I grew up visiting my grandparents every summer at their home in Trenton, Maine, right near Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. Maybe it’s partly due to my sentimental attachment to the place, but I think Acadia is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Despite the fact that New England in general and Acadia in particular is well known as a leaf-peeping destination, it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I finally visited in the fall, and when I did, I fell head over heels for how this time of year looks on Acadia.
The fall season sweet spot in Acadia is between Labor Day and Columbus Day, when you’ll find fewer crowds than in the summer, lower prices and consistently good weather. The park largely remains open until Thanksgiving, but many restaurants and businesses shut down after the Columbus Day holiday weekend and as you get into late October and November the weather becomes iffier.
Here are some of my favorite picks for a fall weekend getaway:
Drive the Park Loop Road.
This is a must-do at any time of year, as it takes you by many of Acadia’s top sites including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole (which may or may not be thundering depending on tide and weather conditions), and the iconic Otter Cliffs, but it’s especially beautiful when the leaves are turning.
If you want to get out of the car and break up the drive, there’s a nice trail, called Ocean Path, that runs parallel to the Park Loop Road from Sand Beach to Otter Point. It’s 4 miles round-trip, but it’s just steps from the road so it’s easy enough to walk shorter stretches at a time.
If you’re looking for a hike with a high reward to effort ratio that won’t take all day, I highly recommend the Gorham Mountain Trail. Like many trails in Acadia, it is largely open to the air, and you climb over granite rocks while looking down on Otter Cliffs below. In the fall the views from this trail are nothing short of spectacular and I think this is one of the best spots in the park from which to view fall foliage.
It’s a fairly gradual ascent and the round-trip distance is less than two miles, meaning you won’t wipe yourself out or knock out your whole day doing Gorham Mountain. If you’re looking for a longer hike, the 4.5 mile round-trip North Ridge trail up Cadillac Mountain is a great option. Cadillac is the highest mountain on the Eastern seaboard and although this trail is long for Acadia, it’s not particularly steep or difficult underfoot, making it a great family day hike. The views along the way from this trail are really awesome, especially in the fall.
You can actually drive to the summit of Cadillac, and that’s something I highly recommend if you opt not to do the climb. There’s a paved path around the summit that is great for those that want to get out of the car and explore, but don’t have the energy or time for a long hike.
Although I haven’t yet taken my own pup there, Acadia is one of the few National Parks in the US that is pet-friendly. Dogs on a leash are allowed on all trails that don’t have ladders and on all the carriage roads. Both the Gorham Mountain Trail and Cadillac North Ridge trail are suitable for dogs, assuming your pup can handle the distance involved. This page has a good summary of many other popular hiking trails in the park.
Bike the Carriage Roads.
Although I enjoy many outdoor activities, I am really not a fan of biking. I can’t climb hills on a bike to save my life (and by “hills” I mean anything with the slightest incline) and there’s nothing less fun for me than walking while pushing a bike. But Acadia’s extensive carriage road system (more than 45 miles worth) is flat enough that even non-athletes like me can bike with relative ease. And there’s no better time to do it than when the roads are covered by a canopy of fall leaves.
There are several outfitters in Bar Harbor that rent bikes if you don’t have your own. There is some access to the carriage roads not far from town, but if you want to head to the other side of the island, you can take advantage of the park’s free shuttles, which can transport your bike as well as you (even if you’re not biking, these shuttles are a great way to get around the park and avoid the hassle of finding parking).
Explore Bar Harbor.
Bar Harbor is touristy; I won’t deny that. There are souvenir shops aplenty and mega cruise ships are sometimes docked here. But it’s a cute, charming town with good eats, and the view (pictured below) from the town’s Agamont Park is one of my favorites on the island.
There are lots of fun things to do in or near Bar Harbor, including kayak tours, whale watching and schooner trips. At low tide, you can walk across a sand bar to Bar Island, which, as the name suggests, is an island at high tide. Just make sure to check tide tables before you go so you don’t get stuck on the island all day!
Mount Desert Island has a great variety of lodging options, ranging from campgrounds to motels to higher-end hotels and B&Bs, and those willing to spend more time in the car every day can find even cheaper rates at motels off the island in the nearby towns of Trenton and Ellsworth (but for a first visit I highly recommend staying in Bar Harbor if at all possible). I am admittedly biased because I got married there, but I think it’s hard to top the Bar Harbor Inn, especially in the fall when rates drop significantly.
The hotel is perfectly situated in the heart of Bar Harbor, right next to Agamont Park. In fact the Bar Harbor Shore Path, one of the most scenic short walks on the island, goes right in front of the hotel. The Shore Path is public, but you can’t beat taking in the same view from your own private balcony every morning with a cup of coffee in hand.
The sunsets are pretty killer too.
Blueberry pancakes at Jordan’s Restaurant. In summer, you’ll need to get there around 8 am to make sure you avoid a wait, but in the shoulder season you can sleep in a bit. Don’t let the fact that they sell t-shirts and other touristy paraphernalia deter you; this is a family-owned establishment that is as beloved by locals as it is by tourists. And their wild Maine blueberry pancakes are the best ones I’ve ever had.
Popovers at Jordan Pond House. Come for the world-renowned popovers and their excellent renditions of blueberry crisp and lobster stew; stay for the incredible views of Jordan Pond. Reservations are highly recommended, otherwise be prepared to wait, especially for the outdoor (dog-friendly!) tables. The Jordan Pond Shore Trail is a relatively flat three-mile loop around the lake that is a nice way to burn off the calories after your meal.
Lobster at Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound. This is just across the bridge from Mount Desert Island in the town of Trenton, but the trip from Bar Harbor is worth it. They offer a few side dishes and desserts, but for the most part it’s all about the lobster, and this is the best place around for it.
Ice cream at Ben & Bill’s. This place is famous for selling lobster ice cream (and for their giant wooden lobster out front), but personally I’m a fan of their mud pie ice cream (basically a coffee oreo) and their fudge and chocolate truffles. Add their incredible hot fudge to your ice cream if you’re feeling decadent (or if you just climbed Cadillac!).
I will always treasure my memories of summer in Maine and still love visiting at that time of year, but now I’ve become a huge advocate for visiting in the fall as well!