Mount Desert Island’s natural glories are preserved in Acadia National Park, occupying 41,634 acres of the island’s most scenic areas. Route 3 runs through the heart of the park, but the best way to appreciate Acadia is to track the 27-mile-long Park Loop Road, which circles the eastern side of the park. (Note that large campers and trailers are prohibited.) Midway along, the loop road pauses at Sand Beach, one of the few sandy beaches in Maine (get here early to find parking in summer), then passes the Thunder Hole tidal cavern before winding inland past Jordan Pond. If you want to get out and stretch your legs, the best way to see the fantastic ocean views and breathe the fresh ocean air is to walk along the two-mile trail that links Sand Beach, the Thunder Hole, and the 110-foot-high Otter Cliff. From Jordan Pond, the loop road continues past the turnoff (also accessible directly from Bar Harbor) for the drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain. Here, you’ll experience a truly breathtaking panorama over Mount Desert Island, the surrounding inlets and islands, and (on a fog-free day) miles and miles of the Maine coast.
In the summer and fall, when thousands clog the loop road and the streets of Bar Harbor, the most sensible visitors head to the park’s hiking trails, which wind among the beautiful inland lakes and mountains. Approximately 57 miles of the unpaved, car-free “carriage roads” constructed (well, paid for) by Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller Jr. are open to walkers, bikers, wheelchairs, and baby strollers. Many of these roads leave directly from the main park visitors center, but some of the best (and least crowded) start from Jordan Pond, in the southwest corner of the park. Jordan Pond is also the site of the only restaurant within the park boundary, Jordan Pond House (207/276-3316), where you can reserve a table for an idyllic afternoon tea with popovers. In winter, when the park is virtually dormant, the carriage roads are kept open for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, a magical way to get a feel for the place.
Acadia National Park also protects some exemplary places beyond Mount Desert Island, including the southern tip of Isle au Haut, tiny Baker Island (which you can visit on a ranger-guided tour), and the unforgettable Schoodic Peninsula across Frenchman Bay, accessible via US-1 just north of Ellsworth. Three miles northwest of Bar Harbor, on the edge of Hulls Cove, the main Acadia National Park Visitors Center (207/288-3338, daily May-Oct.) is a good place to start.