I was traveling with one of my best hometown friends, Liz, who’d I’d first traveled to Maine thanks to in 2018. It turns out, early May isn’t exactly peak season to visit Acadia and loads was boarded up in Bar Harbor and it was quite chilly and we did quite a bit of laughing about how beautiful it would be if there were leaves on the trees. But there were plenty of stunning views, and there’s no wrong season for the healing power of friendship and the soothing sensation of filling your lungs with fresh air in nature and the good vibes of supporting America’s incredible National Parks system.
Acadia has long tempted travelers to its home on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. In the mid 1800’s, landscape painters of the Hudson River School inspired city folk like us to head for these scenic hills, launching the area’s long history of tourism. Originally set aside in 1916 as Sieur de Monts National Monument, the land was finally crowned Acadia National Park in 1929, becoming the East Coast’s first National Park.
Today, it’s one of the most visited in the US. Admittedly, I’m taking it slow, but one of my life goals is to visit every National Park in the USA someday (I’ve been making a good dent in Thailand, too!)
For our three night trip to Acadia, Liz and I made plans to rent a small trailer in Portland, Maine and glamp on Mount Desert Island. I wanted to get some towing experience to tend the seeds of my dream of owning a trailer someday, and this seemed like a great place to start. Yet less than a week before our trip, the host cancelled and it all fell apart. I’d already scheduled to get a hitch attached to my SUV, but now it was time to scramble and make a Plan B. Our super cute Airbnb in Bar Harbor — hand crafted with love by the bachelor carpenter who owns the house and lives upstairs — came to the rescue for our first two nights, but it was rented for our third.
So we decided to get a taste of the trailer life by renting an Airstream from Oceanside KOA. They were just opening up for the season so we pretty much had the place to ourselves, and wow were we impressed by it. The campground wraps around the waterfront with private rocky beaches dotted throughout the tent camping, cabins, RV spots, and even three shiny new Airstream trailers. And the amenities are plush — call the front reception, and wood and ice will be delivered to your campsite1
We fell totally in love with our spacious Airstream. It was great for the cooler weather — we were able to get that immersed-in-nature feel while still sleeping, cooking, and relaxing cozily. It really fueled my fire to get one someday (though admittedly a much smaller version!)
We also learned at the campground about an amazing amenity that is in place in Acadia’s high season. The Island Explorer, a free transportation system that encircles Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, stops right at the campground! How handy is that? And get this — you can bring bikes or dogs! (The rule is if someone already seated on the bus has an allergy to dogs, you’ll be asked to take the next one. Isn’t that wildly sensible?)
I also do wish we’d brought Prada — I really wanted this to be a “visiting acadia with a dog” post, but our accommodation switch up ruined that plan. It would have been a special final memory with her as she passed so shortly after I returned.
Anyway, The Island Explorer runs from late June through early October, and is a great way to reduce congestion around Park Loop Road, the 27 mile gateway to Acadia. For us, in early May, it wasn’t a concern. We pretty much had it to ourselves!
We spent a few days popping in and out of the park, with our very first mission being to head straight for Cadillac Mountain. Cadillac Mountain is the highest point on the Atlantic Coast, and one of the highlights of Acadia. We were slightly startled by how narrow and winding the steep road to the top was, but the panoramic view was an incredible reward.
One thing we learned right off the bat? Cell service is terrible in the National Park — grab a real map! We didn’t have one at first as we had pre-purchased our pass online to avoid having to wait in line at the Visitor’s Center, which was laughable considering the visitor’s center and all checkpoints were closed and the first day, we were freely driving around the park and never asked for our pass once! Our second day, we finally drove through a checkpoint with a ranger in it, which would have been validating had our Airbnb host not kindly left us one, perhaps left from previous guests. We joked about it but really, we did not mind a bit — we considered our $25 week’s vehicle pass a grateful contribution to the parks system we so love.
We were closing in on sunset so hopped over to Jordan Pond, one of many jewel-like lakes across Acadia. We mused on what a nice hike a full loop around it would be, said hi to a few friendly fellow off-season park enjoyers, lingered until the sun slipped below the treeline, and then headed out.
The next day, my blogging bestie Angie and her sis Rae joined us! We were tickled when we realized they too were planning to head to Acadia post-Women in Travel Summit, and we could team up for a day and night of off-season exploration. We decided to make a full circle of Park Loop Road, which thankfully we realized is largely one-way — plan accordingly!
