My first experience of Acadia National Park last week confirmed the ambivalence I had expected of the place. On the one hand, this first American national park east of the Mississippi River fulfills its promise of a beautiful treasure, especially the seacoast with the wild fierce shoreline of the surging Atlantic. On the other hand, the park feels like such a contrived place, built especially to the tastes and indulgences of America’s superrich. And like all parks that draw pilgrims to their magnetic attractions, Acadia offers plenty to fulfill the crass desires of the tourist vacationer. To a large extent, this fabulous landscape has suffered under the hard hand of money grubbing.
But such cynical expectations softened for me as I pressed my own hands into the delicate velvet moss of the forest floor, or rinsed them in the clear frigid waters of a quiet pond.
We had arrived on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, where Acadia National Park dominates much of the island’s topography, at an ideal time, too soon to be harassed and bitten by the black flies that swarm the park each spring and well before the infamous peak season of tourist visitors when the intolerable crowds jam every parking lot and scenic pullout to cram elbow-to-elbow hoping for a moment of solitude in nature. A few local establishments still had not opened for the season during our visit in early May, but it was a small inconvenience for avoiding the worst that Acadia has to offer.
The privilege of Acadia
Terry Tempest Williams notes that Acadia National Park is a place of privilege: “It is a privilege to visit Acadia,” she remarks in her book The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, “and it is privilege that has protected it.” That privilege is most apparent in the history of Mount Desert Island, where the superrich leisure class of nineteenth-century Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other American cities found summer respite in the natural settings of a bucolic Maine retreat. Their legacy remains in the few opulent “cottages” that survived a great fire of 1947 that swept across much of the island. It also survives inside the park on the “carriage roads” that John D. Rockefeller, Jr. constructed in the early decades of the twentieth century. His consternation about the coming of the automobile to Mount Desert Island elicited a nostalgia for the quieter days when nature could be enjoyed in a horse-drawn carriage, and so he put his immense wealth to work building over 50 miles of roadways designed specifically for equine-powered vehicles. Today visitors on foot, in carriages, or riding non-motorized bicycles can experience the forests and scenic views of Acadia in much the way that Mr. Rockefeller intended.
Privilege today still reigns on Mount Desert Island as a summer retreat of the wealthy, though now they must share their island with the more than 3.5 million other visitors who come to Acadia National Park each year. Their conspicuous affluence dots the landscape with oversized summer homes blighting many of the most scenic corners of the island, especially near Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor, as well as in Bar Harbor, the hub of island activity. Big houses, big yachts, big money are all abundant on Mount Desert Island.
On the other hand, a stable community of fisherpeople persisting on the lobster trade, a few year-round merchants and professionals, and a host of service-industry workers counterbalance the privilege of off-island wealth that has staked a claim on Mount Desert Island. This place is more than a playground for wealthy elites and momentary tourists; for some, it has been home for generations.
The magic that many visitors imagine they will find in Acadia National Park greeted us when we left Mount Desert Island to spend a day in the more remote part of the park on the Schoodic Peninsula. We were fortunate to encounter park volunteers Connie and Dave out on the trail on Schoodic Head, the highest point on the peninsula. They instructed us to the not-so-obvious-to-find scenic overlook at the summit of the Head. The views there are at least as magnificent as those from the crowded walkways atop the more famous Cadillac Mountain. They also suggested trying the Sundew Trail at the Schoodic Institute campus. We hiked the short loop and happily discovered its several overlooks with benches offering fabulous seaside scenery, absent the crowds typical of such attractions on Mount Desert Island.
We did find a handful of visitors scrambling on the red granite shoreline of windy Schoodic Point. But we were happy to share this expanse of wild seashore with the dozen or so others spending their day on the peninsula. Besides, they were not nearly as pesky as the aggressive seagulls who nearly stole my lunch right out of my hand in a carefully calculated aerial attack.
A treasure not to be missed
The wildness of Acadia National Park can seem rather tame to visitors more accustomed to less accessible landscapes. The attractions and charms of the park impress according to the more domesticated expectations of an elite leisure class seeking respite in a New England coastal setting. It is a place of fabulous scenery and exciting recreational opportunities. But for adventurers seeking escape into a more remote wilderness setting, Acadia can be disappointing with its paucity of wildlife, prohibitions on backcountry camping, and its exceptionally crowded conditions during peak seasons. Still, the park offers unique attractions that have made it a premier destination for so many people, and, despite my initial ambivalence, I am glad to have gone there. Acadia National Park is a treasure not to be missed. ♨