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Quite simply, Maine’s Acadia National Park is a natural for visiting cruise ship passengers calling on Bar Harbor. With thousands of acres to explore, it’s easy to see why the park is among the top ten in annual visitation--yet never feels crowded.

As the only national park in the northeast United States and the first to see America’s sunrise each day, Acadia lures visitors its abundance of natural attractions. From oceanside cliffs above the thundering Atlantic to quiet mountain forests sheltering plentiful wildlife, Acadia National Park has been a haven for man and animal for almost 100 years.

“Acadia National Park is renowned not only for its stunning landscape, outstanding natural resources and nationally-recognized carriage roads, but also for the number and diversity of ranger-guided activities that help visitors of all ages get out and explore the park,” says Deb Wade, chief interpreter, who oversees the park's rangers, develops exhibitions and maps, and leads guided walks and other explorations of Acadia. “There is always a fun choice for visitors to enjoy the outdoors.”

A Little History

Acadia National Park consisted of 5,000 acres when it was established by president Woodrow Wilson in 1916. This was the result of efforts by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot and area resident George B. Dorr, who created a public land trust in 1901. Wilson named Dorr the park’s first superintendent.

Thanks to the additional work and philanthropy by Eliot, Dorr and private citizens like John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the park eventually grew to its current size of more than 40,000 acres. Today, it encompasses almost half of Mount Desert Island, several outlying islands and the Schoodic Peninsula. The quaint bustling port town of Bar Harbor, where cruise ships dock, sits on the northeast corner of the island.

From humble beginnings as a fishing village originally called Eden, Bar Harbor and the rest of Mount Desert Island had grown into a summer getaway for the wealthy. The Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans and Carnegies all built “cottages”--which were actually mansions--huge homes of up to 50 rooms, on estates sporting stables, guest houses and more.

The historic fire of 1947 burned vast sections of the island, including 8,000 acres of Acadia National Park, 67 summer homes, 170 year-round residences and five grand hotels. Though few of the “cottages” would be rebuilt, Acadia and other local attractions make the area very popular with visitors--and visiting cruise ships.

Hitting the Roads

One of the most fascinating parts of Acadia’s history is the network of carriage roads, crushed-stone paths covering more than 45 miles and measuring 16 feet wide. Originally built from 1913 to 1940 by Rockefeller, they were made to accommodate carriages and now are popular for walking and biking. The roads are paved with locally quarried granite and crushed stone and blend smoothly into Acadia’s landscape--an important element of the park for Rockefeller, who requested preservation of native plants like sheep laurel, blueberry bushes and various ferns.

The roads meander throughout the 11,000 acres that Rockefeller donated, circling mountains, skirting the coast and lakes, and offering breathtaking views. In addition to the unique carriage roads, there are more than 120 miles of interconnected (and looping) hiking trails of varying length and difficulty.

Nature's Own

Visitors in search of the nation at its most natural are rewarded with oceanfront granite cliffs, sand and cobblestone beaches, deep valley lakes, and glacier-carved mountains. Glaciers wound through the area until about 11,000 years ago, leaving mountains, valleys, and lakes and ponds originally formed by huge blocks of ice, as well as the east coast’s only fjord: Somes Sound.

More recently, Rockefeller’s weaving old carriage trails and the additional hiking trails provide unique access to the wonders of Acadia. Bike tours and hiking along the carriage trails are a natural choice. Another great way to go is the 27-mile Park Loop Road, allowing motorized exploration.

No matter which mode of transportation is chosen, visitors are likely to see lots of nature--both flora and fauna. Along the rugged coastline, the possibilities include whales, seals, porpoises, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey and puffins. Inland, eagle-eyed visitors may see a deer or fox and maybe even a more-elusive moose or black bear. Throughout the park, the natural plant world has been left undisturbed for all to enjoy.

Natural Highlights

Here are some must-see attractions in and around Acadia National Park:

Cadillac Mountain: With a summit height of 1,530 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the highest point located on North America’s eastern seaboard and provides stunning vistas of Acadia National Park and all of Mount Desert Island.

Jordan Pond House: A smaller piece of history can be found at the park’s famed Jordan Pond House. Originally begun as a restaurant in the early 1870s, this popular place is famed for tasty lobster stew, warm popovers with strawberry jam, homemade ice cream, afternoon tea and sumptuous views.

Park Info & Museums: The Hulls Cove Visitor Center is the place to go for basic information about the park and possible activities. The park’s Nature Center provides an overview of Acadia’s natural resources. Located on Little Cranberry Island and accessed by mail boat or tour boat, the Islesford Historical Museum tells the story of the area’s islands and people through marine-oriented memorabilia and more.

Turrets Mansion: Overlooking Bar Harbor’s Frenchman Bay and listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this mansion provides a perfect example of life in the Gilded Age.

Lobster Oceanaium & Museum: With a lobster boat exhibit and demonstrations by local Maine lobstermen, this attraction is an ode to the classic crustacean to which the state of Maine owes so much.

Four Favorite Trails

According to Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, four trails are particularly popular on foot. Varying in length and difficulty, all four provide an all-natural Acadia experience.

Great Head: 1.3-miles, located at the far end of Sand Beach (which has lifeguards posted in season). Granite steps leading upward to spectacular views of the beach and ocean.

Gorham Mountain: 4 miles, starting at Sand Beach (at the upper parking lot). Like Great Head, this path gradually ascends to stunning views.

Ocean Path: 4 miles, also starting at Sand Beach. The trail skirts the Atlantic as far as Otter Point and includes Thunder Hole, where high tides might lead to thundering waves towering as high as 40 feet.

Great Meadow: 2.5 miles, leading out of Bar Harbor’s Village Green. This easy hike goes through the woods before crossing a bog to Great Meadow, a freshwater marsh.

For more information, visit www.barharborinfo.com and www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit.htm.