Travel

The Only National Park in the Northeast Feels Like the Edge of the World

With pine-filled islands and cliffs to catch the first sunrise in the US.

Brian Logan Photography/Shutterstock
Brian Logan Photography/Shutterstock
Brian Logan Photography/Shutterstock

Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated (and least-crowded) national parks-from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes, to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of the package here.The state of Maine may conjure up images of steamy red lobsters, lush green forests, pink boulder cliffs, and lighthouses rising up from a rugged coastline along the deep blue sea. Those colorful, mental postcards become a reality with an actual visit to America’s most northeast state-and all come to a climax in Acadia National Park. Acadia is, as the National Park Service puts it, the “crown jewel of the north Atlantic coast,” and with good reason; it holds the highest summit on the entire eastern coastline, a vantage point offering the first glimmer of the sun as it lifts off the horizon to shine on the continental United States.

This claim to fame is a magnificent sight to behold, which inadvertently warrants a desire for bragging rights and those wanting to, naturally, post it on social media. However, beyond the pic are the 158 miles of hiking trails, 45 miles of multi-purpose carriage roads, and 27 miles for scenic drives that have made Acadia one of the Pine Tree State’s top attractions (before the age of TikTok).

America’s first sunrise from a national park is easily accessible by car (if you have the permit), which allures even more people to Acadia-even those who would never dare own a pair of hiking boots. Being the only national park in the Northeast, crowds may be inevitable during the peak season, but if you carefully figure out a game plan before visiting (hint: read on), you can make the best use of your time to experience all the hues of this lonely paradise.

Jerry Monkman / Aurora Photos/Aurora Open/Getty Images
Jerry Monkman / Aurora Photos/Aurora Open/Getty Images
Jerry Monkman / Aurora Photos/Aurora Open/Getty Images

Best time of year to visit Acadia

Acadia is open year round, but the ideal time to go is spring and fall, the shoulder seasons when crowds are manageable and temperatures are favorable for outdoor activities. Park Loop Road, the park’s main thoroughfare to many of its attractions, opens in mid-April, so plan around then through the five weeks after. If you really want to ditch the crowds, it’s best to avoid Memorial Day through Labor Day, when school vacations prompt the caravans of family-filled SUVs. When the rush is over, the autumn weeks from September to early-November bring back some serenity-plus the bonus of the evergreen landscape transforming into a Bob Ross painting with dabbed brushstrokes of yellow ochre and alizarin crimson.For winter enthusiasts, Acadia can be a magical place December through March-albeit with limited road access-for winter hiking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or ice fishing (with a permit) in designated areas. If you grab a pair of microspikes for your shoes, the gorgeous ice trails are pretty much all yours. Also, the most scenic section of Park Loop Road is still accessible for sunrise opportunities.

However, if you’re like most visitors, you’ll probably go when it’s warm, which is absolutely worth it, even if your circumstances only allow you to visit during the high season.

Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

See the first sunrise in the country

The majority of Acadia National Park lies in the bucolic areas of Maine’s Mount Desert Island, a coastal island just off the mainland about 15 miles long and eight miles wide. The park isn’t clumped into one section of the island, but rather is scattered in patches, with two additional, less-frequented parcels located farther away on the Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut (plus 18 small coastal islands only accessible by boat).

Acadia’s biggest draws are located in one big patch on the eastern part of Mount Desert Island, where you’ll find the NPS’ main Hulls Cove Visitors Center at the beginning of Park Loop Road. The area is also home to Cadillac Mountain, the 1,527-foot mound of quartz-filled granite that gives it its pinkish hue, whose peak holds that spot in the American sunrise hall of fame. However, it may be significant to note here that, while its summit has the height advantage for the view of the first sunrise in the USA, this is only true in the low season, from October to March, when you factor in GPS location and the relative position of the earth to the Sun. (First American sunrise bragging rights actually belong to the humble Maine town of Lubec other times of the year… if you ignore the territory of Guam altogether.)

Nevertheless, people ignore these technical details, and thus Cadillac Mountain still attracts hordes of tourists each morning. Fortunately, the NPS limits the numbers by requiring $4 reservations to go up Cadillac Mountain Road (late May through late October), in addition to the general park admission pass required year round ($30 per vehicle, both of which you can buy online). Plan ahead: spots to drive up Cadillac for sunrise are snatched up as early as 90 days in advance, even if it’s months too early to know if it’ll be cloudy. Alternatively, more spots open up two days ahead of a target morning (when a two-day forecast is more reliable), but the internet rush to snag a spot at that time clogs the servers as much as when Coachella tickets go on sale. The other option is to hike up Cadillac Mountain in the dark on an out-and-back trail that takes about 1–2 hours (one way)-don’t forget your headlamp.

If you still can’t find a way into the show, don’t fret. A designated park vista point like Thunder Hole or Otter Cliff is a great alternative-and arguably better-spot for dawn, even if their lower elevation translates to the sun rising mere seconds after it does from the Cadillac summit viewpoint.Sunsets, not surprisingly, also draw a crowd in Acadia, even though there are no superlatives to brag about. While Maine as a whole is on the eastern seaboard and the sun sets in the wild, wild west, Mount Desert Island has its own sea-facing west coast. Many flock to the most south-westerly patch of the park, home of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, which nicely frames the setting sun. However, prepare for a traffic jam if you’re not there when most of the photographers’ arrive early to set up their tripods along the rocky coastline (sometimes at the expense of another camera’s shot).

