I’m looking across Frenchman Bay from a mountaintop in Acadia National Park, a bit south of Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. The blue-black waters are lightly stippled with whitecaps, and just offshore I can spot a gathering of humped islands called the Porcupines, which resemble a family of the spike-backed creatures making their way out to sea. Beyond lies the shoreline of the serpentine Maine coast, thickly upholstered in a deep green chenille, twisting off toward the distant Bay of Fundy.

This vantage point, at the summit of Dorr Mountain, isn’t wholly a geographic quirk. You don’t come upon views here at Acadia so much as they’re suddenly revealed to you – sweeping ocean panoramas, an unexpected glimpse of a jewel-like pond or a russet-coloured meadow – thanks in part to the 19th-century trail designers who rarely sought the most expedient route but rather the most dramatic and spectacular. Their creativity is on display along the dozens of trails that snake across Mount Desert Island – a total of 200 kilometres of hiking paths, plus another 92 kilometres of century-old carriage roads suitable for strolling.

Descending Dorr Mountain – named after George B. Dorr (1855–1944), one of the more relentless trail builders – I’m amazed by the routing.The path takes me along ledges and past hulking glacial erratics – van-size boulders deposited by retreating glaciers some 18,000 years ago – while the lower sections feature steps made from talus stones laboriously heaved into place. I feel like I’m surrounded by something built by the Incas.

No wonder: Acadia is a historic monument to nature in general and the ice age in particular. It’s all granite, spruce, maple, restless ocean and glacier-scoured mountaintops. The crisp vistas and craggy headlands first attracted artists and wealthy rusticators nearly two centuries ago. Vanderbilts, Fords, Rockefellers and their ilk followed soon after, building multibedroom “cottages” along the coast and turning “summer” into a verb. (An ardent conservationist, oil titan John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated land that now covers about one-third of the park on the island.) Acadia, it turns out, is also a monument to the restless creativity of man. The trail builders were artists; the wild landscape was their canvas.

Some of the paths I hike on this sunny afternoon bring me up a honeycomb of small abrupt cliffs, one linked to the next by iron ladders embedded in stone. Another weaves through damp crevasses, then ushers me through a Hobbit-like tunnel. And everywhere I look are endless, sprawling, mind-boggling views.

On another trail traversing a col between mountain peaks, the landscape gradually becomes more medieval, more closed. I slip off the path and after a few moments of bushwhacking find some shallow, mossy caves. Sitting at the mouth of one, I unpack lunch, cooled by a pleasingly mysterious breeze wafting up through the rocks. This is the kind of place where a wild and dangerous river might rush through, but I hear only the murmur of unseen hikers chatting as they wend their way past, just a dozen metres away.

In this moment, it feels like being at the intersection of nature and man.

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Getting There

Air Canada offers the only non-stop service from Toronto to Portland. From there, Acadia National Park is a three and a half hour drive away.

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