The 20-mile Park Loop Road is to Acadia what Half Dome is to Yosemite -- the park's premier attraction, and a magnet for the largest crowds. This remarkable roadway starts near the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and follows the high ridges above Bar Harbor before dropping down along the rocky coast. Here, spires of spruce and fir cap dark granite ledges, making a sharp contrast with the white surf and steel-blue sea. After following the picturesque coast and touching on several coves, the road loops back inland along Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake, with a detour to the summit of the island's highest peak, Cadillac Mountain.

Ideally, visitors should try to make two circuits of the loop road. The first time, go for the sheer exhilaration of it and to get the lay of the land. On the second time around, plan to stop frequently and poke around on foot, setting off on trails or scrambling along the coastline. Scenic pull-offs are staggered at frequent intervals. The two-lane road is one-way along its coastal sections; the right-hand lane is set aside for parking, so you can stop wherever you'd like, admire the vistas, and click away.

From about 10am until 4pm in July and August, anticipate big crowds along the loop road, at least on days when the sun is shining. Parking lots often fill up and close at some of the most popular destinations, including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and the Cadillac Mountain summit, so try to visit these spots early or late in a day. Alternatively, make the best of cloudy or drizzly days by letting the weather work to your advantage; you'll sometimes discover that you have the place nearly to yourself.

From the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the Park Loop initially runs atop:

1. Paradise Hill

The tour starts with sweeping views eastward over Frenchman Bay. You'll see the town of Bar Harbor far below, and just beyond it the Porcupines, a cluster of islands that look like, well, just what you'd expect from the name.

Following the Park Loop Road clockwise, you'll dip into a wooded valley and come to:

2. Sieur de Monts Spring

Here you'll find a rather uninteresting natural spring, unnaturally encased, along with a botanical garden with some 300 species showcased in 12 habitats. The original Abbe Museum (tel. 207/288-3519) is here, featuring a small but select collection of Native American artifacts. It's open daily from late May to early October, 9am to 4pm; admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children ages 6 to 15. (A larger and more modern branch of the museum in Bar Harbor features more and better-curated displays; a ticket here gets you a $2 discount there.

The Tarn is the chief reason to stop here; a few hundred yards south of the springs via a footpath, it's a slightly medieval-looking and forsaken pond sandwiched between steep hills. Departing from the south end of the Tarn is the fine Dorr Mountain Ladder Trail.

Continue the clockwise trip on the loop road; views eastward over the bay soon resume, almost uninterrupted, until you get to:

3. The Precipice Trail

The park's most dramatic trail, this ascends sheer rock faces on the east side of Champlain Mountain. Only about 3/4 of a mile to the summit, it's rigorous, and involves scrambling up iron rungs and ladders in exposed places (those with a fear of heights and those under 5 ft. tall should avoid this trail). The trail is often closed midsummer to protect nesting peregrine falcons. Rangers are often on hand in the trail-head parking lot to point out the birds and suggest alternative hikes.

Between the Precipice Trail and Sand Beach is a tollbooth where visitors have to pay the park entrance fee.

Picturesquely set between the arms of a rocky cove is:

4. Sand Beach

Sand Beach is virtually the only sand beach on the island, although swimming these cold waters (about 50°F/10°C) is best enjoyed on extremely hot days or by those with a freakishly robust metabolism. When it's sunny out, the sandy strand is crowded midday with picnickers. (The water at the far end of the beach -- where a gentle stream enters the cove -- is often a few degrees warmer than the part beside the access stairway.)

Two worthwhile hikes start near this beach. The Beehive Trail overlooks Sand Beach; it starts from a trail head across the loop road. From the east end of Sand Beach, look for the start of the Great Head Trail, a loop of about 2 miles that follows on the bluff overlooking the beach, then circles back along the shimmering bay before cutting through the woods back to Sand Beach.

About a mile south of Sand Beach is:

5. Thunder Hole

Thunder Hole is a shallow oceanside cavern into which surf surges, compresses, and bursts out. (A walking trail on the road allows you to leave your car parked at the beach). When the sea is as quiet as a pond -- and it can be, on some midsummer days -- just drive right on past without stopping.

However, on days when the seas are rough and large swells roll in all the way from the Bay of Fundy, this is a must-see, three-star attraction; you can feel the ocean's power and force resonating under your sternum. Tip: The best viewing time is 3 hours before high tide; check tide tables, available at local hotels, restaurants, and info kiosks.

Just before the road curves around Otter Point, you'll be driving atop:

6. Otter Cliffs

This set of 100-foot-high precipices is capped with dense stands of spruce trees. From the top, look for spouting whales in summer. In early fall, thousands of eider ducks can sometimes be seen floating in big, raft-like flocks just offshore. A footpath traces the edge of the crags.

At Seal Harbor, the loop road veers north and inland back toward Bar Harbor. On the route is:

7. Jordan Pond

Jordan Pond is a small but beautiful body of water encased by gentle, forested hills. A 3-mile hiking loop follows the pond's shoreline, and a network of splendid carriage roads converges at the pond. After a hike or mountain-bike excursion, spend some time at a table on the lawn of the Jordan Pond House restaurant.

Shortly before the loop road ends, you'll pass the entrance to:

8. Cadillac Mountain

Reach this mountain by car, ascending an early carriage road. At 1,528 feet, it's the highest peak on the Atlantic between Canada and Brazil. During much of the year, it's also the first place on U.S. soil touched by the rays of sunrise. But because Cadillac Mountain is the only mountaintop in the park accessible by car, and because it's also the island's highest point, the parking lot at the summit can get jammed. Views are undeniably great, though the shopping-mall-at-Christmas atmosphere can put a serious crimp in your enjoyment of the place if it's too packed. Some lower peaks accessible only by foot -- such as Acadia and Champlain mountains -- have equally excellent views and far fewer crowds.

Get Yourself A Cadillac: Bagging Acadia’s Crown Jewel

It’s only 1,500 or so feet high, but Cadillac Mountain feels much grander because its views seem to stretch forever—relatively speaking, that is. This is the best place on the island to get an overview of things: the fractured geology of mountains and islands, the almost Arctic-like vegetation, the subtle color changes of fall, the sea fogs (and cruise ships and ferries) rolling in like clockwork in summer. Yes, you can drive to the top and walk a .5-mile path to the summit, and that’s fine if you have limited time or mobility issues. But experienced hikers can also enjoy two trails snaking up its flanks. The 4.5-mile North Ridge Trail is shorter, easier (but not easy), more open, and more ocean-scenic; it departs from a parking lot on the Park Loop Road. The 7-plus-mile South Ridge Trail, beginning near Blackwoods Campground, is better left to expert hikers: it’s a bit hairy in spots, but the payoff includes some great views on the long, exposed ridgewalk along the way. Beginners, those in questionable physical condition, or those who think mountains can be hiked in heels/flip-flops should not tackle either one of these hikes.


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