If you want to see Maine at its most authentic, drive way "Downeast". If you REALLY want to see it, go in January. Acadia, to me, is about beginnings. Its name comes first alphabetically among the national parks. For much of the year, it’s the first place in the United States to see the sunrise. There’s even a freshness in the name itself, conjuring images of crisp conifers overlooking a serrated coastline, the breakers’ constant crash providing background vocals.
Having recently completed Conor Knighton’s excellent book Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park (guess which one he visited first?), I was inspired to make a brief, two-night trip up the Maine coastline to kick off 2024 and see what all the fuss is about. In my nearly 40 years of living in New Hampshire, I had never been.*
*Why, you might ask? Well, as spoiled as it might sound, there is coastal and mountain magnificence within an hour or so of home, so I never thought the 4.5-hour ramble worth the time. I admit my wrongdoing and pledge to return before I’m 80.
Upon further research, I learned this is a VERY popular spot (5th-most visited NP in the US), being the only one in the northeast and within a day’s drive of probably 20 million people. Just for pre-Christmas giggles, I typed some January dates into a lodging search engine. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon a deal for the ages. A hotel room right in Bar Harbor – the salty chic town surrounded by Acadia – had rooms going for around $70 a night. Keep in mind that these same rooms in July come in at a cringe-inducing $400 per night, and those prices come with colossal crowds to match.
To make matters even more appealing, northern New England has had a very slow start to winter. When booking just before Christmas, I gambled that the mild weather would continue a few days into the new year. I could hike with my normal gear, unbothered by the technical challenges of winter hiking that I'm ill-equipped to handle.
After the 4.5-hour drive, I found myself in Acadia around midday on January 4, 2024. The first order of business was to hit the trails, of course. My desire was even more urgent due to the fact that ferocious windchills were predicted for the following day – less than ideal for hours outside.
I selected Dorr Mountain, peaking at a measly (on paper at least) 1,270' above sea level. In inland New Hampshire, “mountains” around 1,000 feet are often barely visible above nearby landscapes, some of which are themselves 500-700+ feet. Here though, a 1,200-foot peak looks much more intimidating, as it pretty much rises directly out of the ocean.
In any case, thinking this would be smooth sailing, I ran into some tricky conditions about halfway up. A rock scramble that would have been simple three months earlier was now sheets of ice covered by a thin layer of snow disguising the slipperiest spots. Trying to climb such a surface became something of a diabolical video game, as I struggled to stay upright by clinging to tree branches and tiptoeing across the few non-icy rocks that were visible. (cue the cheesy MIDI-style music... whomp whomp whomp)
Of all the hikes I’ve done, perhaps none were more symbolic of life’s struggles and triumphs than this one: the easy start (rock-hewn steps almost halfway up), the realization that things would be far more difficult than they’d originally appeared, the seemingly constant obstacles, and the determination to go over, around, or through them. Reaching the humble summit – and then descending the same icy rocks – became something of a personal conquest, one I was proud to have completed before dark. I saw not a single hiker on my way up or down.
Throughout this mini adventure, I couldn’t help thinking of serendipity. The placement of non-icy rocks, trees, and grippable surfaces was just such as to save me whenever the going looked impossible. As if my belief in a higher power weren’t solid enough, the sun emerged from behind the clouds near the summit, allowing me an awe-inspiring physical clarity to match the metaphysical. A profound gratitude permeated the climb, and the day.
Originally I had wanted to tackle Cadillac Mountain, which, at 1,530’, is the tallest in Acadia (and along the entire eastern seaboard, for that matter). Alas, continuing on and pressing my good fortune after struggling my way to the top of Dorr would have been utter foolishness. It was nearly 2:00, and I knew darkness fell earlier here than just about anywhere else in the States. The thought of battling the ice in the dark was at best cringe-inducing and at worst life-threatening. Dorr would have to be my only mountain of the day, and it proved more than enough.
I ended up reaching sea level again with perhaps an hour of daylight left. I drove on nearly empty roads to a southeastern section of the island and did the relatively flat Otter Cliff Loop that provided wonderful views to the distantly sinking sun. The melancholy clang of a nearby buoy was the soundtrack to my solitude. The golden hour was just that, as the coastline donned its glowing regalia before an early bedtime.
While my original concerns about cold, dark, and shuttered attractions were legit, I accepted them for what they were. Despite them, being here in January was magical. It was like meeting a favorite celebrity, but not among throngs and paparazzi but instead being invited to coffee and one-on-one conversation in his/her own living room. Unpretentious. Natural. Authentic. An extremely rare opportunity that makes a lasting mark.
Between that and the short daylight, there was a mystical, time-defying element to being here. Nearly every time I checked my watch, it was 1-2 hours earlier than I had thought. The flip side to the early evening was the desire to get an early start on Day 2. I’d need it, as I’d be hopping into the car and motoring to an extreme location I’d heard about since childhood.