This time we have our new van and we went further north to Acadia National Park. I’ve been to Acadia several times, but not in the last 15 years or so. Melanie had never been, although she and I stayed in Bar Harbor for one night on our honeymoon before catching the ferry to Nova Scotia.
Still Acadia has always stood out for me as the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited and I wanted to share that with Melanie and the kids.
We started out on Monday, getting a moderately early start at 9am. This could have been bad for our drive through Boston at rush hour, but it seems rush hour was light this week and we could use the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) express lane to zip right through. We managed to make it all the way to Freeport, Maine without one stop1, as I had planned. But we stayed longer there than I had hoped we would. Parking took longer than expected because it was so crowded. We had to search through a couple different of L.L. Bean’s buildings for the bits of gear we still needed. And then we had lunch on the go, a bit of expensive takeout that we ate picnic style with difficulty. Plus several different bathroom breaks.2(The photos on this page are slideshows. Hover to see controls. Click on the magnifying glass to see larger images.)
Back on the road, we decided to take the scenic route even though we were behind schedule. It only added 20 minutes and I much prefer going up Route 1 along the coast through a bunch of quaint little towns over miles and miles of bland turnpike. We finally arrived at Smuggler’s Den Campground about 6pm with enough time to get our tent setup in the daylight and then head out for dinner.
A bit of geography is in order. Acadia National Park is on Mount Desert Island3 about two-thirds up the coast of Maine. The island itself has two lobes of land separated by the only fjord on the eastern US seaboard called Somes Sound. The eastern half has the bulk of the national park as well as Bar Harbor, while the western side is called by locals the “quiet side”. There are still parts of the national park there, but fewer and thus fewer (although still numerous) tourists.
Smuggler’s Den is on the quiet side in the town of Southwest Harbor, as picturesque of a little Maine harbor town as you’ll see. We headed into the town to a restaurant called Beal’s Lobster Pier. It’s a cute place on a pier next to the Coast Guard station with outdoor picnic tables and everything as you’d expect. We did have one hiccup when Lucy tumbled and smacked her head right good on the table. The staff were very nice about it, bringing her a bag of ice and an ice cream.4 The food itself was good, but the kids were obviously tired and wired from being in the car.
The overnight in the tent was okay. We’d set up the tent in our yard a couple of weeks ago and the kids tried sleeping out in it. Only Bella made it the whole first night and then Anthony the whole second night with her, but neither Ben nor Sophia were able to make it all night so we were afraid of how they would deal. As expected Sophia had some trouble the first night in the campground and woke up whimpering. Luckily there was a lot of wind that night that masked the noise from our tent neighbors. We wouldn’t be so lucky the second night when it was otherwise quiet and she couldn’t be consoled. Finally Melanie took her to the van until she could wake up enough to say she needed to use the bathroom.
First Day in the Park
On Tuesday, we were all up bright and early, but had to wait until 8am to make breakfast because that’s when the local market opened. The plan had been to buy groceries when we got here, but after setting up the tent and getting dinner we went to the market to find it closed at 8pm. Once we had provisions in hand, I made eggs and bacon on the propane stove, which I’ll just say were better subsequent mornings after I’d figured out the best method.
The protein was supplemented by blackberries and blueberries that Isabella discovered growing wild around our campsite and the kids ended up tramping about in the bushes grazing and collecting. I’m sure the other campers were wondering what the heck we were up to. But, hey, foraging!
Heading into the park itself, we decided to start with the Visitor’s Center and the official orientation video. It’s a pretty, promotional piece, but perhaps doesn’t go all that deep into the history of the place, which is fascinating in itself.5 As would be the norm throughout our trip, the visitor’s center was crowded. Every parking area on our trip would always be packed full of vehicles, with cars lining the roads as well.
