A (Family-Friendly) 3-Day Itinerary for Acadia National Park, Maine


Acadia national park itinerary, visiting Acadia in October
Acadia National Park fall foliage- Marshes on the first pull-off on Ocean Loop Road

Acadia is one of the most visited US National Park. It is also the oldest in the eastern United States and the only one in the northeast. With thick evergreen forests, ponds and pink granite mountains tucked into Maine’s rocky coast it is also one of the most beautiful. It even has the closest thing the east coast has to a fjord, a fjard, called Somes Sound. You can imagine how crowded it gets because it is so popular and is only about 1/3 of the size of Grand Canyon National Park.

It was the first national park started from private donations. A third of the land was donated by John D Rockefeller, Jr. and many of his fingerprints can be seen around the park, including its carriage trails and stone bridges.

Acadia National Park is mainly on an island, Mount Desert Island in northern Maine. The island is shaped like an upside down heart with Somes Sound (the dimple) facing south and dividing the island into east and west halves. The majority of the things to see and do in Acadia are on the eastern side of the island and around the town of Bar Harbor.

You must purchase a pass to enter and park in Acadia. The easiest way is to get one in the visitor’s center on your way onto Mount Desert Island. If you don’t, you may end up having to drive far out-of-the-way to the park entrance. There are many ways into the park other than the gate that sells the pass.

I was blessed to spend a perfect peek fall holiday weekend in and around Acadia National Park. Early October in Acadia is a good time to visit if you would like to see fall colors, as the park puts on quite a show. We came to the park to celebrate my mom’s 65th birthday. She isn’t up to moderate hikes, so we picked family friendly Acadia hikes for this trip. I will recommend some moderate Acadia hikes for you in case you are looking for more of a challenge. Many of the things we wanted to do were tide dependent, so that shaped our plans.

Do I need or want a car in Acadia National Park?

Let me say again, Acadia is a crowded park! Parking in Bar Harbor and Acadia is a stressful, time-consuming activity.

Thankfully the park offers shuttle service that can take you most anywhere you want to go.. and it’s free with your park entrance. They will stop at random spots for you even. The only place we needed a car was when we went to explore the western island outside of the park (although it does go to that side) and getting up Cadillac Mountain.

Day One on Mount Desert Island

A Visit to Jordan Pond

top things to do in acadia national park
In spite of the fact that we visited at peak leaf season, there were many flowers in the park still in bloom, including these on the lawn of the Jordan Pond House.

Jordan Pond House

I am a big fan of high tea and water views. The restaurant is not in its original building- that burned down- but it still serves popovers like it did in the 1800s. It is plopped right on a luscious lawn overlooking Jordan Pond and the Bubbles, glacier errants. Owned by the National Park Service, this is the only full service restaurant in Acadia.

The menu is inventive and the food good, although ours was a bit cool. I was glad that we had a reservation, because the place was busy. It is a bit of a mill, but worth visiting.

What is a popover?

A popover is an American creation. It has the basic ingredients of English Yorkshire pudding without the meat juices. They are tall with a large air pocket, full of soft and eggy batter and crunchy outside. They are served with butter and strawberry jam. Also worth trying here are the blueberry lemonade and soda. I loved the blueberry soda so much, I ordered it whenever I could find it over the weekend, but nowhere else was it quite as good.

Hikes from Jordan Pond House

You can hike around Jordan Pond on the family friendly 3.5 mile Jordan Pond Loop Path. If you want a wee challenge, the Jordan Pond Trail connects to South Bubble Trail which has great views and a balanced rock, Bubble Rock, which was perched there after travelling with a glacier. It is a moderate hike.

Drive to the Top of Cadillac Mountain to See the Sunset

Sunset from a pull off on Cadillac Mountain Summit Road.

End your first day in Acadia with a drive up Cadillac Mountain. It is the tallest mountain on the east coast and provides spectacular views over Frenchman’s Bay. There are many viewpoints off the road on the way up. The only problem is that everyone will have the same idea as you. The night we tried to go up, the mountain was so full they closed it to traffic about one hour before sunset, so go early if you really want to see it.

Things to Do in Acadia National Park: fall in Acadia
One of Rockefeller’s famous stone bridges on the carriage paths

Eagle Lake Carriage Trails

Because we couldn’t get up Cadillac, we explored the Eagle Lake Carriage Trails for a bit before the sunset. 45 miles of wide groomed trails were built by John D Rockefeller and they are worth exploring! They are a popular spot for biking and snowshoeing and will give you views of wildlife and the stone bridges.

