Winds blast the bald outcropping 1,530 feet above the Atlantic as the stars melt into the creeping light of dawn. Perched on Cadillac Mountain in America's easternmost national park, I may be the first person in the country to witness this new day. Around me, there are only the crash of the waves, the cry of a seagull and a cold, numbing wind.
Acadia National Park, established in 1919 as the first national park east of the Mississippi, dangles from Maine's tortuous coastline on a land formation called Mount Desert Island. It takes its name from the larger region that encompasses northern Maine and, in Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and part of Quebec.
I'd been here nearly 20 years earlier and still remembered the sunrise view from Cadillac Mountain as one of the most beautiful I'd encountered. So when my longtime friend Hal — who had never stepped inside a Winnebago, let alone pitched a tent — and I decided to go camping in May 2003, Acadia seemed a good spot.
We stuffed our tent, backpacks and sleeping bags into the trunk of his Ford Taurus. We loaded our bikes onto a rack mounted above the rear bumper. We planned meals to be cooked over Coleman stoves by the light of propane lanterns. We would be roughing it.
We hit the road early, but the drive from Philadelphia, where we both live, to northern Maine takes 12 hours. By the time we reach Bar Harbor (pronounced "Bah Hah-bah" by the locals), adjacent to Acadia National Park, it's after 9 p.m., which means total darkness this far east. Off Route 3, an illuminated billboard advertises free lobsters with a two-night stay at the Bar Harbor Quality Inn.
I gesture toward the sign and say, "It could be tricky pitching a tent in the dark, Hal."
"Didn't I read about bears up here?"
"Boiled lobsters are a lot less dangerous."
"That settles it. We better get a room."
Later that evening, after watching a basketball game on TV, Hal gets up to change the channel.
"Here," I offer. "Use the remote."
"Nah, that's all right, Joe. We're roughing it."
Rockefeller's legacy France established its first permanent North American colony in the Acadia region in 1604. During the French and Indian War (1754-63), British troops expelled 10,000 Acadians, many of whom resettled in another French colony, Louisiana, and became known as Cajuns — a variation on the word Acadian (like "Injun" is of Indian). The forced exodus was immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1847 epic poem "Evangeline," in which two lovers are separated just before their wedding. Longfellow's opening lines still capture the feel of the place: "This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight "
After my solo sunrise excursion, the weather takes a turn for the worse, so we spend our first day exploring Bar Harbor and driving the 27-mile scenic Park Loop Road that links Acadia's major attractions, including beaches, campgrounds, a nature center and the historic Jordan Pond House. It also provides access points to the 45 miles of carriage roads, one of the park's most popular features.
These roads of compact broken stone, built from 1913 to 1940, were designed and financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. His fortune may have come from Standard Oil, which fueled America's passion for cars, but he didn't want to see Mount Desert Island overrun by automobiles. Besides building the car-free carriage roads, he also donated more than 10,000 acres of land to the park.
The island's natural beauty, popularized in landscape paintings of the Hudson River Valley School, attracted the Rockefellers and other prominent industrialists and financiers. The Carnegies, Fords, Morgans and Vanderbilts all erected palatial "summer cottages" on Mount Desert Island, though most were destroyed by the great fire of 1947.
The carriage roads, however, remain. Rehabilitated in the 1990s, they continue to serve as a haven for hikers, cyclists and equestrians. Park personnel have divided them into segments with colorful names (Aunt Betty's Pond, the Witch's Hole) and varied difficulties, from the easy 3.8-mile Cedar Swamp Mountain Loop to the 15-mile Around the Mountain route. They wind beneath canopies of spruce and hemlock, where time unfolds in breezes scented with pine and melts away in pools of sunlight on the forest floor.
On our second day, the weather improves enough to take our bikes out to the carriage roads. Our 8.6-mile route starts along the west shore of Bubble Pond, which is nestled at the foot of Pemetic Mountain. The craggy pinnacles of Cadillac Mountain dominate the skyline and towering firs line the roadsides. We pedal south through the shadows of Jordan's Cliffs into a deep forest — suggestive of Longfellow's "forest primeval" — before the road emerges onto the soaring arches of the Deerbrook Bridge, one of 17 hand-built stone bridges in the park. Below us a frisky colt gambols in the Wildwood Stables' paddock, where horse-drawn carriage rides depart.
