Recommended Routes: Acadia National Park, Maine
The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Photos by Sara Valley | Words by Greg Simpson
“Where the mountains meet the sea”. This quote describes a few places in the state of Maine perfectly. Acadia National Park happens to be one of those places. The national park is located on Maine’s Mt. Desert Island, but don’t let the name of the island fool you – Acadia National Park is full of lush forests, some of Maine’s best wildlife (moose, birds, and whales), and granite mountains overlooking beautiful stone-covered beaches.
Acadia National Park isn’t a large park, with only 47,000 acres. Still, it averages over 3 million visitors per year, according to statistics provided by the National Park Service (NPS). It might seem difficult to find solitude in such a compact and popular national park but fortunately, with some foresight and funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr., finding yourself off the beaten path is pretty damn easy thanks to Acadia’s unique carriage road network.
When I asked my partner Sara if she wanted to ride 40+ miles of those carriage roads and up Cadillac Mountain in one day, she rolled her eyes at me and told me to load up the bikes. After all, we did first meet in the desert hiking from Mexico to Canada, so it would get weird if we didn’t ask each other these kinds of questions from time-to-time.
With most of Acadia’s carriage roads and Cadillac Mountain, the ride would total 49 miles (79 km) and 4,100 ft (1,250 metres) of elevation gain. Roughly 40 of those miles (64 km) would be on the gravel pathways. But, as with any adventure, plans need to be flexible.
Ride prep started the night before with packing snacks and water, mounting our new Continental tires, and stashing extra layers (yes, even in June because, well, this is coastal New England) in our frame bags for a long day in the saddle.
We woke up early the next morning to make the drive from our home in Midcoast Maine, to Acadia’s Hulls Cove Visitor Center where we had intended on leaving the car for the day. It’s worth mentioning how perfect the weather was – 70s (21-27 ºC) with a slight breeze and just a few clouds in the sky (I mean come on now – shoutout to Mother Nature). After paying the entrance fee and running through the mental checklist of ride essentials, we set off in search of exposed granite views, picturesque Great Ponds, and of course some shimmery ocean seascapes.
The Hulls Cove Visitor Center Connector leads to the Witch Hole Pond Carriage Road where our adventure began. Hero gravel combined with wafts of coniferous trees had us in a state of pure bliss. We made our way past lakes that were carved out of the bedrock tens of thousands of years ago by the Laurentide Ice Sheet.
At the visitor center, a ranger had mentioned Eagle Lake Road was closed due to damage from a recent storm. As we made our way towards the middle of our ride, we hit an unexpected dead end. We came to find parts of Around the Mountain and Aunt Betty Pond Road were also closed for construction.
This wasn’t part of the plan. These closures blocked us from connecting to the rest of those beautiful gravel roads. As bummed as we were to hit a dead end midway through the ride, we felt that it was more important to be good stewards of the land and respect the guidance of the NPS. We headed back to the car to regroup and figure out the best way to finish our ride in the park.
With the closures in our rear view mirror (literally and metaphorically), we drove to the eastern side of the Acadia to get back on trail. Starting from the Parkman Mountain trailhead, we rode due west on an incredibly scenic section of the Around the Mountain Carriage Road. This road hugs the contour of the mountainside and gives you glimpses of the surrounding peaks as you whizz past dense patches of ferns and ride over century-old stone bridges. Snack breaks were enjoyed while Sara laughed at herself telling bad ‘dad’ jokes.
Around the Mountain weaves its way to Jordan Pond. As we looked across the water, it reminded us of a miniature Lake Louise or Maroon Bells. On a quiet day, the water reflects a mirror-like image of the mountain backdrop behind it. We could see why most visitors stop at this lake.
This is also the area of the park where the road starts towards Cadillac Mountain’s summit. We were presented with a decision. Being later in the day because of the earlier lags in our plan, should we make our way back to the car, or should we put in the obligatory road miles to bag the summit of Cadillac Mountain?
We stood at the base of Cadillac Summit Road with one last goal in mind. Climb to the top of this damn mountain, enjoy the views, then bomb down the descent and back to the car. All that stood in front of us was 3.6 miles (5.8 km) and 1,000 ft (305 m) of vertical ascent.
