Difficulty: Moderate. Several rocky sections and a few steep spots make hiking Great Head Trail in Acadia National Park moderately challenging, though the trail doesn’t change much in elevation. The trail forms a 1.4-mile loop, bisected by a cutoff trail (a good option for people looking for a shorter hike).
How to get there: To access this trail, people use three parking lots in Acadia National Park: the Sand Beach parking lot, the Great Head parking lot and the Schooner Head Outlook parking lot. To reach all three, drive onto Mount Desert Island on Route 3 (Bar Harbor Road). At the end of the causeway, veer left at the fork and continue on Route 3 toward Bar Harbor. Drive through downtown Bar Harbor on Route 3 and turn left onto Schooner Head Road (about 12 miles from the fork after the causeway).
At 2.5 miles, you can turn left into the large parking area for Schooner Head Overlook, which is open year round and almost always has parking spaces open. If you park here, you will need to walk 0.43 mile on Schooner Head Road to the trailhead at Great Head parking area.
The Great Head parking area is located almost at the end of Schooner Head Road. It is the closest to the Great Head Trail, but it’s closed off in the winter and often crowded when open in the the summer.
The third parking option is the Sand Beach parking lot, open year round. To get there, drive down Schooner Head Road and turn right at 2.5 miles. Drive 0.1 mile and turn left onto Park Loop Road. Drive 0.6 mile and turn left into Sand Beach parking lot. From Sand Beach parking lot, you will need to walk across Sand Beach to reach Great Head Trail (stone steps leading into the forest) on the far side.
Information: The Great Head Trail is one of the many footpaths in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Tracing the rocky coast, the loop trail offers stunning views of Frenchman Bay and nearby islands. In addition to leading to the highest point of Great Head, a cliff that rises 145 feet above sea level, the trail visits the appropriately-named Sand Beach, one of the park’s most popular destinations.
The trail forms a loop that is about 1.4 miles long, according to acadiamagic.com. It’s bisected by a cutoff trail, which is about 0.3 mile long. Hikers can take the cutoff trail to complete a shorter loop hike.
Starting at the Great Head parking area, the Great Head Trail enters the forest. In the summer, ferns cover the ground and the canopy makes for a shaded walk. The wide trail can get a bit rocky in places. Also, watch out for loose bricks.
Not far down the trail, you’ll reach a juncture marked with an old cedar post sign that reads “Great Head Trail” and points down both trails. This is the beginning of the Great Head loop. If you turn right (hiking the loop counterclockwise), you’ll soon reach two side trails that lead down to Sand Beach, a long sandy beach of pulverized seashells.
Past Sand Beach, the trail climbs and travels along the cliffs western of Great Head. About 0.1 mile from the beach is a trail juncture, marked with a cedar post sign. Turn left to take the cutoff trail, which leads back to the parking area in 0.5 mile (a shorter hike). Or continue straight past the sign to continue on the loop.
If you continue on the loop, views of the ocean open up as the trail traces the southern end of peninsula and gradually climbs to the area’s highest point of Great Head at 145 feet above sea level. The spot, marked with a cedar post sign, is also the location of the ruins of a 1900s tea house.
The tea house, once known as Satterlee’s Tea House or Satterlee’s Tower, is now a pile of rubble. Sections of the stone floor remain, as well as pieces of the wall and a hint at what was once steps to the front door. A circa-1920 photograph of the teahouse (displayed in the 2006 “Acadia Trails Treatment Plan: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Acadia National Park” by Christian Barter) show that the teahouse was a small, circular building with a flat roof, small arched windows with wooden shutters, and a wooden door reached by three stone steps.
Since the 1840s, Great Head has been a destination for artists and tourists, according to the 2012 guide “Hiking Acadia National Park” by Dolores Kong and Dan Ring. In fact, the trail was part of the Bar Harbor Village Improvement system of the late 1800s.
At the summit and ruins of the tea house, the trail turns away from the ocean and plunges into a forest comprised mainly of white birch. As the trail nears the east side of the peninsula, you’ll catch glimpses of the ocean through the trees to your right. Interesting aspects of the trail include shallow stone steps and long bridges. After a couple tenths of a mile, you’ll notice the cutoff trail on the left. Continue straight to complete the loop. At the next trail junction, turn right to walk back to the Great Head parking area.
Dogs are allowed in Acadia National Park, but they must be on a leash at all times and owners must pick up after them. And between May 15 and Sept. 15, dogs are only permitted on Sand Beach long enough to cross to the trailhead.
While the park is open year round, some roads close in the winter. All park visitors are required to pay an entrance fee upon entry May through October. To learn about the different park fees and for more about park guidelines, visit www.nps.gov/acad/index.htm or call 288-3338.
Personal note: A few unusually warm days had melted much of the snowcover on Mount Desert Island when we drove into Acadia National Park on Jan. 12, 2014, to walk the Great Head loop trail. With temperatures reaching into the 40s that day, we weren’t far down the trail before we had to strip off our mittens and unzip our jackets.
Our Stabilicers — ice cleats built for walking on packed snow and slick ice — helped us along the way, and we were soon wandering Sand Beach, where we saw at least 10 other visitors. Far down the beach, a pair flew a kite; and I could just make out the forms of three surfers playing in the waves (at first, they looked a bit like seals). As I took photos and video, Oreo rolled in the tall grass, sniffed piles of seaweed and stood at the edge of the water as white foam crept up his legs.
Back on the trail, Oreo seemed enthusiastic to clamber around on the rocks and navigate the steep sections of trail. It was a good change from trudging through snow drifts. For a moment, it felt like spring.
Along the way, we walked past a young couple, who were carrying their daughter in a baby carrier pack. They planned to hike the short loop by taking the cutoff trail instead of hiking all the way out to the teahouse and summit of Great Head. We were both slow groups — them due to the couple being extra careful with their daughter in tow; and us due to taking so many photos — so we ended up passing by each other several times.
After seeing us a number of times, the little girl decided to name Oreo “Toughie” and me “Teeka” (I’m not sure on the spelling). Her parents told me that “Teeka” was a character from a book. I didn’t ask which book, but then I became curious. I looked up the name and all I can find is the popular book, “The Wild Christmas Reindeer” by Jan Brett, in which an elf girl named Teeka rounds up all the reindeer that have run wild since last Christmas. It makes sense that the character would be fresh in the little girl’s mind, since Christmas had just passed. And if that’s the correct character, I’m flattered.