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."
Going way, way back, of course, the story of Acadia had nothing to do with park making and everything to do with homemaking, initially by Native Americans whose middens date back at least 5,000 years, and then by the French, whose sailcloth rover, Samuel de Champlain, scouting the Maine coast in 1604, pronounced a certain island's mountains to be "all bare and rocky" and dutifully dubbed the place Isle des Monts Deserts. But European settlement here never quite caught on over the next 150 years while colonial French and English wrestled for control of the territory. finally, in 1761, a handful of English staked a claim at the north end of Somes Sound, and it wasn't long before Mount Desert was speckled with villages, lumber mills, fish-drying racks, and shipyards.
Tourists began arriving in the mid-19th century. Among the first were a couple of brushstroke masters from the Hudson River school, the artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. Their land- and seascapes (Cole's brush favored Frenchman Bay) alerted America to the wonders of the island, and in the 1890s tourism became a flourishing industry. Mount Desert sprouted vacation hotels and elegant seaside "cottages" for such privileged patricians as Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors.
Nothing links the past and present of Acadia quite so much as the challenge of moving people around the park—on hiking trails, on carriage paths, and along the conventional roads that had never heard the clatter of internal combustion until Maine lifted its island-wide ban on motor vehicles in 1915. The organization Friends of Acadia, headquartered at Bar Harbor, is helping the Park Service meet the challenge on each of these fronts.
One fine estate in Bar Harbor was built by the Dorr family of Boston. Young George B. Dorr, a Harvard graduate and an ardent conservationist, was alarmed by the increasing pace of development across the island. To counter it—and to preserve land for public use—he and several affluent colleagues founded the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations. By 1913 the corporation had acquired some 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares), including lands donated by Dorr. The trustees then offered the tract to the federal government, and in 1916, the year the National Park Service was established, President Woodrow Wilson declared the donated land a national monument. Three years later, as more acreage was added to the monument, the government made it a national park, the first east of the Mississippi, and later renamed it Acadia, in memory of the maritime colony France lost to Britain in the 18th century.
Many of the island's trails predate the park, having served as connectors between some of the roadless villages. But as recreational hiking came into vogue, George Dorr and his colleagues began to introduce stone stairways and iron rung ladders to conquer the cliffs of the taller mountains. I didn't know it at the time of my own ascent that long-ago morning, but a fellow named Rudolph Brunnow conceived the wicked design of the Precipice Trail, an almost vertical thousand-foot climb up the eastern escarpment of Champlain Mountain. Fortunately, the fog obscured everything except the granite in front of my face and the next iron rung awaiting my outstretched hand. Don't look down, the climber below me kept repeating unnecessarily. And don't look up, warned the one above me.
Now, with time marching on and with a handsome endowment from Friends of Acadia, park crews and volunteers are rehabilitating the park's 135-mile (217-kilometer) trail system and resurrecting some older trails long abandoned. As for my old nemesis, the Precipice Trail, it continues to chill and thrill climbers to this day, though the Park Service suspends its use mid-March through mid-August to protect nearby nests of peregrine falcons.
A Friends endowment also maintains the park's winding carriage roads, open to hikers, bikers, and equestrians but not to motorists. These byways are the legacy of John D.
Rockefeller, Jr., who purchased a summer home at Seal Harbor in 1910, cherished the island's motorless serenity, and enjoyed exploring Mount Desert by horse and carriage. Over the next 27 years, Rockefeller and his wealth presided over the construction of an extensive network of narrow carriage roads, surfaced with hand-laid stones and bordered with rough-cut blocks of granite—rustic guardrails some islanders affectionately call "Rockefeller's teeth."
And finally there are those other roads, including the Loop and the run up Cadillac Mountain. For years they have taken a pounding as hundreds of thousands of cars poured across the mainland causeway, creating backups and fouling the air. Notices are occasionally posted on busy summer days advising visitors that ozone has exceeded safe levels. But here, once again, park supporters have pitched in to ease the strain. Following an example first set at Yosemite Valley to get visitors out of their cars, Acadia since 1999 has operated a fleet of propane-fueled shuttle buses (17 now in service) and dramatically increased the number of folks happy to leave the driving to others. "It's going gangbusters," says Ken Olson, president of Friends of Acadia. "In its first six years the program has picked up a million and a half riders. That adds up to more than half a million vehicles off the park's roads—enough cars to stretch from here all the way down the coast to Charleston, South Carolina."
The shuttle service now extends into October to enhance the visitor's experience of Acadia's autumn palette: the golds and yellows of birch, beech, and aspen, the reds and russets of maple weaving their way across a black-green tapestry of spruce and fir. But wait! Don't turn away when those deciduous leaves begin to shrivel and flutter from the hardwood trees. There'll be new secret places and scenic vistas to enchant your eye in the forest openings. After all, when autumn retreats from Acadia, wonders of a different sort won't be far behind.