Wind whips off the Atlantic Ocean and the sea mist sprays my face as the wave rolls into the rocky coastline. Jagged formations stretch like stony fingers reaching out into the water. It’s clear that this is a unique place where land and sea meet. This is Acadia National Park, Maine’s only national park.
Sometimes trip logistics mean you only have a short time to explore a really great place like Acadia. I took a trip to Maine in the spring of 2019 and squished a whole bunch of adventure and exploration into the three-day trip. I only had one day to spend in Acadia National Park, and I was determined to make the most of it.
If you’re short on time too – New England Road Trip, anyone? – here’s how to make the most of 1 day in Acadia National Park.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Wabanaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Abenaki/Abénaquis peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in June 2019, and updated in July 2021 to provide the most up-to-date information on visiting the national parks this year.
Planning Your Visit to Acadia National Park
Like all national parks, it’s important to plan ahead so that you can really enjoy your time and have a minimal impact on the natural beauty you’re visiting. Before we launch into what to do with your day in Acadia, there are important logistics to consider.
Driving & Parking in Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park has several different areas, but the largest part of the park is located on Mount Desert Island. There are a few roads that you can take in the park and the main one is the Park Loop Road. This 27-mile loop is a perfect way to tour the park, and passes most of the main ‘sights’ in the park.
You can also make a loop of Maine State Route 3 and Maine State Route 233. This will take you to more westerly parts of the park on Mount Desert Island. Maine State Route 102 also makes a loop in the far western part of the park.
Throughout Acadia, there are a number of designated parking areas. From these, you can stop to see different vistas and geologic features, and to access specific trailheads.
New for 2021: This summer, you will need a reservation to drive Cadillac Summit Road. There are two options: a two-hour sunrise entry reservation, or a 30-minute daytime entry reservation. Both can be reserved up to 90 days in advance using Recreation.gov and cost $6 per reservation. Learn more on the Acadia NPS site.
During the summer months, parking can be hard to find in other parts of the park too. Additionally, you may need to drive to the next nearest lot and walk back along pedestrian trails. The best way to beat the crowds is to visit during the shoulder season instead (mid-April to early May and September to early October) or get up very early on the day you’re visiting.
Another great option is to take the Island Explorer, a free bus service that drives the Park Loop Road and helps cut down on congestion.
Acadia National Park Entrance Fees
As part of the National Park system, Acadia operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee is $30, good for 7 days. This makes sense if you’re parking at the Visitor Center.
- You can walk into the park for $15 per person, good for 7 days.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Acadia NPS website.
Accommodations at Acadia National Park
The only other important detail you need to figure out as you plan your trip is where to stay. Here are my tips:
- If you’re an outdoorsy type (not me!), you can camp at several campgrounds in Acadia. Each park has different rules and site options, so be sure to check the National Park site for all the details. You’ll also definitely need a reservation during the summer months.
- If you prefer a hotel, there are loads of hotels in nearby Bar Harbor. During my trip, I stayed at the Bar Harbor Inn. This waterfront historic hotel has deep roots in Bar Harbor and is a great base for exploring the park and the town.
What to Do in Acadia National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
You drove (or flew) all this way to reach Acadia National Park – so it’s time to figure out how to jam-pack your day. Below you’ll find a list of the best things to do in Acadia (according to me) to help you start sketching out your plan.
Drive the Park Loop Road
If you’re short on time, just driving the 27-mile Park Loop Road is the most effective way to see as much of Acadia National Park as you can. You can stop off at sites like Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Jordan Pond House to stretch your legs and take a few pictures.
Driving the Park Loop Road will take between 1.5-2 hours at its quickest, depending on how many stops you make.
Take a Hike (or Several)
Hiking is one of the best things you can do in Acadia National Park because it allows you to get up close and personal with the unique landscape in the park.
From coastal trails like the Ocean Path (perfect for sunrise) to the wide variety of lakeside and forest trails around Jordan Pond to summit trails like the Beehive Loop and Cadillac Mountain South Ridge, there’s no shortage of trail options for hikers of all ability. The trails that caught my eye were the Precipice Loop (3.2 miles, too advanced for me!) and the North Bubble Loop (2.6 miles, reasonable elevation changes for moderate hikers), and I spent time hiking a bit on Cadillac Mountain during my visit.
Be aware that there are occasionally trail closures, and the NPS always lists these on the main Acadia page.
Watch for Wildlife
Wildlife watching is one of those special treats you might experience while spending a day at Acadia. From otters and whales out in the water to land animals and birds (I saw a beautiful Barred Owl in the woods from my car, pictured above), keep your eyes peeled when driving the Park Loop Road or hiking in the park – there are plenty of other living creatures in the area besides humans
If you have young travelers with you or just love the weird little critters that live along the coastline, tidepooling is a great way to spend an hour. Some good tidepooling spots include Bar Island Sand Bar (near Bar Harbor), Ship Harbor, and Wonderland. Rangers also lead tidepooling programs at Ship Harbor and Sand Beach during certain times of the year.
Go Boating & Kayaking
There are several options for boating and kayaking in Acadia. During the summer months, many of the lakes and ponds in the park are open for boating; you’ll need to bring your own boat and be sure to check the regulations on motors and horsepower if you plan to do this.
To be honest, exploring the rugged coastline of Acadia by kayak is more my style. A handful of tour operators and kayak rental companies will outfit and/or guide you for a day of adventure on the water. Coastal Kayaking Tours is a good option and they’re based out of Bar Harbor.
Acadia National Park is one of the best and largest dark sky destinations east of the Mississippi River. There are several good stargazing spots in Acadia, including atop Cadillac Mountain and on Sand Beach. Read my guide to stargazing in Acadia National Park on Space Tourism Guide.
One Perfect Day in Acadia
Okay, with all those cool things to do in Acadia National Park, how do you fit them all into one day? Here’s how I recommend doing it (this is a slight modification of what I did myself):
Early Morning – Start by driving to the entry booth near Schooner Head Overlook.
Mid-Morning – Explore the southeast part of the Park Loop Road. Stop at Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Otter Point. If you’re feeling ambitious, go for a hike like The Beehive (trailhead located near Sand Beach).
Lunch – Head up to Jordan Pond House for lunch, followed by an easy walk along the Jordan Pond Path or burn off those calories on the North Bubble Loop.
(Optional) Afternoon – If you don’t go hiking near Jordan Pond, journey toward the west part of the park by passing through the towns of Seal Harbor and Asticou by way of Maine SR 3. You’ll connect to Maine SR 102 and can head down to the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse one of the most picturesque spots in the park.
Dinner – If you’re over on Maine SR 102, stop for dinner in Southwest Harbor. If you’re exploring along Park Loop Road, it’s easiest to scoot back to Bar Harbor for dinner.
Evening – Watch the sunset from Cadillac Mountain, then stay to see the stars come out!
If you have other questions about visiting Acadia National Park, let me know in the comments!
Special thanks to the Bar Harbor Inn & Spa for hosting me during my visit to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. This post was written in partnership with them, but all suggestions and inclusions are at my own discretion.