A summer road trip to Bar Harbor used to be the hubby and my annual summer tradition. It is one of the few places I have been more times than I can count on one hand. And we keep going back because there is so much to enjoy – from mountains and lakes, to ocean, food and breweries, Bar Harbor truly offers something for everyone. It is the first place we plan to road trip with the kids too, as soon as they are old enough to ride bikes and hike along with us. Be sure to also check out all the Best Road Trips Around the Globe in our blog hop, featuring awesome family-friendly road trips from Maine to California, and Australia to Canada!
Summer Road Trip to Bar Harbor
Everything about Bar Harbor, and its larger island home, Mount Desert Island, is beautiful. There is incredible scenery, awesome food, opportunity for great adventures and even animal encounters. Martha Stewart doesn’t keep a vacation home here for no reason! It is also a land rich in history, and even the journey to get there is gorgeous.
Bar Harbor is about an 8 hour drive from New York City, and 4.5 hours from Boston, making it a frequent summer vacation getaway for East Coasters. It is located on the northeast coast of Mount Desert Island, an appropriately shaped, lobster claw island off the coast of Maine, approximately 200 miles up the coast from the state border.
While most GPS directions will take you north on I-95/I-295 through Bangor, then southward on Route 1A, you can take a more scenic, oceanfront route via a combination of Route 3 and/or Route 1, driving through picturesque coastal towns and by a few side-route adventures, deviating from I-295 in Brunswick or Augusta.
Stops Along the Way
On the way up, we often stop in Freeport, Maine, home to L.L. Bean headquarters. While it may be summer, the temperature in coastal Maine can vary dramatically, with highs averaging 80 and lows 60 or below at night. Out on the cool Atlantic waters, temps often reach below 50. If you need a windbreaker or extra fleece for your trip, this is a great place to pick one up.
After your shopping trip, you can grab lunch next door at the Jameson Tavern, one of the oldest restaurants in America. It is also where Maine was created – in 1820, the papers were signed here legally separating Maine from Massachusetts.
On the way home, it’s fun to catch a birds-eye inland view of Penobscot Bay and, on a clear day, even the peaks on Mount Desert Island. The bridge was opened in 2006, as an emergency replacement for a bridge dating back to the 1930s. It is one of only 3 bridges in the United States to utilize a cable-stayed cradle system. The Observatory is the first bridge observation tower in the United States and the tallest public bridge observatory in the world. It stands 420 feet up, providing awesome views of the river, bay, and nearby historical site, Fort Knox.
Not to be confused with the more famous US Army post in Kentucky, Fort Knox State Historic Site was the first granite fort constructed in Maine. All prior forts were built of wood. It was part of the seacoast defense system known as the Third System, approved by Congress after the War of 1812. Maine had been badly beat up by the British, felt vulnerable to the British and the US wanted to protect its major ship building lumber sources in Penobscot and Bangor.
The fort was never fully completed and never saw battle. In the 1920s, it was declared excess property by the federal government, and purchased by the state of Maine for just over $2,000.
After a long, scenic and eventful drive, you finally arrive in Bar Harbor. We have always stayed at the Bar Harbor Inn. From its picturesque perch directly on the coast, it offers great views, even better food, and is conveniently located to town, tours, and Acadia. While some of the rooms could still use some updating, the Spa is gorgeous, and the food… I have dreams about the food.
They offer great vacation packages, which include your room, full breakfast (not continental – hot, gourmet, and fabulous, with options like blueberry pancakes, salmon omelets, eggs benedict with lobster, stuffed french toast and more) every morning, an assortment of dinners, a lobster bake, your choice of an Acadia tour or sailboat harbor cruise, and a gift shop credit. And the price includes all taxes and dining gratuities.
There are three things you must have when in Maine: lobster, blueberries and blueberry beer! Lobster is synonymous with Maine. It represents over $1 billion industry for the state, and 100% of Maine lobster are caught by hand in small day boats. The state harvests more than 120 million pounds of lobster annually, representing 85% of all lobster produced in the United States.
You can cover all three during your New England Lobster Bake outdoors under the gorgeous yellow umbrellas at the Bar Harbor Inn. It comes with a full lobster (which they will teach you to crack if you need help), and is finished off with homemade blueberry pie. Order a Bar Harbor or Sea Dog Blueberry Ale, served in a frosted pint glass and garnished with a few fresh blueberries and you’ve knocked off all three. Our other local favorites?
Lobster pounds are famous in Maine -what is it? It ranges from a side of the road shack to a full restaurant, where they buy lobsters fresh off the boat, and sell them to you for dinner, literally by the pound. Do you want a 1 pounder, a 1 1/2 pounder or a massive 2 pounder plus!
