Explore Acadia National Park by bike on historic carriage roads

This story was originally published in August 2020.

Difficulty: Easy to intense, depending on your itinerary. Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island is home to approximately 45 miles of motorable roads that intersect in many places, forming a multitude of possible biking trails. The roads are 16 feet wide, smooth and covered with crushed stone. Some sections are hillier than others.

Information: Winding through the forest around mountains and ponds, Acadia National Park’s carriage roads are a great way to explore the park by bike. These wide, smooth roads are closed to motorized vehicles (with some exceptions). They feature massive historic stone bridges and lead to incredible views of Mount Desert Island.

With a whimsical and rustic feel, the carriage roads follow the natural curves of the landscape, bypassing Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake, and visiting several smaller bodies of water. They also hug the slopes of several mountains, including Day, Penobscot, Parkman and Sargeant.

While motorable roads run through much of the eastern portion of the park on Mount Desert Island, they are absent in other areas of the park. To plan your adventure, study a detailed trail map that includes access points and all numbered intersections. And note that many hiking trails intersect with motorable roads and bicycles are not permitted on the hiking trails. Trail maps usually clearly indicate what is a hiking trail and what is a motorable road, either by color or type of line. Also take note of the contour lines on the maps, which will give you an idea of ​​how hilly – or flat – a section of motorable road is.

Derek Runnells of Dedham cycles along the west side of Jordan Pond on August 26, while exploring the carriage roads of Acadia National Park. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | NDB

Recreationalists have enjoyed motorable roads for about 100 years. Between 1913 and 1940, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., financed and directed the construction of approximately 57 miles of motorable roads on Mount Desert Island – 45 of which are now in the national park. From the start, he wanted the roads to be used for recreation. In fact, Rockefeller was a skilled horseman and designed the roads so that he – and others – could travel by horse or carriage through the heart of the island’s wilderness.

The gravel roads were designed to withstand Maine’s fluctuating temperatures and wet weather, with stone culverts, wide ditches and high peaks. They were also built with the natural environment in mind. The many stone retaining walls, for example, were put in place to prevent erosion, preserve the natural contours of the land, and prevent nearby trees from toppling during and after construction.

Although the carriage roads are certainly hilly, the gradient is gradual and the turns are gentle to accommodate horse-drawn carriages. Two historic lodges, one at Jordan Pond and the other near Northeast Harbor, welcome roadside recreation enthusiasts. Additionally, the carriage roads cross 17 scenic stone-faced bridges, each with a unique design.

A biker rides over one of 17 historic stone bridges found on the carriage roads of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | NDB

At intersections of motorable roads, towering wooden signs point the way to major landmarks (such as Jordan Pond or Bar Harbor). These signs also display an intersection number. This can help you find your bearings, especially if used with a trail map that includes these numbers.

Interesting fact: the large granite blocks or curbstones that line the road have been referred to as “Rockefeller’s teeth” and serve simply as guardrails.

Some motorable roads extend outside the park onto private property. For example, at the southern end of the park, they cross the Little Long Pond reserve, where biking is not allowed. For this reason, it is important to know the boundaries of the park.

Motorable roads in Acadia are open year-round, except for the mud season in early spring. They are closed to motorized vehicles, with the exception of Class 1 electric bicycles and – on certain sections – snowmobiles. Dogs must be on a leash at all times and this leash must not exceed 6 feet in length.

This view from Jordan Pond is just one of the many things you can enjoy while exploring the carriage roads of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | NDB

When exploring trails, always remember that cyclists must yield to all other road users. And everyone should give in to the horses. This means it is your responsibility to slow down, swerve and in some cases stop. When passing a horse going in the opposite direction, the best practice is to stop and let the horse pass. When passing a horse going in the same direction as you, the best practice is to announce yourself from a distance and ask if you can pass.

Also, stay to the right and give a clear warning before passing someone on the left. Move to the side when stationary. Wear a helmet and pack plenty of water and snacks, as well as a trail map.

Cycling on paved roads is a major cause of injury for park visitors, so watch your speed and be prepared to stop. The gravel can be slippery if you stop quickly.

All visitors to Acadia National Park must pay an entry fee upon entry from May through October. All vehicles must display a park entry pass clearly visible through the windshield. Park passes are generally available at several locations on Mount Desert Island, including park visitor centers. However, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the park encourages all visitors to purchase and print a pass online before arriving at the park. The only in-person pass outlet currently available on the island is the Sand Beach Entrance Station. For more information, visit nps.gov/acad or call 207-288-3338.

Personal note: It took us a while to find a parking spot in Acadia National Park on August 26, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate. Driving the entire Park Loop Road, we found parking lot after parking lot full on this sunny and chilly Wednesday. Luckily, we didn’t need to start our adventure at a specific starting point. Our plan was to explore some of the motorable roads by bicycle. Without a particular route in mind, we could be flexible about where we start. And finally, we found a place at Eagle Lake (where we had kayaked earlier this summer).

Once we got to the passable roads the crowds thinned out and it was easy to maintain at least 6 feet distance from others – important thing in the age of COVID. Cycling with my husband, Derek, and his mother, Geneva, we cycled 13 miles that day, retracing the edges of Eagle Lake, Bubble Pond, and Jordan Pond in one great loop.

One of my favorite stretches of motorable road on this trip was on the slope of Penobscot Mountain west of Jordan Pond. The section went under an awesome rocky field and had clear views of Pemetic Mountain and nearby bubbles. I also liked seeing two horse drawn carriages crossing a stone bridge near Day Mountain. We walked on the side of the road while I took some pictures.

Although I spent a lot of time in the park, I found I needed a detailed trail map to avoid frustration or loss. If you’re looking for a great trail map of Acadia to use in your own adventure, I suggest the Maine-based Map Adventures waterproof trail map. It’s just $10.

Next time I’m biking in the park, I’d like to check out the carriage road that circles Day Mountain. I’m also curious about the motorable roads in the Hadlock Ponds area and exploring the slopes of Parkman Mountain. One adventure always seems to lead to 10 more.

Derek Runnells of Dedham stops to admire the view of Eagle Lake while exploring the carriage roads of Acadia National Park August 26, on Mount Desert Island. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | NDB

How to get there: There are several access points to Acadia National Park vehicular roads on Mount Desert Island. Your best bet is to purchase a detailed trail map, which will show you which parking areas provide access to the network. Some trailheads providing access to carriage roads include the parking lot at the north end of Eagle Lake, the parking lot at Jordan Pond House, the parking lot at the north end of Bubble Pond, the parking lots at Upper Hadlock Pond and Lower Hadlock. Pond and the large car park at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center.

If you’re cycling in the park for the first time, you might want to start at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, which has ample parking and quick access to an easy loop around Witch Hole Pond. This loop connects to other motorable roads that surround Eagle Lake and beyond. You can also ask for help finding alternate parking areas and trailheads at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center.

To get there, cross the causeway on Mount Desert Island on Route 3 and turn left where the road splits at the convenience store, staying on Route 3. Travel approximately 7.8 miles and the road will become two lanes. Stay in the right lane and turn right to enter Acadia National Park. At the stop sign, turn right to find the parking lot.

Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl and Instagram: @actoutdoors. His guides “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine”, “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path”, and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.

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