Farther on, where we turn north onto the Jordan Pond trail, we pass the stone and brick Jordan Pond Gatehouse, designed in the early 1930s by New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury, who took his inspiration from Louis XIV's hunting lodges in France. Its original occupants were park attendants whose chief responsibility was keeping cars off the carriage roads; rangers and other park personnel now live in it.
In the afternoon we walk the Bubble Rock Trail, part of the network of 120 miles of hiking trails that interlace the park. This easy mile-long route is a major tourist draw, and parking lots overflow in the summers, when Acadia gets the bulk of its 2.5 million annual visitors. But this time of year, Acadia is our private playground to lord over, as Rockefeller once did.
Strenuous inclines intersperse the Bubble Rock trail early on, but the terrain quickly levels off to a gradual ascent. Halfway to the top, we clear the tree line. Glimmering lakes and rolling forests unfold in a sweeping vista as we approach the summit, where Bubble Rock juts outward, as big as a VW Beetle. From certain angles, the boulder appears about to crash into the valley. Hal stands on the leeward side of Bubble Rock and pretends to hold it back with one finger.
Lobsters 'down east' We've worked up an appetite, so we drive down to the Jordan Pond House, an elegant eatery in the middle of Acadia. Built in 1847, this stone house originally served as a farmhouse. The farmer added a wing and turned it into a restaurant to supplement his income, and over the years, the establishment earned a reputation for gourmet meals that lured Mount Desert Island's wealthy summer residents.
Tempting items fill the restaurant menu such as lobster, homemade ice cream and popovers, a distinctive specialty. As large as a head of cabbage, Jordan popovers consist of crisp, golden layers of crust. Served piping hot, the popovers peel open like the petals of a rose, exuding the mouth-watering aroma of oven-baked bread. I enjoy mine with a steaming cup of herbal tea.
Nourished, we mount the bikes again to tackle the Day Mountain Loop, the only carriage road to reach a mountain summit — albeit a low peak at 583 feet. The road corkscrews through a dense grove of spruce and maple trees, and when breezes stir, paper-thin curls of bark flap from the trunks of beech trees. Clumps of moss coat the rotting trunks of fallen trees that host colonies of mushrooms — some growing to the size of Frisbees.
We still haven't managed to trade in our queen-size beds for sleeping bags, so early in the evening we head back to Bar Harbor for that free lobster dinner promised by the billboard.
Maine's crustacean mascot adorns license plates, road signs and every tourist brochure ever printed down east. ("Down east" is a seemingly self-contradictory nautical term that refers to the prevailing westerly winds that carry vessels "down to Maine" from Boston.) Once flung onto the plates of servants, this seafood is now considered a delicacy. In Maine, when lobsters are in season everyone eats like a king. And according to Rob, the proprietor of Bunny's restaurant, "Lobsters are always in season."
A foot long, the bright red creatures arrive at our table with their strapped claws hanging off the edge of our plates. The server hands us moist towelettes, a nut cracker and pencil-thin metal prongs. Half an hour later, we're chin-deep in shattered shells and greasy napkins.
Thundering geyser The next day we set off on two hikes, the most striking of which is the Ocean Path. It stretches two miles out, paralleling the Park Loop Road but maintaining ample distance for pockets of silence and solitude. Along the coastline, the trail crosses over precarious ledges and past hollows carved over 15,000 years by glacial ice and seaside erosion.
Quartz, feldspar and minuscule shell fragments color Sand Beach below us — Acadia's only sandy shore — with a rusty pigment. But even on the hottest summer days, only the hardiest swimmers venture into these waters, where temperatures top out at 50 degrees. Visitors in search of a dip prefer the warmer, protected waters of Echo Lake about eight miles inland.
A mile from the trailhead, we reach Thunder Hole. At high tide, when waves pound into this alcove, seawater rushes into an underwater cave and bursts in a geyser from a hole on its roof. When 20-foot swells hammer Thunder Hole, they explode in sheets of foam. Above the crevice, viewing areas offer sure-footed tourists a seagull's view.