Locals will tell you Stewman’s is a tourist place, but it’s honestly my favorite! The Downtown location has an awesome outdoor upper deck, right on the water, and they make the best lobster rolls.
Thurston’s Lobster Pound
Thurston’s is the pound touted by many guide books. It’s a decent drive from the town of Bar Harbor, on the opposite end of Mount Desert Island, but worth it more for the scenic views of Somes Sound (the only fjord on the East Coast) and a field trip to the Bass Harbor Head lighthouse, than for the food itself. It will, however, give you more of an authentic, and less touristy, lobster pound experience.
A Bar Harbor icon, Jordan’s makes the best blueberry muffins in town. This is always our one breakfast away from the Inn… and we usually stop in after catching the sun rise on top of Cadillac Mountain (more on that later!)
Jordan Pond House
One of my favorite food stops on our trips is the Jordan Pond House. Located on Jordan Pond, in the heart of Acadia National Park, it’s a great place to stop for lunch and break up your day in the park, whether by car after making various stops for hikes throughout the mountains, or by bike through the Carriage Trails. Whether you sit indoors or outside on the banks of Jordan Pond, you have to have a piping hot popover with jam, just like Acadia travelers have been doing there since 1847.
Adventures by Land
Part of our love for Bar Harbor is you get the best of both mountain and ocean vacations in one place. For land adventures, there are several different options to choose from…
Acadia Bus Tours
A great way to get your initial bearings of the oldest National Park east of the Mississippi, bus tours are given daily, and often driven and directed by long-time locals. On a Labor Day trip several years back, after the remnants of a hurricane passed off the coast of Maine, we took our first bus tour, as drizzle and wet roads made biking less than desirable. It was awesome to hear the local folklore, and amazing to see some of the natural waterfalls and fauna that only emerge after big rains. I would recommend booking your tour a few days in advance to insure your seat, especially during busy the summer season. For a 2.5-3 hour tour, tickets run $30 each for adults or is one of the options in your Bar Harbor Inn vacation package.
Drive Park Loop Road
Acadia is very car friendly, with public parking available at most of the main attractions. If you are looking to hike several different trails over a day, I would recommend driving, parking at each spots designated lot, especially with young children. A car pass is $25 and is valid for 7 days. Pay attention to park maps, as certain sections of Park Loop are only one way.
Bike the Carriage Trails
The Carriage Trails, originally designed, financed and constructed by John D. Rockefeller from 1915 to 1933, cover more than 50 miles throughout Acadia. Today, they make for great bike trails. You can rent bikes of all sizes for the day in Bar Harbor, including helmets, and the bike shops will also provide maps of the Carriage Trails and where to enter them. Make sure you plan your day to have the bikes back before closing to avoid being charged for an additional day’s rental. Beware – it is not all easy biking. The good news – should you make your way into the depths of Acadia and not feel up to riding out, you can pick up the free Island Explorer Shuttle Buses, which include bike racks on the front, and ride back to Bar Harbor, with your bike.
Favorite Family-Friendly Hikes
There are numerous hikes of varying degrees of difficulty throughout Acadia National Park. All are well mapped and well marked. A few of our favorites, suitable for families can be found below. All of these are also accessible by car with parking available at the head of the trail.
The highest peak at Acadia, it commonly claims to be the “nation’s first sunrise” (though this is only true for part of the year). You can drive and park near the top, and there is a relatively level, easy hiking loop around the summit, which provides great views of the surrounding park, Frenchman Bay and its islands. I definitely recommend taking in at least one sunrise at the top of Cadillac Mountain during your visit. It’s breathtaking, and totally worth the early wake-up call. Reward yourself after with hot blueberry muffins at Jordan’s Restaurant – they open at 5AM.
This is probably my favorite hike in Acadia. It’s a little bit of a challenge but is easy enough for a beginner and families with young children. And it’s totally worth it to get the picture at the top with Bubble Rock. Again, you can drive and park at the head of the trail.
If you make a stop for lunch at the Jordan Pond House, you can take a fairly leisurely stroll around the pond itself. There is some beautiful scenery, not least of which are the wood plank pathways laid through some of the rockier terrain around the pond.
From the south end of the pond, you can also get a great shot of The Bubbles, the famous double rounded peaks of Acadia. Jordan Pond has clear water, with visibility north of 50 feet, and serves as the drinking water for Seal Harbor. Pets and humans are not permitted in the pond.
We hiked this trail for the first time on our last visit to Acadia – it was on our Babymoon before Big M was born, and I was 7 months pregnant. If I could do it then, just about anyone can!
Technically, this isn’t in the park, but along the coastline of Bar Harbor itself. It is an easy, level path offering the best views of Frenchman Bay, as well as a peak at some of the local “cottages” (aka giant mansion summer homes of the ultra-wealthy). The path begins just behind the Bar Harbor Inn, and stretches along the coast for about a mile.