We expected a steep climb and cars that were also “climbing” for a view. What we hadn’t expected, though, were the sweeping ocean views that met us around every bend, and clear changes in ecosystems as we climbed closer and closer to the top of this massive piece of granite.
After some summit snacks, views, and sweaty high-fives, we were on our way back down.
The descent was just as rewarding as the ascent. In between photo stops, we’d sink as low as possible and let our bikes carry us through the sweeping turns. Permits to drive up Cadillac Mountain are issued in 30-minute blocks. We just so happened to time our departure from the top perfectly so that we saw minimal cars on the way down. Lucky us! The ride down definitely made the climb up worth it.
After our descent of Cadillac Mountain we hopped back on the gravel roads towards the car. Tired from a long day of riding, we deliriously sang and laughed with each other as we ebbed and flowed through a few more gravel hills and turns. Now, we had only one more goal in mind for the day: pizza and beer.
Riding in Acadia surprised us. With over 45 miles (72 km) of car-free gravel roads, it’s easy to see why it’s is a destination that draws and welcomes cyclists from all over. Within the span of an afternoon, we saw everything from race road bikes, to fat bikes, to punk rock cyclists riding their steel frame randonneur bikes.
One interaction stood out with a husband and wife as they walked their tandem gravel bike through a construction section. After saying our hellos, the husband looked at me and said, “You can always tell a true cyclist by the way they walk their bike by the saddle.” I laughed, appreciating the ego boost, but then looked over to see him casually walking his 8 ½ foot long tandem in the same manner. Touché …
We honestly didn’t expect the carriage roads to be so meticulously maintained, nor did we anticipate being surprised at the incredible variety of scenery we were met with around every bend of the road. Acadia National Park and its carriage road network are true gems of the northeast coast, and we won’t hesitate to make any excuse to visit in years to come.
What you need to know
Coastal Maine is known for its temperate climate during the late spring and summer. Temperatures rarely get higher than the mid 80s (30 ºC). Fall in Maine typically starts in late September and sees average temps drop into the mid 60s (18 ºC) during the day.
Acadia is known for its hundreds of species of birds. Eagle-eyed (pun intended) visitors can potentially see peregrine falcons, owls, loons, and, yes, bald eagles.
With a year-round population of around 5,500, Bar Harbor is limited when it comes to bike shops and repairs. Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop is the only full-service shop that we could find in the area, but there are a few other companies that offer hybrid and e-bike rentals.
To comfortably ride on the carriage roads, we would recommend using tires no smaller than 32c. While riding with road tires is possible, there were some loose gravel sections where we were happy to have 35c and 40c tires mounted up. We were super happy with our Continental Terra Speed tires as they rolled fast enough on pavement to not feel sluggish but they were also extremely stable in the loose-over-hard gravel conditions of the carriage roads.
A trip to Acadia (and Maine in general) wouldn’t be complete without an order of lobster in some way, shape, or form. The Thirsty Whale Tavern is a great choice for fresh seafood and a great selection of Maine craft brews. Bar Harbor is a tourist town and has gained a reputation for its wide variety of restaurants. You’re sure to find something that satisfies your cravings.
To satisfy your coffee fix, go to Choco-Latte. Not only do they serve up a tasty cortado, but they have an extensive list of pastries and tacos to munch on. For an adult beverage or three, go to Atlantic Brewing Company. Their excellent Blueberry Ale is a quintessential choice when visiting the area.
The 3.6 miles (5.8 km) and 6% average gradient to the summit of Cadillac Mountain will reward you through every twist and turn. At the top, the views of the Gulf of Maine as well as the rocky mountainous coast will leave you truly speechless. We also love the section of the Around the Mountain Carriage Road that we rode on. To me, it was the most exposed and picturesque carriage road of the day.
To truly experience Coastal Maine, spend time exploring the smaller fishing villages on Mount Desert Island. These towns embody what it means to be a true Mainer, and will give you a glimpse into the lives of the fisherwomen/men that call them home. Before heading back to Bar Harbor, be sure to swing by the Bass Harbor Lighthouse for an Instagram-worthy shot to show your friends back home what they’re missing out on.