Acadia National Park is America’s quiet, unassuming child—until summer arrives. Then Acadia thrives in ways well beyond plump blueberry bushes, evergreen pitch pines, and colorful native woodland flowers.
If your idea of a peaceful holiday includes hiking forest trails, biking historic carriage roads, and kayaking mirror-calm inlets, Acadia is well worth exploring. If you’d also like that holiday to be restful and relaxing, consider traveling there during the off-season.
Located on Mount Desert Island on Maine’s dramatic coast, Acadia National Park offers travelers boundless adventures year-round. However, some months are far less crowded, therefore presenting visitors with higher chances of tourist-free trails and mountaintops. Not to mention the chance to more easily secure restaurant and hotel reservations.
While the risks of traveling to Maine during the off-season are more changeable weather conditions and cooler temperatures, the rewards, rain or shine, are great.
Why go to Acadia National Park?
Acadia’s nearly 50,000 acres include natural coastlines with rocky headlands and exposed granite rock faces. It has U-shaped valleys, biodiverse wetlands, stone beaches, and pine forests.
Acadia is proud of its facts, and for good reason. They are quite impressive. Aside from boasting Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on America’s eastern seaboard, Acadia has 158 miles of hiking trails, 27 miles of motorized roads, and 45 miles of pedestrian-only carriage roads.
The historic carriage road network, a gift from philanthropist and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, was built between 1913 and 1940. Mr. Rockefeller, an avid horseman, wanted the park to be non-motorized. He developed the carriage roads to be a scenic way for people to appreciate the natural surroundings.
Intentionally designed to blend into the landscape, sixteen arched, granite bridges connect the pebble-lined paths. The rich graphite stone was hand-hewn from local quarries. Bike, hike, or x-country ski. Stargaze, birdwatch, or stroll. Take in the lakes and mountain views. A lovely and historical way to enjoy Acadia, the pathways are open year-round.
Peak, off-peak, or shoulder?
Technically speaking, the peak season at Acadia National Park spans from June to September. Since Maine is so far north, it enjoys cool temperatures most of the year, therefore making summer especially alluring. September brings the changing leaves and another batch of tourists seeking to view its undulating mountains of fall foliage.
Those willing to take a weather-related risk and go just off-peak may discover they have the park to themselves. We opted to travel in late May, packing rain gear and layers of clothing for the possibility of inclement weather. As it turns out, Mother Nature smiled upon us handing us a gift of clear, blue skies and hiking-friendly temperatures.
Visitors may get equally lucky traveling the shoulder seasons as well. The trade-off for potentially cloudy skies or cooler days is congested trails and heavy park traffic. It’s a personal call. Heading to Acadia in October or early May are certainly options worth considering if high crowds steal the fun from your holidays, as they do mine.
Take on the mountains
Acadia turns on the charm with its vast network of trails. Hikers with abilities ranging from beginner to expert can find their routes and savor mountain top views.
For instance, we opt to climb the 3.3-mile Ladder Trail Loop that leads to the summit of Dorr Mountain. As advertised, the trail has a series of ladders to help hikers scale the rock faces. The Ladder Trail can best be described as an al-fresco StairMaster, as 90% of the route is granite steps. As my quad muscles can confirm, this is considered an advanced trail.
Another intense hike is St. Saveur and Acadia Mountain. This 3.9-mile loop summits not one, but two mountain peaks. The trail meanders around granite boulders with trees that look as if they are rooted in the rocks themselves. Wild purple Rhodora emerges en masse and frame the distant views. The trail takes hikers above the conifer tree line for a rewarding view of the Atlantic Ocean.
If traveling with kids or beginner hikers, the 1.5-mile Flying Mountain Loop is an ideal place to start. Flying Mountain begins with soft pine-needle forest paths and a series of gravel steps. Dappled light adds an ethereal tone to the route, especially if you have the trail to yourself as we did. A short, steep hike has an enormous payoff—wide-open views of Somes Sound.
Take the slow road
Hiking is certainly not a requirement for an Acadia National Park holiday. Visitors can see as much beauty by car, making pit stops along the way at well-placed scenic overlooks. The 27-mile Park Loop Road drive, while highly popular at peak, is one more reason to opt for an off-season trip.
Park Loop connects Acadia’s lakes, mountains, and shoreline with easy access to popular spots including Jordan Pond, Otter Point, and Cadillac Mountain. If you go during the summer, pack a patient mindset along with your sunscreen. You’ll find both are equally important.
Porchin’ at The Claremont Hotel
The Claremont Hotel’s recent renovation makes it the hottest place to stay in the area. Originally built in 1884, this magnificent shingle-style hotel’s quiet and serene location is matched only by its stunning mountain and sound views, elegant porches, well-appointed sitting areas, and masses of vibrant flowers.
The rooms and common areas are a visual feast. An explosion of overlapping patterns and textures that will have interior designers swooning. Rattan furniture and tall, arched, cloth-covered headboards, and spa-like bathrooms complete the scene. The ocean view rooms are especially inviting. With the sun rising at 5am in May, you need not leave bed to enjoy it.
Quite possibly the best spot at The Claremont (and there are many to choose from) is the wraparound porch that overlooks the heated pool and on towards the calm sound. Inviting wicker rockers have green and white striped cushions. Green blankets are in a basket nearby to take the edge off the crisp air. The sound of the breeze and the birds will tempt you to stay put for a few hours over a cup of herbal tea. In a word, The Claremont is extraordinary.
Maine food delights
It’s true that a trip to Acadia during the off-season may limit which restaurants are open. But as more and more visitors flock to Maine during these traditionally, off-peak times, the more incentive the restaurants will have to remain open longer.
That said, a major perk of a visit in late May is the opportunity to walk into restaurants without a reservation. Havana, on Main Street in Bar Harbor, boasts American dining with a Latin edge. Their roasted half-chicken with a Peruvian-style marinade and creamy cilantro sauce still has me dreaming of a return visit.
It’s no secret that Maine and lobster rolls are virtually synonymous. Ask any Mainer and they will likely tell you their favorite lobster shack and lobster style. What makes the perfect lobster roll depends on who you ask. Personally, I like a split soft brioche roll, toasted with butter, piled high with lobster meat in a light mayo vinaigrette, and a touch of diced celery.
One of the many places to experience lobster rolls in the area is pier-side at Beal’s. Beal’s is a working lobster pier and has that effortless and quintessential lobster shack vibe. Enjoy their classic lobster roll with nearly 5 ounces of fresh lobster meat tossed lightly with mayo served on a grilled brioche roll. Beyond lobster, guests can opt for fresh mussels, steamers, and local Maine oysters.
Taking a chance
When you decide to visit Maine’s Acadia National Park is entirely based on your personal travel style. Perhaps you don’t mind the hustle and bustle of crowds. Maybe you’re an early riser and plan to hit the trails before the masses?
Come to spot wildlife like otters, deer, red fox, and bears, or admire the flora and fauna of the trails. Peer between the coastal rocks and see mini eco-systems living in the tidal pools. Birdwatch, stargaze, and identify native trees like the Balsam Fir and American Beech.
Be warned, if you choose to visit Acadia during peak season, make your mother proud and share the roads and trails. Despite its 3 million visitors each year, there’s room for all.
Think about taking a risk. Put on your adventure mindset and take on Acadia National Park in the off-season.
Chances are, you’ll be rewarded in one way or another.