Acadia is within a day’s drive of a quarter of the population of North America and it shows. It’s one of the most popular parks in the National Park System, and is substantially smaller than some of those big western parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. We saw automobile license plates from nearly every Canadian province and most of the continental United States.6
After the visitor’s center we headed down the park loop road that takes you along the most scenic parts of the park. From the rocky coast up to the beautiful headlands and through the piney woods, you get a good cross-section of what makes Acadia special. We stopped first near Thunderhole, a natural formation in the coastline that, when the sea conditions are right, creates spectacular explosions of water and mighty claps of thunderous noise. Sadly, when we went it was a quiet low tide and not much was happening. Nevertheless, the kids loved clambering over the rocks. Isabella, especially, loved jumping from tide pool to tide pool, examining everything she could find, exclaiming over each one. The boys took to leaping and climbing from rocky outcrop to outcrop like mountain goats. Sophia kind of bounced from place to place. Even Lucia got into the act, clambering expertly, although my heart was in my throat the whole time. Between jagged rocks, tight clefts, sharp barnacles and the unpredictable ocean, it could be a dangerous place.
We left there too early for Bella’s liking, but lunch was too long delayed and so we headed to one of the two picnic areas along the loop. After a brief respite, we were back on the loop, traveling along the amazing Otter Cliffs7 and up the back half of the loop road to the access road to Cadillac Mountain.8.
Cadillac is the highest peak within 25 miles of the coastline from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to Mexico. It is also the first point in the United States to receive the sunrise during the fall and winter. Otherwise, it has an exceptionally fine view of Acadia, Mount Desert and Frenchman’s Bay. Here too the kids loved clambering about the summit among the hundreds of other tourists. At least the rocks were not sharp and jagged, but tended toward more rounded shapes due to the eroding effects of the harsh Maine winters. After a stop in the summit gift shop (which takes Apple Pay!) for some drinks and a couple of souvenirs, we made our way into (yes, very crowded) Bar Harbor for dinner.
We ate at the Bar Harbor Beer Works, which is the same place Melanie and I had dinner 11 years ago on our one honeymoon night in Bar Harbor. It was fun going back five kids later!
Mount Desert, and Maine in general it seems, is awash with small, local breweries. Even two decades ago, I remember the quality of the local beers I had then and it’s only grown now. One could subsist on nothing but the local brews and live quite happily.
After dinner, we walked down the street to a sweets and ice cream shop, where gelato and ice cream and even a sorbet for Lucy were purchased.9
The Middle of Our Trip
On Wednesday, we rose early again after that second difficult night with Sophia waking up, and since we had provisions already, made breakfast. All the kids agreed that even though the food wasn’t how they were used to eating at home, it was better for having been cooked outdoors while camping. I think we’ve bit them with the camping bug.
Our plan was to head to Jordan’s Pond in the morning for tea and popovers on the lawn. There’s a century-old tradition dating back to the wealthy big-city “rusticators” of high tea on the lawn and the popovers date back to the recipe of the original proprietor in the 1890s. I’ve had them before and it’s a fun little tradition, plus the popovers are delicious with jam. Unfortunately, the parking lot was, yes, packed and so we had to move on with the intention of coming back.
We headed down the loop road again toward the tide pools and rocks near Thunder Hole again. All of the kids, but especially Isabella, felt we hadn’t spent enough time there the day before. We managed to find a parking spot in the same place again and clambered down on the rocks.
Melanie and I agree that by the end of the vacation that we had clambered on quite enough rocks to last us for some time. These kids must be part mountain goat, from the oldest to the youngest. The girls were content for the most part with moving from low tide pool to pool, but the boys felt the need to climb on and up every precarious perch and jagged point. At one point, Anthony followed his brother up into a spot that Ben climbed down from but Anthony couldn’t. I was stuck on the other side of a pile of rocks with Lucy, so Melanie had to guide him down slowly.
After lunch, we stopped at a place we’d driven past the day before, the causeway at Otter Creek. They say Sand Beach in the park is the only sandy ocean beach in the area (hence the name) and so all the crowds flock to it in such numbers that we couldn’t even get close to it. But the Otter Creek causeway has a little beach too, a tiny one that appears when the tides aren’t high and so we stopped for a while to let the kids explore and collect rocks and shells. There were a few crazy people (i.e. “Canadians”) actually swimming there, but it was much too cold for that.
