States in the 1700’s, Mount Desert Island began to attract summer visitors in the mid-1800’s. Winters are harsh and cold and the island has only about 10,000 full-time residents, with tourism its primary business. 

Mount Desert Island benefitted greatly from the vision of a wealthy Bostonian, George B. Dorr, who recognized its unique beauty and devoted his life and fortune to preserving it. Dorr bought parcels of land, and persuaded wealthy acquaintances to do the same, ultimately packaging them together into what became a national monument in 1916 and a national park in 1919. His efforts were supplemented by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., who wanted to tour the island by horse and carriage and built a 72-kilometer network of crushed granite roads for this purpose. Off limits to motor vehicles, the 16-feet-wide carriage roads now provide hikers, bikers, horseback riders and, in the winter, cross-country skiers with sweeping views of the mountains and ocean, along with access to scenic spots within the park.

Mount Desert Island and the surrounding towns also offer a wide variety of seafaring adventures, including whale watching and sailing on Maine’s famed “windjammers”—the four-masted schooner Margaret Todd is based at the island, along with smaller sailing vessels. There are also motor boat tours and the “Dive-In Theater” activity for children. It features a diver who ventures to the ocean floor, after being pushed off the boat by the kids, with a video camera and microphone. “Diver Ed” broadcasts images of sea urchins, crabs, sand dollars, anemones, periwinkles, lobsters and other sea creatures back to a TV screen on the boat, then brings some of them back on board for the children to examine before returning them to their ocean home.

“The whale watching has been spectacular in the last few years,” says Chris Fogg, director of the Chamber of Commerce in the seaside village of Bar Harbor, who points out that accommodations in the area include four-star hotels, quaint inns, beachside cottages, campgrounds and family-run motels, with a wide range of prices that peak during the summer months, when reservations are strongly recommended. About 10 percent of those visiting the island and park are from overseas, both Kelly and Fogg say, with an increasing number coming from Asia. There are regular flights to Bangor in Maine, about 80 kilometers away, and Boston in Massachusetts, about 418 kilometers away, with car rentals readily available.

Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.