What to See, Eat, and Do on the Way to Acadia National Park

Climb up South Bubble mountain, and enjoy a lobster roll at Travelin Lobster.


Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you’ve ever found yourself crisping in the afternoon sun while waiting in a long line for a lobster roll, then you know the allure of Coastal Maine. Nowhere is the Pine Tree State’s beauty showcased in more dramatic fashion than on Mount Desert Island, where over 3 million people travel each year to roam the trails and scenic roads of Acadia National Park. But here’s a New England secret. Rather than waiting until summer to joust for parking spots at the Jordan Pond House or dealing with traffic on the ladder rungs on the Beehive Trail, you can visit Acadia anytime during the year.

The “quiet season” when some park facilities and roads are closed runs from November through April, which designates May as an especially enviable time for clomping around Acadia. The balsam firs are fragrant, petals are opening up, and the longer days have become balmy and seductive again. If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to share a little corner of Acadia with only the red squirrels, chattering gulls, and the briny Maine seabreeze, this quiet season weekend road trip is for you. But if you can’t make it up before the peak of summer, never fear: It’s always worth spending time in Acadia.

Boston to Mount Desert Island: 268-281 miles, 4.5-6 hours driving

The sooner you can hightail it from Boston on a Friday, the more time you’ll have to savor the Maine Coast and Acadia itself. Departing before early afternoon? Consider taking the scenic route to Mount Desert Island by following I-95 North to Rt. 1. Along this seaside road, you’ll find Maine staples like the buttery lobster rolls at Red’s Eats (freshly opened for the 2022 season), the Cliff Trail of Harpswell (complete with “fairy houses” in the woods), and Andrew Wyeth’s Islands in Maine exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. If you’re leaving Boston later in the day, you’ll want to stick to I-95 for the most direct route to Mount Desert Island. But consider stopping in Kittery (Exit 3) for a basket of lusciously-fried seafood at Bob’s Clam Hut.

Whether you arrive at “MDI” in the afternoon or well after sundown, you’ll want to have a cozy bed to flop into before the Acadia experience begins the next day. Bar Harbor will be especially peaceful this time of year—the calm before the summer storm—so consider the spruced-up and colorful rooms at the Coach Stop Inn, or plump for bayview suites and a Maine infinity pool at West Street Hotel. If you’re visiting in late May and pitching your tent with a headlamp doesn’t intimidate you, tent sites at Bar Harbor Campground are a bucolic bargain with ocean vistas.

Mount Desert Island: 25-33 miles, 1-1.5 hours driving

Fuel up with a nourishing breakfast at 2 Cats Bar Harbor—the grilled polenta decked out with Mediterranean veggies is the GOAT. Then, take Park Loop Road to Jordan Pond. The onsite restaurant opens on May 25 and is renowned for its fluffy popovers, but the view from the house lawn of the pond and the nearby Bubble mountains is a timeless showstopper. Pick up the Jordan Pond Path for a dreamy 3 mile waterside loop that begins as a smooth gravel path and later transitions to wooden bog bridges crossing the pond’s rockier western shores. For a cardio boost, take the Bubbles Trail cutoff to the summit of South Bubble mountain, where a huge glacial boulder is precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff overlooking the park road.

With the afternoon ahead, head for Northeast Harbor, grab salads and sandwiches at Milk & Honey Kitchen, and take lunch just up the road to Asticou Terraces, where stone staircases lead to a gazebo overlooking the harbor. (Thuya Garden, at the top of the staircase, is closed through June 18 but Asticou Azalea Garden opens its gates on May 7.) From here, a quick drive northeast along Route 3 will take you back into the heart of Acadia’s east realm and here, you’ll make a decision. Climb to the summits of Cadillac and Dorr Mountains via the Ladder Trail—a tough 4.2 mile loop hike to the island’s high points on a path with iron ladders—or take a more meditative journey along the clifftop Ocean Path as afternoon sunlight paints Acadia’s coastline with golden accents. (The Ocean Path also offers the brisk waters of Sand Beach.)

The Bar Harbor dining circuit awaits back in town, with creative surf-n-turf pub entrees and chic Victorian decor at McKay’s Public House and delicious Latin America-meets-Maine innovation at Havana. Just be sure to leave room for a big sugar cone from Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream, where the small-batch ice cream packs a serious butterfat wallop.

Mount Desert Island to Boston: 311-318 miles, 5.5-6 hours driving

Wake up early and follow foggy island roads to the “quiet” southwestern side of Mount Desert Island. Take an enchanted walk through evergreen woodlands and pink granite coves at Ship Harbor, and keep your ear open for the distant horns of ships in through the mist. As the fog lifts, backtrack to Southwest Harbor and enter the Common Good Soup Kitchen, where a Sunday breakfast of popovers and housemade spreads is beloved by MDI locals and visitors.

Minutes from here, the glassy waters of Long Pond beckon to anyone seeking Maine serenity. Rent a watertight vessel from National Park Canoe & Kayak Rentals and spend the morning paddling around the pond, which is flanked by several looming mountains. You can also scale one of those mountains via the Perpendicular Trail, which departs from Long Pond’s southern shore before climbing hundreds of exquisite granite stairs to the summit of Mansell Mountain.

Whenever you begin the return journey to Boston, grab a final lunch at The Nor’Easter Pound & Market or The Travelin Lobster (open May 19,) lobstermen-owned seafood eateries where boat-to-table lobsters and steamers are paired with bubbling stockpots of chowder and bisque.