Melanie and I conferred after we were done there and decided to make another try at Jordan’s Pond. This time the parking lots weren’t quite so full and we were able to get to the Jordan Pond House. Even so, we were told that the wait for a table on the lawn for tea was at least an hour, which wasn’t going to happen for our kids. So we did the next best thing: We bought lemonade and whoopie pies and sat on the lawn for our own version of high “tea”.
Following a jaunt down to the pond itself we stopped by the Carriage House on our way back to the car. The Carriage House is part of the Carriage Road system built by one of the original rusticators, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The roads of crushed gravel that are set aside for people on foot, bike, horse, or carriage (but not cars) have been preserved for over a century and wend their way through many parts of the park inaccessible to cars. The Carriage House itself is a century-old building built in an English Tudor style that reminds me of something out of Tolkien’s Shire.10
Although we’d just had a snack, we were thinking of supper plans and so headed for the other end of the island to Bass Harbor for dinner. We had chosen a little place called the Seafood Ketch, which sits right on the tiny little harbor. Again, the weather was gorgeous and we were able to sit outside and eat. By this time, it was quite close to sunset and I knew that Bass Harbor Lighthouse was just a mile away. When you see photos of Acadia and there’s a lighthouse depicted, chances are you’re seeing Bass Harbor Light. This iconic Coast Guard lighthouse might be the most photographed light in the US. One reason is the spectacular sunsets because during the summer, the sun sets as you’re looking down the rocky coast. If you can manage it, you get the sun setting right next to the lighthouse itself.
Back at the campsite I tried getting a fire going again so we could make s’mores. I’d had bad luck with green wood we’d bought roadside and it took quite a lot of effort for me to get it going. This time I picked up a bundle of wood from the campground store, which I hadn’t done before because I’d assumed it was more expensive than stuff I’d seen roadside because it was just marked up. Turns out it was actually seasoned and thus burned when I lit it rather than smoldered and smoked. Thus we were able to finally toast marshmallows and eat s’mores.
I should mention the night skies. We were located in the the part of the campground that was mainly tent sites, which meant it was a lot darker. We were also relatively far from the bathroom building, which was inconvenient for late-night visits but better for keeping it dark. And our sites were under trees, but located on the edge of a large open field. All this combined to ensure that the skies were very dark and free from light pollution. And because the weather cooperated by staying free of clouds most evenings, we had the most amazing night vistas.
For all of the kids it was their first chance to see the dusty expanse of the Milky Way spread across the sky. And while some were able to pick out the constellations with Melanie (who is much better with that than I am), others had difficulty, I think because there were too many stars visible, ironically. Incidentally, I used the Star Walk app on my iPhone to identify the constellations and see what’s visible.
Last Full Day
On our third and last full day on Mount Desert Island, we wanted to visit some of our favorite spots again so we headed for the top of Cadillac Mountain. Unbeknownst to us before we planned our trip, it coincided with the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary and the actual anniversary was this day, August 25. At the top of the mountain, we found a memorial plaque commemorating Stephen Tyng Mather, the industrialist who led the cause to create a National Park Service and became its first director, and so it seemed most appropriate on this day.
From there we headed to the other picnic area within the park, Bear Brook Picnic Area, which was quiet and undisturbed and resulted in another delicious lunch, and then off to Otter Cliffs. We clambered down to the cliffs themselves, which are not especially high as far as cliffs go, but are indeed steep and potentially dangerous and the kids gave us permanent anxiety while we were there. And then they were throwing rocks over the side before we knew there were climbers down below, who expressed their displeasure at being pelted from above and so we moved on. But not before we had admired the beautiful views of the open ocean before us, of some shoals barely covered by the receding tide and the expanse of hundreds of lobster buoys dotting the coastline.
