The two of us go back a long way, Acadia and I, half a century and then some. She scared me half to death that first time out—me, the vertiginous flatlander recklessly flouting acute acrophobia one foggy morning on the park's most precipitous trail. Then, on safer ground, she seduced me with her variegated forests and glimmering ponds and surf-splashed headlands, and I found myself, over the years, going back to search out her secret places and scenic vistas again and again. She'll hook you too, if you give her a chance. And watch yourself, in particular, if you should happen that way when autumnal incandescence begins to glow across the domed ridges and U-shaped valleys of Acadia National Park. You like fall foliage, Yankee style? Acadia deals a royal flush almost every time.
Anchored on Maine's Mount Desert Island, a bit under 200 air miles (320 kilometers) northeast of Boston, Acadia, at some 47,000 acres (19,000), is one of the smallest of the national parks but ranks among the most visited. There are several outlying parts: the granite ledges of the Schoodic Peninsula across Frenchman Bay, and a number of smaller offshore islands, notably Isle au Haut in the Gulf of Maine. But Mount Desert, linked as it is by causeway to the mainland, is where you'll find the most accessible action. The 20-mile (32-kilometer) Park Loop Road beckons visitors to many of the island's popular attractions: More than 20 lakes and ponds, a spur road to the top of Cadillac Mountain (at 1,530 feet (466 meters), the highest of Acadia's some half dozen promontories rising more than a thousand feet above the sea), a place called Sand Beach (the park's only non-rocky, saltwater swimming hole where the uninitiated bather can turn a 55-degree shade of blue), and a salubrious waterside retreat known as the Jordan Pond House, which famously serves what may well be the world's most succulent popovers. My two daughters, then youngsters, still recall one sunny afternoon at the pond nibbling the dirigible pastries' buttery flakes as squadrons of yellow jackets swarmed down to strafe their bowl of strawberry jam.
But the story of Acadia can't be limited to cold waters, warm popovers, and heady mountain views. Its real story is about people—the ones who got so much of the island ready to become a park even before there was a National Park Service to look after it, and the ones today who, by donations of daywork and dollars, carry on the Acadian tradition. "This park is the model for citizen participation," says Sheridan Steele, Acadia's superintendent. About 3,500 nonsalaried volunteers perform 40,000 hours of service over the course of a year, not to mention substantial financial assistance flowing from the nonprofit Friends of Acadia. "This is where philanthropy in the national parks started," says Steele. "Without it, Acadia as we know it might never have happened."
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