Acadia’s terrain, like so much of the rest of northern New England, was shaped by the cutting action of the last great glaciers moving into and then out of the region about 18,000 years ago. A mile-high ice sheet rumbled slowly over the land, scouring valleys into deep U shapes, rounding many once-jagged peaks, and depositing boulders at odd places in the landscape—including the famous 10-foot-tall Bubble Rock, which appears perched precariously on the side of South Bubble Mountain.
Mount Desert Island is divided deeply right down the middle into two lobes (almost like a brain) by Somes Sound, a tidal inlet that’s often called the Lower 48’s only true fjord—that is, a valley carved out by a glacier and then subsequently filled in with rising ocean water. As many a Mainer will tell you, however, the feature is more properly classified as a fjard, a close hydrogeological cousin, which is less steep and shallower, the result of a flooded glacial lowland but not a truly scoured glacial trough. You’ll find that many around MDI leave the finer distinctions to the geologists (and the Scandinavians, who take this stuff quite seriously) and simply refer to Somes Sound as a fjord. Whatever vowel you prefer, it’s no less dramatic to gaze upon.
In the 1840s, Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole brought his sketchbooks and easels to remote Mount Desert Island, which was then home to a small number of fishermen and boat builders. His stunning renditions of the coast were displayed in New York City, triggering a tourism boom as urbanites flocked to the island to “rusticate.” By 1872, national magazines were touting Eden (Bar Harbor’s name until 1919) as a desirable summer getaway. It attracted the attention of wealthy industrialists, and soon became the de rigueur summer home of Carnegies, Rockefellers, Astors, and Vanderbilts, who built massive “cottages” with dozens of rooms.
By the early 1900s, the island’s popularity and growing development began to concern its most ardent supporters. Boston textile heir George Dorr and Harvard president Charles Eliot, aided by the largesse of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began acquiring and protecting large tracts of the island for the public to enjoy. These parcels were eventually donated to the U.S. government, and in 1919, the land was originally designated as Lafayette National Park—the first national park east of the Mississippi—named after the French general who assisted colonists in the American Revolution.
Renamed “Acadia National Park” in 1929, the park has now grown to encompass nearly half the island, its holdings scattered piecemeal. It is a fine, even world-class, destination for those who like coastal vacations salted with adventure. Try to allow 3 or 4 days, at a minimum, for visiting the park. If you’re passing through just briefly, try to work in at least two of the big three activities (hiking, biking, driving) I’ve described below.
And when you set out to explore the park, bring a picnic for there are just about no food services whatsoever within the park.