Taking the Kids: Visiting Acadia National Park in Maine
Got early birds in your gang? Even if you don't, bragging rights should get them out of bed one morning in Northern Maine to see the sunrise in Acadia National Park, the eastern most point in the United States, from Cadillac Mountain, the highest point within 25 miles of the Atlantic coast. Many people like to hike or bike up to the top, especially to see the sunrise. The hike is 3.5 miles, but the mountain is just 1,529 feet high -- a lot lower than the Rockies!
At night, you've got to check out the stars. Three towns -- Bar Harbor, Tremont and Mount Desert -- near the park have passed lighting ordinances to make sure you can best see the amazing night skies, and every year in September there is an Acadia Night Sky Festival.
Welcome to the only national park in the northeastern United States. Last year, when the park celebrated its centennial, it had its busiest year in 27 years, with a record 3.3 million visitors, according to published reports. Typically, the park gets a little more than 2 million visitors a year, most in summer.
Whether you are seeking an end of summer getaway, have kids not yet in school or want to relax after packing up your last child for college, consider Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, the picturesque town just outside the park. (No mosquitos in fall, less humidity and lesser crowds! For snow lovers, Acadia can also be a good bet for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.)
I've spent a lot of time this summer working on my next Kid's Guide -- this one to Maine -- and I'm looking forward to a return trip to Acadia.
When you first arrive at the park, stop in at the park headquarters, or one of the visitor centers to see what ranger-led activities are being offered. (If you have kids with you, pick up the junior ranger booklets that help them better see the park through age-appropriate activities and challenges. There are also a lot of online and app options to enhance your visit:
-- The National Park Service website for kids called WebRangers offers games and activities and the chance to share pictures, earn rewards and more.
-- Acadia Quest is a series of outdoor experiences through which families or friends create a team and complete activities in categories of explore, learn, and protect.
-- The free app Audubon guide to birds. There are more than 300 bird species in and around Acadia National Park. Have a contest to see who in the family can identify the most birds!
-- Use your GPS to participate in the EarthCache program that will take you all over the park to discover some of the park's significant geological resources.
Check online before you visit to see what ranger programs are being offered or what hikes or bike rides you want to do. Park rangers are also on hand for evening programs at two of the park's campgrounds.
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Ready for a hike? You've got your pick of more than 125 miles of hiking trails, whether you want to climb a mountain or just head out for a walk -- Check out Sand Beach, the park's only sand beach on the ocean, and Thunder Hole where, if you time it right, wind-driven tides sweep into the narrow channel and escape with a huge roar.
Consider that Acadia is the biggest national park created from land donated by private citizens, including John D. Rockefeller Jr. who spearheaded the famous 50-plus miles of Carriage Roads in the park that to this day are closed to motorized vehicles and are a haven for walkers and bikers (and in winter snowshoers and cross-country skiers.)
In Bar Harbor (be forewarned it can be crowded on the days the seasonal cruise ships are in town), many visitors like to visit the "Bar" of Bar Harbor during low tide -- the large sand bar that connects downtown Bar Harbor to Bar Island. Great for tidepooling!
Bar Harbor is also a good place to shop for everything from fine art to blueberry jam (Maine is famous for its wild blueberries) to moose holiday ornaments (moose are the designated state animal) to socks with lobsters on them. (Lobster is a billion-dollar industry here.)
Eating a lobster or lobster roll (a kind of traditional lobster salad on a bun) and blueberry pie is a quintessential experience. The biggest restaurant in town right on the waterfront, Stewman’s Lobster Pound, serves up fried local fish baskets, lobster rolls, chowder, lobsters and blueberry pie. More than n 5.3 million lobsters are eaten every year at the popular Beal’s Lobster Pier, about 25 minutes from Bar Harbor in Southwest Harbor. (Watch lobster boats unload their catch!) To learn more about lobster and lobstering, go out with a lobster fisherman, like aboard the Lulu in Bar Harbor.
Certainly you have your choice of lodging -- budget and deluxe boutique hotels, B&Bs, vacation rentals and campgrounds -- there are three easily accessible ones in the park. If you want to give the kids a taste of camping but don't have all the gear, consider the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Echo Lake Camp just outside Acadia National Park where you stay in platform tents with cots and eat family-style meals. There are boats to borrow and guided hikes, volleyball, basketball, swimming floats and more.
Consider leaving your car and using The Island Explorer, which offers free transportation to hiking trails, beaches, and downtown centers via propane-powered shuttle buses with stops at hotels, inns and campgrounds. It's less stressful -- and greener.
After all that exercise, everyone is bound to be hungry -- again. Another lobster roll?