May 22, 2011

John Christie: Acadia carriage roads: Maine's gift to bicyclists

It was back in the early part of the 20th century that the great philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. began the construction of a carriage road system on Mount Desert Island that resulted in a unique biking paradise available to all of us.

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Bicyclists glide past a vista overlooking Jordan Pond and the Bubbles Mountains on a carriage road at Acadia National Park, near Bar Harbor.

Associated Press file photo

Development took nearly 30 years, during which time Acadia National Park was created and the roads were opened to the public. Their use by horse-drawn carriages and hikers diminished during the Depression, and even more after the Great Fire of 1947, which I remember seeing from my home in Camden as the eastern horizon glowed red for days. It was in 1949 that Rockefeller himself suggested promoting bicycle use on the roads as carriage use had declined.

Totaling about 50 miles of well-graded and maintained gravel roads, this system winds its way through some of the most scenic parts of the park, around lakes and ponds, through quiet woods, and over promontories offering unequaled vistas of coastal Down East Maine.

Much of the credit for the current quality of today's network of roads can be traced to an initiative launched a little more than 20 years ago by The Friends of Acadia, with assistance from the National Park Service and funded by Congress. In 1990, a massive rehabilitation project was undertaken to restore the roads and scenic vistas to their condition of a century ago by cleaning drainage ditches, reopening long-clogged culverts, replanting vegetation, resetting coping stones along the sides of the roads and repointing many of the 170stone bridges that span rivers and cross gorges to link the entire system together.

Every time I head out for a day of biking in Acadia, the toughest decision is the first one: which carriage road, or roads, today. The best thing is that there's no wrong decision, for every road has its own unique character, and occasional challenge. Regardless, I know I'm in for a special Maine experience.

There is another decision I have to make before I head east at sunrise to get out early on the bike, and that is whether I proceed to the carriage roads, or stay on Route 1 in Ellsworth and go to the spectacular Schoodic section of the park, but more about that later.

My first trip every year, and I make sure it's in May, well before the summer crowds arrive on the island, is the 6-mile loop around Eagle Lake. There are two parking areas just off the Eagle Lake Road (Route 233). I recommend heading along the west shore with the lake on your left, and you'll catch regular glimpses of the lake, as well as Cadillac, Pemetic, the Bubbles and Conners Nubble, all of which should be included in your summer hiking schedule. A couple of miles in you'll pass the trail head for the short hike up Conners Nubble, a hike well worth the few minutes diversion. The road then circles around the south end of the lake and begins a long, nearly flat ride of a couple of miles back to your car. There is another parking area, the Bubble Pond lot, where you can also begin your circuit, but I prefer starting at the north end, as I'll always toss my kayak on the Jeep when I head for this particular bike ride. There's easy access for a nice paddle on Eagle Lake after the morning's exercise.

Another reason I like the loop around Eagle Lake is that the road provides access to the Aunt Betty's Pond Loop, a usually quieter alternative to circling the lake if the road is a little busy, and it covers just about the same distance. Lots of work has been done in recent years on both the surface and with brush being cleared on the sides. Although containing one of the most challenging uphill climbs in the entire Carriage Roads system, this ride rewards you with six attractive crossings of Chasm Brook as well as a long downhill glide back to the west shore of Eagle Lake, and then it's back to your car.

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