Though Acadia National Park, located on Maine’s Mount Desert Island and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, is the kind of knock-your-socks-off place you’ll be tempted to visit for days on end, you actually don’t need to spend all that much time to experience its highlights. Just half a day spent traveling the 27-mile Park Loop Road on the island’s eastern side will expose you to the park’s most standout features, not to mention the exquisite North Atlantic Coast. The road has multiple pull-off viewing points and parking areas along the way, and both the route and stopping spots offer vistas that’ll fill you with awe. If your time is limited, this road and its en-route stops are the perfect way to experience the park.
In summer, the traffic flows slowly, but that’s for the best. With more extraordinary sights per mile than any other place on Mount Desert Island, this road should be travelled at a leisurely pace to give the lush forests, blue lake and ocean waters, rocky shoreline and abundant wildlife their due—few roads pack as much natural awesomeness into a mere four hours as this one does.
History of the Park Loop Road
Built from 1921-1958, the Park Loop Road was artfully designed to connect Acadia’s top sites for motor vehicles. Much of the nature-sensitive design was created by famed landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., well-known for his work on New York City’s Central Park. (Prior to the construction of the Park Loop Road, rustic broken-stone carriage roads, financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and made for horse-drawn carriages, hikers, bikers and horseback riders, provided access through the park; 45 miles of these special auto-free roads still exist.)
Accessing Park Loop Road
While you can access the Park Loop Road from four spots in Bar Harbor and one spot in Seal Harbor, most park visitors start their trip at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center in the northern part of Mount Desert Island in Bar Harbor. Park Rangers there can answer your questions, and you’ll find the exhibits at the center highly informative, too. Be sure to pick up a park map while you’re there.
Upon exiting the visitor center, you’ll soon reach a four-way stop. From there, head south along Paradise Hill Road to start experiencing Acadia’s wonders. Keep your eyes peeled for a seemingly endless cascade of exceptional views—they come one right after the other. Here are the top sites to take in.
Top Sites To See & Experience Along Park Loop Road
First Overlook on the left: View of Frenchman Bay. Take note of the various islands that pepper the waters in the distance, including Sheep Porcupine Island, Rum Key, Long Porcupine Island, Bald Porcupine Island and Ironbound Island.
Second Overlook on the left: Gaze at Cadillac, Dorr and Champlain Mountains, three of the most popular peaks to summit in Acadia National Park.
Next, enter Park Loop Road by following signs for the road’s one-way section to Sand Beach and stop at the following:
Sieur de Monts
You can experience a variety of attractions here. Start with the spring under the Florentine-style canopy, then proceed to the Sieur de Monts Nature Center, a park visitor center staffed by park rangers, which showcases exhibits on the park’s natural resources and their underlying science, as well as the protective efforts of park biologists and researchers. The Wild Gardens of Acadia present various park habitats (mountain summits, fresh meadows, shoreline and bogs) and their native plants. And Abbe Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, displays exhibits that capture the history, art and culture of Maine’s Native people, the Wabanki.
If you feel like hiking, several trails leading to mountain summits (Dorr Mountain, Kebo Mountain, Champlain Mountain and Cadillac Mountain) start in Sieur de Monts—from the Nature Center, tarn and parking area. You can also birdwatch here—this area features over 70 species and is considered the best location in the whole park to spot a broad range of birds.
Precipice Trail Parking Area
Depending when you visit the park, you may see the magnificent Peregrine Falcons that nest on the cliff at the Precipice. The trail here, closed to hikers from March to mid-August to protect their breeding process, is considered the most challenging trail in the park—it involves climbing a cliff face on Champlain Mountain via a series of iron rungs and ladders. Only highly experienced hikers should consider taking the trail on.
Sand Beach Entrance Station and Ocean Drive Sites
Given Acadia’s 41 miles of rugged coastline, the Park Loop Road gives visitors the opportunity to see and experience everything from rocky cliffs, tide pools and sand to massive granite boulders, cobble beaches and serene coves. The 1.8-mile stretch of Park Loop Road that runs along the coastline—known as Ocean Drive—provides access to Sand Beach, the Beehive, Ocean Path, Gorham Mountain, Otter Cliffs and Otter Point.
Sand Beach, located in Newport Cove, features a pristine, 290-yard-long sand beach with a shallower slope and quieter waves than other coastal spots, which make it a popular swimming spot—that said, before venturing in ask yourself if you’ll enjoy water temps between 55 and 60 degrees (that’s the highest they get and they occur in August).
