Public Domain

The one-of-a-kind Acadia National Park was the first to be created entirely from private donations. Today, it successfully protects some of the nation’s most stunning shorelines and fantastic fall landscapes.

Waves that thunder against granite cliffs and break apart on kelp-slick rocks. Bullfrogs that croak among the grasslike rushes that rim ponds and line lakeshores. Woodpeckers that rat-a-tat-tat on tree bark. Great black-backed gulls filling the breeze-clearing air with their deep, hoarse calls.

These are the sounds of Maine’s Acadia National Park. But its sights and smells are just as impressive. Here, where glaciers have sculpted and beavers have landscaped, mountains tumble to the Atlantic Ocean and end in battered cliffs. Breakers claw their way into twining coves and inlets. The tang of brine and seaweed mingles with the perfume of bayberry and evergreen. And this fill-your-senses, one-of-a-kind national park acts as a guardian for us all: it protects our rich cultural history and the natural beauty of the highest point along the North Atlantic seacoast of the United States.

Superlative scenes

Acadia National Park encompasses more than 47,000 acres on Mount Desert Island (MDI), Schoodic Peninsula, Isle Au Haut and many smaller, coastal islands. The major portion of the park (30,500 acres) is located on Mount Desert Island, with 10,156 acres within the town of Bar Harbor’s boundary lines.

In Acadia National Park, the scents of brine and seaweed intermingled with bayberry and evergreen are always present. ©heipei, flickr

But it’s the superlatives that really define the place. Acadia is the first national park established east of the Mississippi River and the first to be donated to the federal government by private individuals who gave land that they had previously owned, as well as land specifically purchased in order to preserve it for the use of the public. Nowhere else along the East Coast of the United States does such high land overlook the ocean. From October 7 through March 6, the pink granite summit of Cadillac Mountain, 1,530 feet above the waves, is the first place where you can see the sun rise. The road up is one many engineers consider the best mountain road in the world, never exceeding a 7 percent grade. Somes Sound, cutting the island nearly in two, is the only fjord on the U.S. Atlantic Coast. The park has some of the most breathtaking trails—120 miles of them—in the world, and Mount Desert Island has often been called the “world’s most beautiful.”

Acadia National Park also has a reputation for being one of the best places in the world to see fall foliage.

Scintillating stories

About 25,000 years ago, MDI wasn’t an island. It was continental mainland, covered by a massive sheet of ice. But as the ice began to melt, water poured down the slopes of the recently shaved mountaintops, lakebeds filled, and the seas rose. As the coast drowned in meltwater, an island formed. Left behind were some now iconic features, such as Somes Sound and Bubble Rock, a 14-ton glacial erratic, carried 19 miles from its original resting place and deposited precariously at the top of South Bubble.

Though ravaged by a forest fire in 1947, Mount Desert Island has thick woods marching down to the sea cliffs. It abounds in brooks, lakes and ponds. ©Jeff Gunn, flickr

Long after glaciers covered the coast, the Abenaki people used the island they called Pemetic, or “the sloping land,” as their seasonal home. Food was abundant; berries, plants and shellfish were easily gathered, and fishing and hunting were relatively simple. And, in reference to Cadillac Mountain, it was an appropriate home for the Abenaki, a name that can be translated as “toward the dawn.”

In 1604, Samuel de Champlain spotted the barren peak of Cadillac Mountain from his ship. Not noticing the forested hills around it, he called the island Isle des Monts Deserts or “the island of the bare mountains.” For the next 150 years, nations quarreled over the region. It passed hands several times between native, English, French and Americans, but was never permanently occupied and seldom visited.

Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, painters from The Hudson River School, helped popularize MDI in the mid-19th century. Their works depicting the region helped bring the island into the public eye. At first, artists, professors and other intellectuals known as “rusticators” made the multiday journey here. Not long after, developers followed, hoping to increase access to the island.

In the fall, Acadia National Park explodes in a riot of oranges, reds and yellows, providing a rich diversity of foliage—and photographic opportunities. ©Lee Coursey 1, flickr

Direct steamboat service from Boston was offered in the 1860s. A railroad was completed in the 1880s. By this time, MDI was the place to be for the East Coast’s elite. Some of the wealthiest visitors, ironically known locally as “cottagers,” purchased large tracts of land where they built lavish summer homes. A stretch of mansions near Bar Harbor commonly called “Millionaires’ Row” burned to the ground during a large fire in 1947. The inferno razed more than 17,000 acres, including 10,000 acres of parkland, before blowing into the Atlantic Ocean.

Still, it wasn’t nature that was MDI’s main threat: it was development. Residents felt that the area’s scenic beauty needed to be protected. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and George B. Dorr, both cottagers turned conservationists, were two of the future park’s greatest advocates. In 1913, Dorr and others acquired 6,000 acres, which became the nucleus of today’s Acadia National Park. He would later become the park’s first superintendent.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., personally acquired and donated 11,000 acres of forests, shorelands and scenic areas to the park. He also financed, had constructed and then contributed the 51 miles of gravel carriage roads—enhanced by 16 stone bridges—to ensure that car traffic would not undermine the park’s natural beauty and tranquility.

Mount Desert Island is sprinkled with dozens of mountain peaks. In the fall, they’re cloaked in spectacular, polychrome colors. ©Der Berzerker 2, flickr

Originally established as Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, 1916, it became Lafayette (later changed to Acadia) National Park on February 26, 1919, the same day as Grand Canyon National Park.

Seasonal stunners

Today, Acadia National Park falls within the ranks of the 10 Most Visited National Parks, with 2.7 million recreational visits in 2020. Most people come for the picturesque attractions, many of them named for residents of the park: Beaver Dam Pond, Eagle Lake, Otter Cliffs and Seal Harbor. Black bears, deer, lobsters, moose, porcupines, red foxes, sea urchins, starfish and whales walk Acadia’s forest floors, roam its beaches or swim in its waters.

More than 1,100 different kinds of plants exist in Acadia, and 25 of these are state listed as rare. Maine is the country’s number one producer of wild blueberries, and the bushes can be found all over MDI. There’s also a wide variety of ferns, freshwater plants, lichens, mosses, shrubs, wildflowers and trees.

Many of the most picturesque scenes in Acadia National Park are named for its winged, four-footed or furred residents, such as “Otter Cliffs.” ©DJM Photos, flickr

During peak fall color, those trees are even more spectacular. Watch the video below from More Than Just Parks and brothers Will and Jim Pattiz. Shot in 4K resolution, it’s the culmination of several weeks spent exploring Acadia National Park during autumn. Some of the locations depicted include Jordan Pond, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, Otter Cliffs, Cadillac Mountain, Beaver Dam Pond and the Schoodic Peninsula. At the end, you’ll find a tribute to George B. Dorr.

One look at this beautiful—and prismatic—footage will have you dreaming of the fall to come.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,