At Acadia National Park, Maine's rugged beauty reigns

Road Trip 2010: A couple hundred miles up the Maine coast, this national treasure showcases some of nature's best--and the Atlantic seaboard's highest summit.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

Jordan Pond, one of Acadia National Park's most-visited attractions, highlights its natural beauty. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine--From high atop Cadillac Mountain here, you can see for miles in any direction, including some of America's most treasured coastline, pristine forests, sparkling lakes, and even a resort town favored by President Barack Obama and his family.

If it's not completely shrouded in fog, that is.

I've come here as part of Road Trip 2010, and for better or worse, my visit is met by thick fog and clouds that are hanging low over Cadillac Mountain, obscuring it and most of what can be seen from there. Yet, there is an ethereal beauty to this pea soup, especially as it hugs the top of the 1,530 foot summit--the highest on the Atlantic seaboard.

And given that I can barely see a few hundred feet from my perch high up on the mountain, I can only imagine being there on one of the mornings when, it is said, the peak is the first place in the United States to see the sun rise.

Click here for a full photo gallery from Maine's Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park's natural beauty (photos)

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Cadillac Mountain is named for a Frenchman named Antoine Laumet who immigrated to this area of Maine in the 17th century, one of countless French to come to the region. Laumet took it upon himself to grant himself the title Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, and perhaps because of his persuasive nature, he asked for, and was granted, a hundred thousand acres of prime Maine coastal land, including the entire Mount Desert Island that encompasses Acadia National Park and its adjacent hot spot, Bar Harbor. Cadillac didn't stay long, though. He and his young wife soon departed the island and went west. He later became better known for founding a then-small town called Detroit.

Protected land
In the 19th century, Mount Desert Island was a favorite hideaway for the rich and famous. The Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Fords and others luxuriated away their summers here. Many of them took the opportunity to build fantastic "cottages" on the pristine land, and a new era of leisure took hold. But thanks to the deprivations of the Great Depression, World War II, and a giant fire in 1947, the uber-wealthy decided that it was time to move on.

Yet, even before they left, some had seen fit to establish a crucial legacy: a preservationist streak that led to the desire--spearheaded by a man named George Dorr--to set aside much of the land here for permanent public use. In 1901, according to the National Park Service, "disturbed by the growing development of the Bar Harbor area and the dangers he foresaw in the newly invented gasoline-powered portable sawmill, George Dorr and others established the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations." The result? By 1913, the trust had acquired 6,000 acres of land, which was offered to the federal government.

One of the parks best-known features is Cadillac Mountain, which at 1,530 feet is the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard. Here, the Porsche Panamera 4S that CNET's Daniel Terdiman is road-testing on Road Trip 2010 is parked near the top of Cadillac Mountain. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

As the land acquisition and preservation continued, in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created Lafayette National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi. In 1929, the park's name was changed to Acadia, and today, it encompasses more than 47,000 acres.

Twisting around those thousands of acres are another one of the treasures of the park, also a gift of the gentry: the 45 miles of lovely carriage roads that were given by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his family. Created as a way to enjoy the park without having to rely on automobiles, the carriage roads boast some of the best views, most private and quiet spots, and the best hiking on the island.

Much of Mount Desert Island is composed of various forms of granite that formed about 420 million yeas ago. Indeed, some of the oldest granite makes up Cadillac Mountain. "It oozed up through existing rocks, stressing and fracturing the overlying bedrock and causing large chunks to fall into the molten magma body," according to the National Park Service. "Some chunks of bedrock melted in the intense heat, while others were suspended in the magma. When the granite cooled deep in the earth, these blocks remained, surrounded by crystallized granite. This region of granite and broken rock, called the shatter zone, is still visible on the eastern side of the Cadillac Mountain Granite."

There is evidence that between 2 million and 3 million years ago a group of ice sheets flowed across northern North America, and with each new sheet, remnants of the previous ones were torn away. The result is that these glaciers are responsible for the U-shaped valleys of Acadia National Park. "The vast weight of the ice depressed the land surface, so that in Maine's coastal region the melting of ice was accompanied by an invasion of the sea," the park service says. "Marine waters covered the lowlands and created islands of Acadia's mountains. Beaches and sea caves formed at almost 300 feet above the present-day sea level. Fine-grained material settled out of the sea and draped low areas with a layer of marine mud. With the continued recession of the ice, the land surface rose and stabilized. Lakes, such as [Acadia National Park's] Jordan Pond, formed in valleys dammed by ridges of glacial debris. Plants and animals colonized the uncovered land. Rivers and streams carved new drainage paths, and by 9,000 years ago, the region became home to people."

A blast of water jets out of Thunder Hole at Acadia National Park, near Bar Harbor, Maine. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Today, there is a never-ending process of geologic evolution here. Though the glaciers are long gone, the weathering of the granite ridges continues to this day. Perhaps the most dramatic of this evolution is the gradual reshaping of the coast line due to the pounding by the Atlantic waves and tides. Yet, according to the park service, in protected tidal valleys, there are rich salt marshes teeming with life, and calm beaches in sheltered coves.

Acadia National Park isn't as rich with wildlife as some of the nation's other natural treasures, like Yellowstone or Yosemite, but it can still hold its head up high.

There is a wide variety of mammals--such as six kinds of bats; black bears; coyotes and foxes; bobcats; moose and deer; hares and raccoons; many different rodents, several shrews and moles; weasels, minks; and even otters. As well, there are a series of frogs and toads, salamanders and snakes, and both snapping and painted turtles. There are also gray and harbor seals, and nearby waters feature whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Of course, there are also many kinds of birds, including peregrine falcons.

A short visit
Though the park is not nearly as vast as some others in the National Park system, it's still easy to imagine spending several days there, and unfortunately, my visit was for just one day--and a fog-covered one at that.

Still, even in just those few hours, I was able to see much of the park's diversity and see why it is one of the 10 most visited in the system. It is also heartening to see that a shuttle bus network covers much of the island, allowing visitors to experience it without having to drive. These shuttles have cut back on tens of thousands of cars traversing the island each year, and it is easy to tell how much better that makes the place.

If you happen to find yourself in Maine anytime soon, I can easily recommend heading to Mount Desert Island and digging into Acadia National Park. I just hope you can see the top--and from the top of--Cadillac Mountain.

For the next two weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.