July 21, 2013

Josh Christie: Ladder hikes are a step up when visiting Acadia

One of the most loved parts of the Maine outdoors is Acadia National Park, the paradise for hiking, biking, and paddling that sits on our Down East coast.

The area that is now Acadia National Park has been a haven for visitors for centuries, starting with French explorers in the early 1600s. In the 20th century the park progressed from Sieur de Monts National Monument (1916), to Lafayette National Park (1919) to Acadia National Park in 1929. Acadia now spans an impressive 47,000 acres, with most on Mount Desert Island. The park is one of the most popular in the national park system and draws more than two million visitors each year.

This huge volume of visitors is the reason that I -- with many Mainers -- tend to avoid Acadia during the summer. The bulk of these tourists visit in July, August and September, and MDI's scenic two-lane roads begin to look like the Los Angeles freeway. It's great for the town and the park, sure, but it makes solitude-seeking adventurers feel claustrophobic. I'll take my summer national park hours across the harbor at the solitary Schoodic Point, thank you very much.

But sometimes circumstances get the better of you. One of my best friends, who has lived in Maine a few years, is moving at the end of the month. He's also (somehow) never been to Acadia. With time short and ambitions long, a trip to Mount Desert Island needed to happen. And while I'm not thrilled my pal is moving, I'm glad he reminded me that Acadia's 100-plus miles of hiking trails are worth the trip, even if it means navigating crowds of flatlanders.

My favorite way to experience Acadian hiking is via the park's four "ladder" trails: Beech Cliff, Beehive, Penobscot and Precipice. These unique trails combine traditional hiking with climbs on ladders, rungs drilled into rock faces, and metal bars used for balance and assistance. The near-vertical climb of these trails makes for good exercise, and hikers can cover loads of vertical in a short time.

The Beech Cliff trail climbs from the parking lot at Echo Lake, transitioning quickly from flat ground to stone steps to iron ladders. An open summit, reached after less than a mile, provides stellar views of Acadia and Sergeant Mountains, Somes Sound and Great Cranberry Island. A hike south from the summit gives a gentler route back to Echo Lake Beach Road (and your vehicle), making for a round trip that's only about two miles.

Beehive Mountain, which towers to the west of the park's loop road, is one of Acadia's most popular hikes. Ascending from the Sand Beach parking area and up ladders and along ledges, the 0.8-mile trail climbs over 500 feet to the summit. The trail can get quite crowded (I suggest hitting it before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.), and on busy days tourists at the nearby Sand Beach get a colorful view of hikers swarming the mountain like ants. A cool Alpine pond, termed The Bowl, sits just beyond the summit -- a great reward for hikers who make the climb. The Bowl Trail skirts past the pond and wraps back down to the trailhead.

The longest hike on this list, the trail up Penobscot Mountain, showcases the area around Acadia's Jordan Pond. There are multiple routes to Penobscot's 1,194-foot summit; I recommend the Jordan Cliffs trail, which rises from the Jordan Pond House parking lot, and features a mix of stone and timber box steps, iron rungs, railings, and bridges. The exposed route follows a cliff band looking down on Jordan for more than a mile, making for fun (if slightly harrowing) hiking. A quick half-mile spur at the end takes hikers to the summit of Penobscot. The Penobscot Mountain Trail leads visitors down a less-exposed route back to the trailhead. Enjoy the four-mile hike and treat yourself to a snack at the locally run Jordan Pond House restaurant after you finish.

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