Other Favorite Acadia Stops
There are some scenic and leisurely stops worth making throughout the park as well.
A small inlet carved into the rocky cliffs, Thunder Hole is named for the thundering boom created by air trapped beneath the incoming waves as they crash against the rocks. It’s best to plan your stop here as the tide is coming in to get the biggest booms and splashes. Please pay heed to park warnings and railings. Often, the lower levels of Thunder Hole are closed off during periods of turbulent weather, as it can be dangerous.
One of the few, white sand beaches on the island, this is a popular spot, especially on hot summer days. If you plan to make a stop here, come early to get a parking spot, especially on warmer days.
Jordan Pond House
I know I mentioned this before, but it’s worth another mention. You can’t come to Acadia and not have a popover at Jordan Pond House. They are so good, I bought my own pan to make them from the gift shop!
Adventures by Sea
After you’ve had your fill of the National Park, its mountains and Carriage Trails, there is still plenty the ocean has to offer at Bar Harbor. For all of the ocean adventures, no matter how warm a day it is on land, you’ll want to be sure to bring a fleece or jacket with you on the boat, as its often as much as 20-30 degrees cooler out at sea.
This is by far the highlight of the sea adventures from Bar Harbor. You will want to try to do the whale watch as early in your trip as possible, as they are often cancelled due to offshore fog, rough seas, or fully booked by many of the cruise ships that port in Frenchman Bay. You can book your reservations in advance of arriving on the island as well with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. Tours last 3-4 hours, and I’ve seen whales every time.
PGPB Guru Tip: Arrive at the dock well in advance of your departure. You board the boat in order of arrival, much like a Southwest Airline flight. You will want to snag a seat on the roof for the best views and to avoid all those who get seasick on the lower decks below. If you are prone to sea sickness, take some Dramene or wear sea bands. While I have been on multiple watches and never been sick, I’ve seen lots of others fall ill, even in the calmest of oceans.
Lighthouse & Puffin Tours
Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. also offers tours around the smaller islands to see all the lighthouses. Several of these perimeter islands are also puffin nesting grounds and seals. Makes for great photo ops too!
Sailboat Cruise of Frenchman Bay
The Margaret Todd is the large sailboat, or schooner, docked just off the pier behind the Bar Harbor Inn. A cruise on it around Frenchman Bay and its islands provides for great views, sighting of various bird and sea life, as well as the opportunity to help the crew hoist the massive sails.
Lobster Boat Tour
Maine is known for lobster, and when you look out into the waters off the coast of Bar Harbor, you will see hundreds of lobster buoys dotting the bay. If you are up early enough, you will also see the lobster boats heading out to check their traps. Get an inside look at how it all works by actually going on board a lobster boat! Lulu Lobster Boat Tours departs right from downtown Bar Harbor. This 2 hour, action and sea creature packed tour is a great option for young kids who may not have the patience for whale watching. You will also learn a ton about the lobster fishery in Maine, and how they have implemented measures to keep their booming industry alive, well and abundant!
The town of Bar Harbor is located on Mount Desert Island, named by the French Explorer Samuel de Champlain as Isles des Monts Desert. It is for him that the surrounding bay is named Frenchman Bay. It was first settled by Europeans in the mid-to-late 1700s, and originally named Eden. The picturesque scenery soon attracted artists, and their paintings brought tourists. The first hotel was built in 1855 and first summer estate, or cottage, was built in 1868. By the 1880s, there were more than 30 hotels and the town rivaled Newport, Rhode Island as the summer playground of the wealthy. The likes of the Rockafellers, J.P. Morgan, Vanderbilts, Fords and Astors all called Bar Harbor home for at least part of the year.
Acadia National Park, the first National Park created east of the Mississippi, was originally created as Lafayette National Park in 1919, before being renamed Acadia in 1929. Landscape architect Charles Eliot is credited with the idea of creating the park, while philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated significant parcels of land to the park, as well as convincing many of his wealthy neighbors to make contributions and created and financed its 50 miles of Carriage Trails.
A massive wildfire in 1947 burned more than 10,000 acres of Acadia, as well as many of the summer cottages of the East Coast elite, ending the island’s Gilded Age. However, the island has rebuilt much of what was lost over the last 60+ years, and remains a popular tourist destination, as well as a getaway for the rich and famous. Despite being popular, its relative remoteness still leaves it feeling authentic and rarely overcrowded. We certainly love it there!
Where is your favorite summer road trip destination? Have you ever been to Bar Harbor? What’s your favorite stop while on Mount Desert Island? If you need more summer road trip inspiration, be sure to check out our Best Road Trips Around the Globe blog hop, featuring awesome family-friendly road trips from kids’ activity bloggers around the world!