We made our first stop the much-loved Sand Beach, which, like many park attractions, we had more or less to ourselves.
Next up? Thunder Hole! Apparently timing is everything when visiting this famous blowhole, and we lucked out, watching her spout off several different times.
Between stops, we marveled at the stunning coastal views and kept our eyes peeled in vain for moose.
While Liz and I had already been, we had loved the view at Jordan Pond so much we felt Angie and Rae needed to see it too — so we stopped again and were so glad we did. I have to imagine the diversity and accessibility of attractions around the relatively short drive that is Park Loop Road is part of what makes Acadia so amazingly appealing.
And of course, we couldn’t resist heading back to Cadillac Mountain for sunset. I was glad we had made the journey twice — first, we were prepared for the slightly intimidating drive, which I don’t think I would have liked doing for the firs time at dusk. Second, it was beautiful to experience both at day and by night.
At the summit, we found the first real “crowd” we’d encountered since arriving at one of the the most popular National Parks in America. And it wasn’t a nuisance at all — it was kind of fun! We ran into a fellow Women in Travel Summit attendee who recognized Angie and I from our panel and poured all of us mini cups of champagne she’d packed for the summit (some people really know how to live) and there was a buzz about the place as the sun put on its nightly show.
We had hotly debated waking up for sunrise there for one reason and one reason only: it’s the first place in America you can see the sunrise. Ain’t that fun? But I guess we all care slightly more about sleep than about novelty sunrises, because after much debate we nixed the idea. Maybe next time.
The next morning, after rising at a non-ridiculous hour, we headed over to the less-visited west side of Mount Desert Island to take in another one of Acadia’s highlights — the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.
This was probably the hardest-to-reach point we stopped off at — steep stairs and some rock scrambling were required to get really epic views. But it was well-worth it.
What we found on the other side was quintessential Maine.
Aren’t these two the cutest? We were sure sad to see them go after this final stop together — but it was a huge bonus getting to see them at all and as always, I got a lot of joy out of getting to introduce friends from two worlds and see them click.
After saying our goodbyes, Liz and I headed for what we agreed was a must-do — the enticingly named Wonderland Trail. At just 1.6 miles for an out and back loop and a beautiful pebble beach at the end of the route, it’s a majorly rewarding little walk surrounded by wildflowers.
Driving back towards the campground, we marveled at the ramshackle little communities that dot the West side of Mount Desert Island, making up a population of about 1,500 people. I’m always fascinated by what it must be to settle in a place like this — loved by so many, but lived in by so few.
Our final morning, itching for a proper hike, Liz and I tackled the famous Bubble Trail. We had planned to do more hardcore hiking but I am kind of happy we didn’t as I was breaking in brand new boots, and this was a perfect note to end the trip on with a satisfying amount of exertion.
It was such a joy traveling with Liz. After fifteen years of friendship, she’s like family.
I was so insanely blessed to have a super tight knit group of high school friends. In fact, despite being a class of about five hundred, it honestly felt like we all were friends — from the athletes to the art nerds (that’s me) to the super scholars and everyone in between! As I got older I realized how unique that was — and as time passes on and I still feel so close to so many of my high school besties, despite the distance and the years, I feel grateful all over again for these wonderful friendships.
Liz’s job has sent her all over the country since we graduated and so we rarely get true face time — but she is so close to my heart always! I am SO thankful she was willing to take a few days off work and come to Maine with me — and that we’ve been seeing a lot more of each other since.
In conclusion? Well, the first weekend of May was not the most ideal time to visit Acadia. It still looked largely, for lack of a better word, “dead” from winter. But, on the upside, wee really did have pretty much a private tour of the place — and the company couldn’t have been more divine.
We all vowed, we’re coming back in the fall someday to see the place covered in autumn foliage! We assumed the crowds would be wild then but locals told us really it is a great time to come, with nowhere near the traffic the park sees in summer. And there’s so much to come back for, from the Wild Gardens of Acadia to the more than 40+ miles of car-free carriage roads, two of the top things on my wish list for my next trip!
Overall, I just marvel at the treasure that is our National Park system. Isn’t it incredible, that in this capitalist world in which we’ve literally paved paradise to put up parking lots, that we have these huge swaths of public land preserved for any of us to enjoy and be in awe of? If you love these lands too, protect them! Your National Parks need you more than ever.
Now the big question — which park should I tackle next?