Acadia National Park, located primarily on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, was literally a gift. John D. Rockefeller Jr. had purchased much of the island in the early 20th century as a summer residence. In 1916 he and others donated a vast tract of 5,000 acres to the American people, and three years later the first national park east of the Mississippi was born.
Rockefeller’s generosity had an unintended beneficiary: the two-wheeled tourist. Opposed to the introduction of automobiles into the park, he funded the creation of dozens of miles of motorable roads across both halves of the island, in collaboration with Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary landscape architect behind Central Park and Boston’s emerald necklace, to create a rolling, winding, and carefully curated tour through some of America’s most iconic sights. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else,” says Jonathan Hoffmann, an avid cyclist who works at Southwest Cycle (southwestcycle.com, 207-244-5856), a bike shop just outside the park. “It offers a wonderful variety of terrain for everyone from beginners to veteran riders.”
In keeping with Rockefeller’s vision, automobiles are still prohibited on the network of motorable roads that criss-cross Acadia, making it a sort of Valhalla for cyclists, pedestrians and equestrians. Covering 50,000 acres, the park offers plenty of opportunities for more challenging hiking as well as hiking and camping, but motorable roads are the crown jewels of the park, with 17 bridges made from local granite and designed to individually complement the environment. The routes are hardly flat – this is the coast of Maine, after all – but Hoffmann notes that, having been designed for cars, the climbs and descents are gradual and not overly strenuous.
It’s perfect terrain for gravel bikes, a relatively new category of bike that combines road bike drop bars with the wider, wider tires used on mountain bikes. But any bike with wider tires, including most commuters or cruisers, will work fine. “The road surfaces are beautiful,” says Hoffmann. “The park service keeps them really well maintained.”
The island is home to plenty of bike rental shops, including electric bikes for anyone more interested in the sights than the sweat. Maps of the motorable road system are available at any bike shop as well as at ranger stations posted near each park entrance. (Note: Motorable roads are generally closed to cycling during “mud season” in March and April and open later in the spring; check the park’s website for more information.)
Most people will enter the park through Bar Harbor, and it is certainly possible to park in town and access the carriage roads from there. It’s best, however, to attach a bike rack to your car and drive to one of the few parking areas scattered around the park. This lets you choose your own adventure “without having to put a lot of extra miles on your bike just to get back to your car,” Hoffmann notes.
There are options for all ages and skill levels, but Hoffmann recommends kids and beginners start with the routes on the north side of the park. The Witch Hole Pond Loop is 7.5km long and offers stunning views of Bar Harbor and the mainland beyond. The route around Eagle Lake is only slightly longer at 5.9 miles. Besides the frequent vistas, both weave their way through majestic stands of balsam fir and spruce and offer plenty of enticing stops to admire the island’s flora and fauna. You might even spot a moose. The Jordan Pond and Tri Lakes loops are only slightly more ambitious, at 8.6 and 10.9 miles, respectively, and traverse much of the same terrain.
As you move through the southern and western parts of the system, the routes get a little steeper and more difficult, according to Hoffmann. The Amphitheater Loop is short at 4.4 miles, but anyone not using an e-bike will feel their heart racing. The views, of course, will make it worthwhile. At the far western end of the transportation system is the Around the Mountain Loop, an 11.3-mile route around the 1,200-foot Penobscot Mountain.
Nothing in Acadia National Park rivals the famed Pyrenean or Alpine climbs of the Tour de France, but Hoffmann says combat-experienced riders can tackle either of the park’s passable climbs.
Day Mountain Road splits off from Jordan Pond Road and climbs in elevation for three miles, ending with spectacular views. Technically, the road to Cadillac Mountain is not part of the motorable road system, so cyclists share the sidewalk with automobiles, although the park has recently begun requiring drivers to reserve spaces to reduce traffic at least. Mount Cadillac, the highest point on the east coast of the United States, offers, on a clear day, views of Mount Katahdin and Nova Scotia for over 100 miles.
Motorable roads can get crowded in the summer months, with horse-drawn carriages (as you might expect), pedestrians and horseback riders all sharing in the natural beauty, so please be courteous to your fellow travelers. The park service uses a simple rule of thumb: everyone yields to horses and cyclists yield to everyone.
Hoffmann says most bike shops can accommodate walk-in customers, but he recommends booking rental bikes ahead of time to ensure you can secure the type and size you want. E-bikes, which are generally less available, should always be reserved in advance.
There are also several guided tour options. These can last as little as two and a half hours, like the one offered by Acadia Bike (acadiabike.com, 800-526-8615) in conjunction with park rangers; or as long as the six-day trip arranged by VBT Bicycling Vacations (vbt.com, 800-245-3868).
Acadie, the park, was a gift, and its benefactors intended that everyone, regardless of age or ability, should be the recipient. There’s no better way to accept this gift than on two wheels.
Jeff Howe is a journalism professor at Northeastern University working on his third book. Send your comments to [email protected].