Along Otter Cliffs, the path commands a breathtaking panorama of the Atlantic lashing the shoreline, where steep cliffs alternate with tumbling piles of talus. Dense forests surrender to sharp precipices, home to peregrine falcons nesting in the crannies.
"Is that snow?" Hal points to a white blotch sinking into the fissure of a cliff, just beyond Otter Point.
"Yep," I say. "And the campground's only two miles back."
"You suppose they serve lobster?"
"I don't know, but I don't trust that widow-maker." I motion to the melting pile of snow, about the size of an abandoned mattress. "Even world-class outbackers don't mess with avalanches."
"We'd better book that room another two nights."
When we return home, at the end of the week, we hug our wives and kids and unpack our camping equipment in the driveway. My wife examines my sleeping bag and asks, "Did you even use this?"
I glance at Hal and clear my throat. "Experienced campers keep their gear clean."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Into the woods
WHERE TO STAY:
Bar Harbor Quality Inn, 40 Kebo St., Bar Harbor; (800) 282-5403 or (207) 288-5403, fax (207) 288-5473, http://www.choicehotels.com . Large rooms with cable TV. Lounge area with Internet access. Only two miles from the park entrance. Doubles start at $69; $129 in high season.
Briarfield Inn, 60 Cottage St., Bar Harbor; (800) 228-6660, http://www.briarfieldinn.com . This 1887 inn has 14 rooms, all including private bath, air conditioning and cable. Two large common rooms are ideal for games of chess or backgammon. Full breakfast included, and cookies in the afternoon. Doubles start at $100.
Hatfield B&B, 20 Roberts Ave., Bar Harbor; (207) 288-9655, http://www.hatfieldinn.com . On a quiet side street, this quaint B&B has six rooms and is a short walk from the town center and Bar Harbor's waterfront. Breakfast includes fresh fruit along with homemade muffins, cake and bread. Doubles start at $70, $130 in high season.
Blackwoods Campground, Route 3 inside Acadia National Park; (800) 365-2267, reservations.nps.gov. Wooded sites within a 10-minute walk of the beach. One vehicle, six people maximum. Toilets and cold water only; no showers. Sites are $20 a night; $50 for group site. Reservations available five months in advance. Seawall Campground, closed for renovations, will reopen in May.
Spruce Valley Campground, 1453 State Highway 102, Bar Harbor; (207) 288-5139. http://www.sprucevalley.com . Private campground with 115 wooded and open sites for both tent and RV campers. Full facilities. Heated pool. Open mid-May to Nov. 1. $20 to $30 a night.
WHERE TO EAT:
Galyn's Restaurant, 17 Main St., Bar Harbor; (207) 288-9706. Trendy restaurant serving pasta and chicken dishes, should one tire of lobster. The quiet lounge has a beautiful mahogany bar. And the cappuccino sundaes are a treat. Dinner entrees $16-19.
Geddy's Pub, 19 Main St., Bar Harbor; (207) 288-5077. Popeye, Betty Boop and Charlie Tuna stare down from the walls, and dress shoes dangle overhead. A variety of local beers is available, and lobster can be had for $10.95. Dinner entrees, $6-$21.
TO LEARN MORE:
Acadia National Park, Route 3, Mount Desert Island (P.O. Box 177, Eagle Lake Road, Bar Harbor, ME 04609-0177); (207) 288-3338, fax (207) 288-8813, http://www.nps.gov/acad . Park fee $20 for one week; $40 for an annual pass.
Carriages in the Park, Wildwood Stables, Park Loop Road, in Acadia National Park. (P.O. Box 241, Seal Harbor, ME 04675; (207) 276-3622, http://www.acadia.net/wildwood . One- to four-hour horse-drawn carriage rides on the historic roads. Open June 15-Oct. 11. $16-$22; $8-$9 for ages 6-12; $4.50-$6 for ages 2-5.
Acadia Bike, 48 Cottage St., Bar Harbor; (207) 288-9605 or (800) 526-8615, http://www.acadiabike.com . Rents mountain bikes, strollers, carracks and other equipment. Open mid-May to early November. $18-$20 per day; $15 per day for multiple days.
Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, 141 Cottage St., Bar Harbor; (207) 288-3886, http://www.barharborbike.com . Only 1 1/2 miles from the park entrance. Rents bikes year round. $19-$32 per day.