November 21, 2013

Carey Kish: The autumn pace of an Acadia hike

With the tourists gone, a great hike becomes greater.

There are a handful of outstanding walks right along the Maine coast, bold oceanfront paths that wend their way among the rocks just a few feet from the pounding surf, up close and very personal with the Atlantic Ocean.

click image to enlarge

The 150-foot sheer walls of Otter Cliffs offer one of the more magnificent views during the 2.2-mile trail that connects Sand Beach to Otter Point, running parallel to Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park.

Carey Kish photo

These routes are defined by salty air and sea breezes, squawking gulls and stinky seaweed, shells of every shape and size, driftwood and other interesting detritus washed ashore, and unimpeded views extending eastward to the curve of the horizon.

The Cliff Walk at Prouts Neck in Scarborough, Marginal Way in Ogunquit and the Cliff Walk in York certainly come to mind, but perhaps the finest of these special coastal hikes is the Ocean Path in Acadia National Park, the amazing 2.2-mile trail connecting Sand Beach to Otter Point, running parallel to Ocean Drive.

Given that the government shutdown is a distant memory, the carloads of leaf-peepers and the noisy tour buses have disappeared, the unstaffed gates are wide open and there are no entrance fees, now is the time to enjoy this classic Acadia walk in reasonable solitude.

Besides the scenic beauty and lack of crowds, there’s another good reason to take this hike. If your aversion to busy trails is anything like mine, well, there’s a good chance you’ve never actually hiked all of the Ocean Path. You might think you have, as I did, but in reality I’d only touched portions of it, jumping out of the car here and there over the years, tourist-like. So a full-length walk was long overdue, completed recently on a clear and cold afternoon.

A saunter on Sand Beach is a must before tackling the Ocean Path proper, which leaves from behind the restrooms at the Sand Beach parking lot.

As you stride along, the views get bigger and better, as Sand Beach and Great Head come into view below. Then Schoodic Peninsula appears gradually across the blue-green waters of Frenchman Bay. Frequent spur trails, some official but many not, lead to viewpoints atop the coarse-grained pink granite rocks for which Acadia is famous. Explore as many as you have time for.

A third of the way along is Thunder Hole, that narrow cleft in the rocks famous for its thundering booms and huge waves when the tides are just right. When was the last time you actually scrambled down the steps here to enjoy this wonder?

Ahead is the compact beach of polished cobblestones at Monument Cove, with its very own sea stack sitting detached from the shore, a monument to the forces of nature. From the cove you can also glimpse more clearly the 150-foot sheer walls of Otter Cliffs.

Soon after, the trail bears away from the Park Loop Road for the first time. The path feels wilder here, a dark corridor through the spruce forests.

Several side trails reach down to the top of Otter Cliffs, but the one to look for is the somewhat obscure climber’s path that leads to a large shelf high above the ocean.

Looking north, enjoy the grand vista ranging from Gorham Mountain to Great Head – all of the coastline you’ve just walked – including the steep face of The Beehive, the margin of pinkish cliffs along the shore, and Sand Beach. Cadillac Mountain and Dorr Mountain rise prominently beyond, separated by the obvious notch at the top of The Gorge.

As the Ocean Path climbs high around Otter Point, the islands of Big and Little Cranberry and Baker come into focus. Eventually the path returns to the lower shoreline rocks and, all too soon, ends at the Park Loop Road just opposite the exit for the Otter Point parking lot.

Return to your car by doubling back on the Ocean Path, ambling along the Park Loop Road, or by hiking over Gorham Mountain. The scenery is, after all, just as beautiful in the opposite direction.

Carey Kish of Bowdoin is an avid hiker and active member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. Send comments and hike suggestions to:maineoutdoors@aol.com
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