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Biking the Carriage Roads 

The 57 miles of carriage roads built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. are among the park’s most extraordinary, somewhat hidden treasures. Though built for horse and carriage, they are ideal for cruising by mountain bike and offer some of the most scenic, relaxing biking found anywhere in the United States. No cars are permitted on these grass and gravel lanes; bikers and walkers have them all to themselves. Park your car near Jordan Pond then plumb the tree-shrouded lanes that lace the area, taking time to admire the stonework on the uncommonly fine bridges. Afterward, stop for tea and popovers at the Jordan Pond House, which has been a popular island destination for over a century, although it’s unlikely as much Lycra was in evidence 100 years ago.

The carriage roads were maintained by Rockefeller until his death in 1960, after which they became shaggy and overgrown. A major restoration effort was launched in 1990, and today the roads are superbly restored and maintained. With their wide hard-packed surfaces, gentle grades, and extensive directional signs, they make for very smooth biking. Note that bikes are also allowed on the island’s free Island Explorer shuttle buses.

A useful map of the roads is available free at visitor centers; more detailed guides may be purchased at area bookshops but aren’t necessary. Where carriage roads cross private land (generally between Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor), they’re closed to mountain bikes, which are also banned from hiking trails.

Mountain bikes can be rented along Cottage Street in Bar Harbor, with rates generally in the neighborhood of $25 for a full day or $15 for a half-day (which is 4 hours in the bike-rental universe). High-performance and tandem bikes cost a bit more than that, children’s bikes a bit less. Most bike shops include locks and helmets as basic equipment, but ask what’s included before you rent. Also ask about closing times, since you’ll be able to get in a couple of extra hours with a late-closing shop. The Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, 141 Cottage Street (www.barharborbike.com; tel. 207/288-3886), gets many people’s vote for the most convenient and friendliest. You could also try Acadia Bike & Canoe, 48 Cottage Street (www.acadiabike.com; tel. 800/526-8615).

How the Carriage Roads Came to Be

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., alone purchased and donated some 11,000 acres of Acadia National Park—about one-third of the entire park’s area—and he was almost singularly responsible for its extraordinary carriage roads.

It happened this way. Around 1905, a dispute erupted over whether to allow noisy new motorcars onto the island. Islanders wanted these new conveniences, but Rockefeller (whose fortune had been made in the oil industry) strenuously objected, preferring the tranquility of a car-free island for his summer vacations. The multimillionaire went down to defeat on the issue, though, and the island was opened to cars in 1913; in response, Rockefeller set about building an elaborate 57-mile system of private carriage roads on his holdings in the park, complete with a dozen gracefully handcrafted stone bridges.

These roads—open today to pedestrians, bicyclists, horses, and carriages, but no automobiles—are concentrated most densely around Jordan Pond; they also wind through wooded valleys and ascend some of the park’s most scenic peaks.

Hiking in the Park

Hiking is the quintessential Acadia experience, and it should be experienced by everyone at least once. The park has 120 miles of hiking trails in all, plus 57 miles of carriage roads, which are great for easier walking. Some traverse the sides or faces of low “mountains” (which would be called hills anywhere else), and almost all summits have superb views of the Atlantic. Many of these pathways were crafted by stonemasons or others with aesthetic intent, so the routes aren’t always the most direct—but they’re often incredibly scenic, taking advantage of natural fractures in the rocks, picturesque ledges, and sudden, sweeping vistas.

The Hulls Cove Visitor Center has a brief chart summarizing area hikes; combined with the park map, this is all you need to find one of the well-maintained, well-marked trails and start exploring. Cobble together different loop hikes to make your trips more varied, and be sure to coordinate your hiking with the weather; if it’s damp or foggy, you’ll stay drier and warmer strolling the carriage roads. If it’s clear and dry, head for the highest peaks (Cadillac, The Bubbles) with the best views.

One of the best trails is the Dorr Ladder Trail, which departs from Route 3 near the Tarn just south of the Sieur de Monts entrance to the Loop Road. This trail begins with a series of massive stone steps ascending along the base of a vast slab of granite and then passes through crevasses (not for the wide of girth) and up ladders affixed to the granite. The views east and south are superb.

An easy lowland hike is around Jordan Pond with the northward leg along the pond’s east shore on a hiking trail and the return via carriage road. It’s mostly level, with the total loop measuring just more than 3 miles. At the north end of Jordan Pond, consider heading up the prominent, oddly symmetrical mounds called The Bubbles. These detours shouldn’t take much more than 20 minutes each; look for signs off the Jordan Pond Shore Trail.

On the western side of the island, an ascent of Acadia Mountain and return takes about 1 1/2 hours, but hikers should schedule in some time for lingering while they enjoy the view of Somes Sound and the smaller islands off Mount Desert’s southern shores. This 2.5-mile loop hike begins off Route 102 at a trail head 3 miles south of Somesville. Head eastward through rolling mixed forest, then begin an ascent over ledgey terrain. Be sure to visit both the east and west peaks (the east peak has the better views), and look for hidden clearings in the summit forest that open up to unexpected vistas.

Other Sports & Outdoor Activities

CARRIAGE RIDES: Several types of carriage rides are offered by the park concessionaire Wildwood Stables (www.acadiahorses.com; tel. 877/276-3622), about a half-mile south of the Jordan Pond House. The tours depart daily in season and take in sweeping ocean views from a local mountaintop, ramble over the Rockefeller bridges, or drop by the Jordan Pond House for (optional) tea and popovers (extra charge). There’s a special carriage designed for passengers with disabilities, and you can even charter your own carriage for a private group. Reservations are recommended; figure to pay about $20–$36 per adult, or about $12–$14 per child, for a tour.

ROCK CLIMBING: Many of the ocean-side rock faces attract experienced rock climbers, as much for the beauty of the climbing areas as the challenge of the climbs and the high-grade quality of the rock. For novices or experienced climbers, Acadia Mountain Guides (www.acadiamountainguides.com; tel. 888/232-9559 or 207/288-8186) offers rock-climbing lessons and guide services, ranging from a half-day introduction to rock climbing to intensive workshops on self-rescue and instruction on how to lead climbs. The Bar Harbor branch (the other’s in Orono) is located at 228 Main Street.

SKIING: Cross-country skiers have a glorious mix of terrain to choose from, especially within Acadia National Park, where skiing is allowed for free on park grounds throughout the winter. Volunteers groom more than 30 miles of Acadia’s carriage roads—which were designed for maximum scenic potential, but also to be gradual enough not to tax horses pulling huge carriages, making them ideal for Nordic skiing. I’d go so far as to say it’s among the best cross-country ski destinations in the country. Visit the Facebook page or Twitter feed of Friends of Acadia (www.facebook.com/FriendsofAcadia; www.twitter.com/FriendsofAcadia) for grooming updates in winter. For more about cross-country ski areas in Maine, visit the Nordic skiing website of the trade association Ski Maine (www.skimaine.com).

 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.