Sunset over Eagle Lake, Acadia

Slight adversity can often be a reminder that what we want isn’t always the best. Instead of fighting with the crowds on Cadillac, we enjoyed some peace and this…

what to do in Acadia National Park Best sunsets in Acadia National Park

After a busy day, we were off to bed.

Day Two on Mount Desert Island, Maine

Things to Do in Bar Harbor, Maine

Things to Do in Bar Harbor Maine
Water-front house in Bar Harbor all dressed up for autumn

We spent our second day in the town of Bar Harbor. This was a summer get-away for the wealthy in the gilded age, much like my beloved Newport. It is a cute town full of a lot to do, but lacks the same abundance of older buildings like Newport, in part due to a huge fire in 1947 that burned down half of the eastern portion of Mount Desert Island.

Breakfast in Bar Harbor, Maine

We found Choco-Latte on our first day here and returned daily for our whole trip. We started our days with the name-sake coffee, a sweet and spiced latte and one of their very fluffy, flavorful bagels. It is a coffee shop, not a plated restaurant, but we wanted to get started on our exploring!

Walk around town and explore. Chase the Museum in the Streets signs learning about Bar Harbor’s history.

Bar Island Land Bridge Hike

What to do in Bar Harbor, Maine
Bar Island Land Bridge a few hours after low tide. By the way, cars aren’t allowed on it– the guy was just being a jerk. He really was, speeding among the pedestrians.

Bar Harbor used to be called Eden, but was later named after one its most interesting features! When I wrote to you about Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard, we talked about an island that is sometimes a peninsula– that’s what is happening here.

Bar Island, in the south of Bar Harbor’s Harbor, is a self-standing island for about 21 hours a day. Then at low tide, a wide (about 12 feet the day we visited) gravel land bridge rises out of the sea (sounds better than becomes exposed) and presto-chango, we have a peninsula that you can easily walk to from Bar Harbor. It is really cool to watch the 12 foot tidal change expose the bridge. Come back later to see it completely submerged.

Where is the Bar Island Land Bridge?

The Bar Island Land Bridge is just a few blocks from Main Street at the end of Bridge Street. You can put 1 Bridge Street into your GPS, but you have to park on West Street, not down Bridge Street.

What time of day can I cross to Bar Island?

You can safely cross the Land Bridge for 1 1/2 hours surrounding low tide. If you get stuck out there, you have to hire a very costly water taxi to get back to the mainland.

Bar Harbor itinerary
Tide pools become exposed, just asking to be explored.

How do I need to prepare for a walk to Bar Island?

When we decided that we NEEDED to take this walk, we were concerned we would need water shoes. We did not need them at all. The gravel is very dry and we wore our regular sneakers. Because this land is usually under the water, there are creatures, shells and rocks to be explored.

How long will the walk to Bar Island take?

It is a short distance- probably an easy 15 minute walk each way.

What do I do once I get to Bar Island?

The most obvious answer for exploring Bar Island is to take the trail up to the peak. The dirt path is .7 miles long and goes uphill, especially at the end. My mom hung down at the bottom and I headed up to the top with the boys. The hike took us about 20 minutes. At the summit is a pile of rocks. Head down past them to see a lovely view of the harbor and the sand bar.

What to see in Bar Harbor, Maine
The view of Bar Harbor and the Bar Island Land Bridge an hour after low tide from the summit of Bar Island.

Spend the rest of the day exploring the shops and have dinner on the water. There are panels around the town from Museum on the Streets that you can follow to learn more about Bar Harbor’s history.

Day Three on Mount Desert Island

Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain

fall in Acadia

So we failed with trying to catch the sunset, but something better was in store. Much of the year Cadillac Mountain sees the first rays of light to hit the east coast. That’s pretty cool, huh? There are not as many people as showed up for sunset and I actually get to make it up the mountain!

Only problem is that clouds like mountains, particularly the highest ones around. (Not scientifically, but still sounds convincing, right?) The clear skies I enjoyed in Bar Harbor equaled pure fog at the summit. Thankfully, right before sunrise the fog lifted. Not enough to see the islands in Frenchman Bay, but enough to enjoy the first US light. I enjoyed the viewpoints on the way down, then we headed onto the one-way loop which contains many of Acadia’s most famous sights.