You can also access hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty and lengths (Great Head Trail, Ocean Path Trail, Beehive Loop and Gorham Mountain Loop) from the Sand Beach parking lot and along trailheads off the Park Loop Road heading toward Otter Point. All of the hikes provide spectacular ocean and coastline views, but before undertaking any trail, you’ll want to make sure it suits your skill and fitness level. Also, if you plan to hike, arrive at Sand Beach early—the parking area typically fills up quickly.
When waves roll into the small sea cavern at the bottom of the inlet here and strike the rocks just as air is released from the cavern, a thunderous booming sound and a waterspout as high as 40 feet can result. You may or may not hear the roaring sound when you visit—that depends on the precise conditions—but you’re guaranteed to love the scenic ocean setting and coastal rock formations.
This spot also provides panoramic views of Otter Cliff on the south (right) side, Schoodic Peninsula in the distance and both Sand Beach and Great Head to the north (left). Take deep breaths through your nose during your Thunder Hole stop—in summer, wild roses fill the air with their amazing scent.
This feature gets its name from the monument-like vertical stack of granite that rises at the edge of tree-topped cliffs framing a cove; erosive forces separated the stone pillar from the adjacent cliff and the scene is an iconic must-see along the Ocean Drive section of the Park Loop Road.
Otter Cliff and Otter Point
The 110-ft.-tall Otter Cliff, located about .7 miles past Thunder Hole, is considered one of the most awe-inspiring sights along the North Atlantic Seaboard. Set your eyes on the pink granite, watch the pounding surf and listen to the waves. Thousands of rounded boulders pepper the cove edges below, providing a riveting visual contrast to the soaring vertical cliffs.
Tidepooling is a common activity off the steep cliffs of Otter Point. If you decide to search for plants and sea creatures in the tidal pools, make sure to go during low tide, face the ocean at all times and wear shoes with a good grip—the rocks are slippery. Otter Point is also an amazing place to see passing and nesting seabirds.
Little Hunters Beach
There’s a small parking area on the side of Park Loop Road for this cobblestoned beach, which is also marked on the official map of the park. You’ll access it via a staircase. The beach is a great spot to relax and take in the amazing sounds produced by the waves as they wash over and tumble the cobbles. (Swimming isn’t recommended because of powerful undertows.)
Two-way traffic along the road starts up again near the stables.
One of the most photographed spots in all of Acadia, crystal-clear Jordan Pond boasts two parking areas—one for the Jordan Pond House (a historic tea house and restaurant, plus gift shop), and another for entry points to hiking trails and carriage roads. Consider stopping for the famous tea and popovers at the restaurant (a reservation is advised) and hike the 3.5 loop trail around the pond’s shores (Jordan Pond Path) between the mountains. The views are breathtaking and unforgettable, and you’ll see reflections of The Bubbles (two rounded peaks) and Pemetic Mountain in the pond.
End your trip on the Park Loop Road by summiting Cadillac Mountain on the 3.5-mile Cadillac Summit Road. With an elevation of 1,530 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the highest peak in Acadia and the highest point on the U.S.’ eastern seaboard. From the summit, you’ll be able to see many of the park’s spectacular lakes and islands, and on a really clear day, Mount Katahdin, which is the tallest peak in Maine and marks the end of the Appalachian Trail. Plan on walking the short, paved Cadillac Summit Loop Trail and visiting the gift shop at the top to pick up some souvenirs of your amazing road excursion.
Some visitors prefer to start their Park Loop Road Trip with a trip to the top of Cadillac Mountain and see the sun rise. From October 7 to March 6, Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. that you can see the sun rise. It’s also an amazing place to stargaze at night.
From May 26-October 19, you’ll have to purchase a vehicle reservation online, in advance of your trip (in addition to your park pass) to drive up the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road. Separate reservations are required for sunrise and daytime access.
Important Tips and Information About Park Loop Road
Entrance Fee: The entrance fee per car is $30. To avoid lines, it’s best to buy your pass online in advance of your trip; print out and bring the pass with you. But you can also buy an entrance pass upon arrival at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, Sand Beach Entrance Station and the Blackwoods, Schoodic Woods and Seawall Campgrounds. Learn more here.
Be sure to display your park entrance pass in the front windshield of your car.
Traffic and Flow: The Park Loop Road and parking areas off the road can get quite congested during peak season (June into September). Plan on arriving before 8 am or after 5 pm to avoid midday; the road is open 24 hours per day, weather permitting (most of the road is closed from Dec. 1 to April 14). The road is mostly two way, but one section only allows for driving in one direction.
Speed Limit: The speed limit is 35 mph and less in some spots (markers indicate speed) to accommodate pedestrians, bicycles and roaming wildlife.
Parking: You may park in the right-hand lane in designated areas along the one-way section of the Park Loop Road. Roadside parking outside of these areas is prohibited.