From there we went over by the Fabbri picnic area again, not to eat but to look at the memorial we had passed by before. This marks the spot where Lt. Alessandro Fabbri, a resident of the island and member of the US Naval Reserve, commanded a naval radio station during World War I, which was critical to the war effort as a vital link between the US and Europe. At the end of the War he was awarded the Navy Cross. His citation stated that under his direction the station became “the most important and the most efficient station in the world.” It’s cool to find these little bits of history everywhere.
We left the park loop road after this and I wanted to visit a spot I hadn’t been before, a remote little area south of Bar Harbor called Schooner Head Overlook. After a bit of a drive, we found it to be another quiet and undisturbed location. The kids and I walked down the path from the parking lot to an area overlooking Frenchman’s Bay, where we saw a lighthouse on Egg Rock in the distance and a giant, modern mansion on a point of rock nearby. And just below us at the end of the path was a large sea cave that you could explore at low tide and if you weren’t leading five small children by yourself.
By this point we were thinking of dinner and we kept coming up dry on options that Lucia could eat with her allergies. We tried driving to Bar Harbor to park and walk to check out the restaurants, but we couldn’t find a place to park our big van. At that point, Melanie suggested the unconventional choice of Mainely Meat BBQ, a real BBQ joint in Maine. Of course, they offer a lobster dinner—apparently all restaurants on Mount Desert are required to offer lobster on their menu—but we stuck with brisket and ribs and dining al fresco. After that, we stopped next door for ice cream at Udder Heaven, which included a wooden cow out front with facsimile udders that let the kids milk milky looking water into a bucket below.
Homeward with a Stop
On Friday, it was time to pack up and head home. We made breakfast one last time, cleaned up, packed up the bags and the tent and all the gear into the van and headed out. My plan was not to take the most direct route, but to drive down to Camden, Maine, in time to stop for lunch. Camden is also one of my favorite places, as it was the area where we spent all our vacations when I was a kid, Camden, Rockland, Rockport, and Union, Maine. Since then, it’s become a major upscale vacation destination with fancy B&Bs and yachts in the harbor. Much is the same, but many places I remember are gone now.
I’d hoped we could have lunch at Cappy’s Chowder House, which was right in the center of main street and back in the day was a wonderful place for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Evidently it had been sold a few years back from the original owners of 40 years, and the new owners ran it for a while under the old name before selling it to regional brewery Sea Dog Brewing, which has been opening up some brewpubs. The new place was nice and shiny and tried to keep some of the coastal Maine atmosphere, but it was just too shiny and corporate. I mean, it’s not a knock on the new place and the food was pretty good, but my cranky old man inside doesn’t like change.
From there it was a standard ride back home arriving around dinnertime.
All in all it was a successful trip. It could have been longer, say from Saturday to Sunday, instead of Monday to Friday, but I think we (by which I mean I) had about reached my limit of tent sleeping. After the first couple of rough nights, the kids all settled into the routine and were perfectly fine with the tent. And they all just loved Acadia and look forward to going back again some day. Me too.
- We stopped at the Kennebunkport rest area for a bathroom break and a quick bite to eat as we had rushed out of the house in the morning and I didn’t get a filling breakfast. ↩
- I wonder if other peoples’ kids use the bathroom and then 15 or 20 minutes later need to use it again. Every time. ↩
- Pronounced in the pseudo-French way as mont dessert. ↩
- Which we sadly had to refuse because of her dairy allergy. ↩
- I did find it fascinating that the park had once been called Lafayette National Park: “Everyone’s favorite fighting Frenchman!” ↩
- We kept an informal tally, but I think we were missing the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Utah. ↩
- Otter Cliffs form the backdrop of numerous automobile TV commercials. ↩
- Named in 1918 after the famed French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac. ↩
- She was so happy because she usually can’t enjoy such treats due to her dairy, eggs, wheat, corn allergies. ↩
- In fact, we were listening to the audio book of The Hobbit on our trip and much of Acadia reminded me of bits of Middle Earth. Maybe it’s why I love it so much. ↩
- ThunderholeAcadiaParkLoopRoad: Own photo