Alternatively, two easy, marked hiking trails on the island’s south coast-Ship Harbor and Wonderland-both lead down to peninsulas that have their own western coasts with unobstructed views of the horizon. While there is no lighthouse for that postcard snapshot, it’s not nearly as crowded.

Stan Dzugan/Moment/Getty Images
Stan Dzugan/Moment/Getty Images
Stan Dzugan/Moment/Getty Images

Climb up the “Beehive” and other best hikes

While the rise and fall of the sun are the big to-dos in Acadia, there is still an entire day in between to enjoy and experience nature. Park rangers at the aforementioned Hulls Cove Visitors Center (and throughout the park for that matter) are invaluable for recommending how you can approach each day of your stay.

Natural attractions of the park include Thunder Hole, where the ocean dramatically crashes into a hollowed-out cliff with a thunderous clap. Down the road, there’s rock climbing at Otter Cliff,; gear and guides should be organized ahead of time with private companies based in nearby Bar Harbor, including Acadia Mountain Guides and the Atlantic Climbing School. The park’s 45-mile network of carriage roads are primed for mountain bike tires or horseshoes-for horseback or carriage rides that can be organized at the Wildwood Stables. For those looking for some manicured beauty, Sieur de Monts is the site of the park’s botanical gardens, along with a museum and nature center. And if you just want to relax and do nothing but lay out on a towel with a book, head to one of Acadia’s beaches, like Sand Beach or Echo Lake Beach.

Perhaps the most popular activity in Acadia is hiking, and there are certainly more than enough trails to tread on during your stay. One of the most popular ones is the Beehive Trail, named for its moderately challenging ascension up a beehive-shaped rock formation overlooking the Atlantic. The summit view is worth the effort of hiking and climbing a few ladders, but get there early-i.e., start after you view the sunrise-because by late morning, the entire trail can resemble a roller coaster queue at Disney World.

Other worthy hikes include the Penobscot Mountain Trail (with a few moderately challenging rock scrambles), the steep Precipice Trail (for those who want a real challenge), less-frequented Beech Mountain Trail (with an observation fire tower on its summit), or the casual Ocean Path Trail along the southeastern coast.

There’s also the easy 3.5-mile trail around Jordan Pond, location of the eponymous Jordan Pond House, the only restaurant within park boundaries. Lunch and early dinner options include salads, stews, and sandwiches, in addition to platters of those red crustaceans Maine is synonymous with. This historic restaurant may close at 5 pm, but fortunately lobster, in its many forms (i.e. steamed whole or in rolls, bisque, nachos, or pizza) can be found in all the towns just outside park boundaries-especially in the main town of the island, Bar Harbor.

DenisTangneyJr/iStock/Getty Images
DenisTangneyJr/iStock/Getty Images
DenisTangneyJr/iStock/Getty Images

Get Lobstah in “Bah Habah” and beyond

More than a few souvenir T-shirts, magnets, and other tschotskes affectionately poke fun at the regional pronunciation of Bar Harbor, the island’s biggest (and most touristy) town. A hub of souvenir shops, bars, eateries, sightseeing cruise docks, and lodging options of varied styles and price points, Bar Harbor is an inevitable stopover, if not basecamp, for multi-day visits to the national park.

Like in any tourist epicenter (e.g. Times Square), don’t expect the best dining options here, with many, but not all, restaurants merely cooking mediocre-to-decent meals for the masses. Arguably better food options can be found in the smaller towns, like at The Colonel’s Restaurant in Northeast Harbor and Seafood Ketch in Bass Harbor.

Honorable mentions for best lobster rolls go to Rodick’s Takeout and Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound, both roadside stands in Southwest Harbor-the latter of which also has a goat petting farm for the kids. However, if you’ve come to Acadia to truly embrace the outdoors, you shouldn’t dine in but cook out, at a campground.
 

Lost_in_the_Midwest/Shutterstock
Lost_in_the_Midwest/Shutterstock
Lost_in_the_Midwest/Shutterstock

Where to stay in Acadia National Park

Camping epitomizes the outdoors experience, and there are several privately-owned options just outside park boundaries or nearby on the mainland. Within Acadia National Park, there are four campgrounds-two of which are on Mount Desert Island: Seawall and Blackwoods-and you must make a campsite reservation. Not only does “roughing it” allow you to completely become one with Mother Nature, it allows you to sit by a campfire-in your own space away from the crowds-to perfect your marshmallow roasting techniques over the flames.However, more divine than the perfect s’more are the celestial bodies above, not only at Acadia’s campsites, but at the open spaces that the NPS recommends for stargazing: Jordan Pond, Ocean Path, and Sand Beach. Far from the lights of Bar Harbor-and even farther away from the metropolises of the northeast completely-light pollution is virtually non-existent. On a clear night, especially in July and August, the sky shimmers with more stars than you’ll see anywhere close to civilization. The clarity can be so intense that it’s possible to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

As much as many visitors of Acadia National Park may be concerned with seeing the rising and setting of the sun, it’s best to remember that the night sky is just as-if not more-spectacular. Visit for a night or two and find out for yourself.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Erik Trinidad is a Brooklyn-based travel writer in perpetual search for offbeat adventures-and the beers and meals that come afterwards. Follow him on Instagram @theglobaltrip and via his travel/science web series, Plausibly Ridiculous.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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