Park Loop Road

The whole of this road is a 27-mile loop. Because we had explored Jordan Pond on the first day, we only explored the one-way section today. Off of this road are many of the parks famous hikes such as South Bubbles, the Beehive and the Ocean Path. You can stop most everywhere along this road and explore, so give yourself at least half the day.

The Ocean Path

This is a 4 mile round trip, very easy, mainly paved path that travels along Ocean Loop Road from Sand Beach to Otter Point. There are numerous paths down to cliff overlooks as well as to some highlights such as Thunder Hole and Otter Cliffs.

Sand Beach

top things to do in acadia national park 
You will see the parking lot for Sand Beach right on the Ocean Loop Road. This is the starting point for a few popular Acadia hikes such as Beehive.

Maine’s coast is mainly rocky, so this beach with white sand is quite unique. There are bathrooms at this beach.

Thunder Hole

Acadia in October
You can get wet while visiting Thunder Hole!

Thunder Hole is a natural rock inlet where, with the right tide, a thunderous boom comes with the incoming tide, as well as a huge splash of water into the area. If you want to time your visit to hear the thunder sounds, it peaks one hour before high tide. We were late, but still could hear the sound. See what I mean about planning your days according to the tides?

There is a gift shop with snacks and a restaurant in the parking lot here and it’s in the middle of the Ocean Path if you need a snack.

The Quiet Side of Mount Desert Island

Acadia Itinerary
Southwest Harbor is a working fishing village, reminiscent of Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard. It is definitely very different from the busy side of the island.

Beal’s Lobster Pier

While enjoying my morning coffee in Choco-Latte, I got to chat with an octogenarian who grew up on the island, Elmer Beal. I asked him for a recommendation of a place to have some Maine lobster. He comes from a long line of Maine lobster men who started a lobster shack in Southwest Harbor in the 1930s. The restaurant has now passed to corporate hands, but is still a perfect spot to enjoy a freshly steamed lobster boil (complete with mussels, corn on the cob and clam chowder) overlooking a working harbor on the “quiet side” of Acadia. There is also some pretty great blueberry lemonade and whoopie pies!

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse

Acadia Itinerary
It is definitely worth the tougher scramble to see the lighthouse.

I am a huge fan of lighthouses and this is a very famous one! It is a forty minute drive from Bar Harbor and there is often a queue for parking. The Bass Harbor Light is the most photographed lighthouse in Maine and is on the Maine state quarter.

How long of a hike is it to Bass Harbor Head Light?

The path to the lighthouse on the right is very easy, short and you get a straight on view of the lighthouse. However, this is not the pretty view that you see on Instagram. You are going to have to work for that view. Take the path at the far end of the parking lot. It includes many stairs that will take you down to the rocks over which you will need to climb to get the view. If you are hoping to see the sunset there come early. The serious photographers had already grabbed prime spots 1 1/2 before sunset the day I was there.

Where to Stay When Visiting Acadia National Park

Because there is so much driving or bus riding during a visit to Acadia, I would highly recommend staying in Bar Harbor. Hotels are expensive and you will need to book very far in advance if you are visiting at a popular time. Parking in town can also be a pain, so a hotel within walking distance is a good idea.

I am not one so disparage a hotel, so I won’t go into details, but my stay at The Holiday Inn Bar Harbor Regency was a bit of a disaster. So, I would recommend steering clear of the place.

The Bar Harbor Inn is well-located and gets great reviews. You can search for a Bar Harbor Hotel here.

I book through Hotels.com because most reservations have a long cancellation window. (I love it so much, I am an affiliate which means it helps support this site. Look below for more details.) So book as soon as you may be going and cancel within the window if your plans change. So much better than waiting and overpaying because there aren’t any rooms left.

If you are headed to Maine in the fall to see the foliage, Acadia is definitely a spot you should visit. The park is stunning and full of adventures for anyone. Have a great time in Acadia!

If you are looking to explore the quieter side of Maine read on about the Western Mountains. For one of my favorite hikes ever, read about Tumbledown Mountain or check out all of my Maine articles.

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2 thoughts on “A (Family-Friendly) 3-Day Itinerary for Acadia National Park, Maine”

  1. My parents took me to Acadia when I was about 3 years old, so naturally I don’t remember being there at all! So I definitely want to go back – it looks stunning! Also, I’ve made popovers before and even have a popover tin, but I have NEVER seen them in a restaurant. Are they more common in Maine/New England than here in the South?


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