Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous due to the length of the trail. South Ridge Trail climbs gradually and steadily up Cadillac Mountain for 3.5 miles, making for an out-and-back hike of 7 miles. You can shorten the hike by catching a ride on a bus or trolley at the summit of Cadillac or descending the mountain on another, shorter trail. To do this sort of thing, many hikers use the Island Explorer bus, which stops at trailheads throughout Acadia National Park. This year, the bus will run June 23 through Columbus Day.
How to get there: There is no official parking area for South Ridge Trailhead, but the gravel shoulders of the Route 3 near the trailhead is wide enough to fit parked vehicles on both sides. To get there, drive across the causeway onto Mount Desert Island and at the fork in the road stay straight (some people consider this to be bearing left) on Route 3 toward Bar Harbor. Drive about 10.5 miles on Route 3 and you’ll reach downtown Bar Harbor, where you’ll come to a few intersections. Simply stay on Route 3, passing out of downtown Bar Harbor and past Jackson Laboratory and the village of Otter Creek. At about 16 miles (measured from the fork after the causeway), you’ll see the wooden post marking the trailhead to Cadillac Mountain’s South Ridge Trail on your right, just after the entrance to Blackwoods Campground, which will be on your left.
Information: Rising 1,530 feet above sea level, Cadillac Mountain is the tallest and most popular mountain in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. It’s also the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and the first place to view the sunrise in the United States from early October through early March, according to an analysis by Blanton C. Wiggin, which was published in the January 1972 issue of Yankee Magazine.
Clockwise from left: Rock formations known as a Bates cairns, designed in the late 1800s by Acadia National Park “pathfinder” Waldron Bates, marks the South Ridge Trail on Cadillac Mountain on March 19, 2016, in Acadia National Park; photo TK; photo TK. (Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN)
There are several different ways to the top of Cadillac Mountain. Blazed hiking trails climb the mountain’s north and south ridges, as well as the mountain’s west face and steep eastern slope. And for people who don’t have the time, desire or ability to hike the mountain can still visit Cadillac’s summit by vehicle. The winding, 3.5-mile Cadillac Mountain Road leads from Park Loop Road to large parking areas atop the mountain. A gift shop and restrooms are also located at the top. Just keep in mind that the vehicle road and park facilities atop the mountain are closed during off season; and during the busy season, it’s often difficult to find a parking space on the mountain. Consider hopping on a guide bus such as Oli’s Trolley to avoid this headache.
Of all the hiking trails on Cadillac Mountain, the 3.5-mile South Ridge Trail is the longest and gentlest, gradually climbing the mountain’s long, south ridge, which is exposed bedrock for much of the way, offering stunning views of Mount Desert Island, the ocean, nearby islands and coastal Maine as you hike.
Starting at Route 3 south of Bar Harbor, the trail travels through a beautiful mixed forest with towering spruce trees and fragrant balsam firs. While the trailhead is only marked with a cedar post sign, a large trail kiosk displaying a detailed trail map and visitor rules is located beside the trail just a few hundred feet into the woods.
In the dark forest, you’ll hike gradually up a gentle slope, crossing a few bog bridges and patches of exposed bedrock.
In 1 mile, the trail comes to an intersection marked with wooden signs. To your right, a side trail leads to Eagle Crag, a long granite ledge that is 696 feet above sea level and offers stunning views of the area. This spot is a great place for a water and snack break. The trail to Eagle Crag continues past the overlook and meets back up with the South Ridge Trail in about 0.2 mile.
Continuing north, the trail climbs a bit and the trees shrink into a forest of short, twisted jack pines. Underfoot, the exposed granite bedrock makes for a nice hiking surface. Here the trail is mostly marked with Bates cairns, a rock formation created by Waldron Bates, a man known as Acadia’s “pathfinder” for the work he did to create the park’s trail system in the late 1800s.
Following these cairns along the rocky ridge, you’ll soon be enjoying open views of the ocean, nearby mountains and a small pond nestled in a dip in the ridge. The trail descends a bit to the shore of the pond, where there are two wooden benches; and just past the pond, about 2.3 miles into the hike, you’ll reach an intersection with Canon Brook Trail. Continue on the South Ridge Trail, which will start to ascend once more.
This section of the ridge is mostly bare, with a few low-lying bushes and interesting boulders. Notice the different colored lichens growing on the rock as you climb. At 3 miles, the trail meets an intersection with the Cadillac West Face Trail (to your left). This intersection is marked with a large sign held up by a pile of rocks. Continue on the South Ridge Trail. From this point, it’s just 0.5 mile to the top.
This final leg of the trail ducks into the woods and is hedged in by bushes in some places. The trail crosses a woods road at 3.3 miles and continues through the woods, up and down some large granite stairs, then comes within view of Cadillac Mountain Road. The trail steers away from the road then becomes a wide, gravel path as it leads to the parking area at the summit of the mountain. As you walk along the gravel path, you’ll pass close to a communications tower (to your left). Embedded in bedrock near the tower is a Geological Survey Benchmark (a round metal disk) that marks the summit of the mountain at 1,530 feet above sea level.
The summit of Cadillac Mountain is wide open granite ledges covered with grasses and low-bush blueberry plants. People can explore the area on a scenic network of wide paths. Stay on trail or rock hop. The park service is attempting to restore plants in the area. You’ll notice some areas are roped off.
The paths winding around the summit lead to several platforms, some of which house interpretive displays that help people identify what islands and mountains they can see in the distance. Landmarks such as the Cranberry Islands, Schoodic Point, Egg Rock, the Porcupine Islands and Mount Katahdin are labeled on these colorful displays.
Cadillac Mountain is just one of many mountains in Acadia National Park that are excellent for hiking. Dogs are permitted on most of these trails, including South Ridge Trail, as long as they’re on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times and never left unattended.
All park visitors are required to pay an entrance fee upon entry May through October, regardless of whether or not they pass through a fee station. Park passes are available at park visitor centers and at locations throughout MDI including the Bar Harbor Village Green.
For information about park trails, passes and visitor rules, visit nps.gov/acad or call 207-288-3338.
Personal note: The sun shone brightly in clear blue sky on Saturday, but the wind was brisk, keeping the temperature in the low 30s. The winter’s snow cover had melted from Acadia National Park, but ice remained, coating granite steps and keeping hikers on their toes. March is ever the indecisive season in Maine, teasing us with warm spring days, then dousing us in bitter cold and snowfall.
Despite the chilly weather, I’d organized a hike up South Ridge Trail to the top of Cadillac Mountain, and my mom and husband had agreed to join me, along with our dog, Oreo. Early in the hike, we remarked at the beauty and tranquility of the forest.
Upon hearing a loud hammering sound, I stopped to scan the trees and located a pileated woodpecker drilling high up in a tree beside the trail, its brilliant red crest waving back and forth as it banged its beak violently into the wood. We asked Derek to keep hiking with the dog as I retrieved my 400mm camera lens to get a closer look. My mom lingered, watching the bird with me, and I told her it was a male, based on the red streak on its cheek. The pileated woodpecker, about the size of a crow, is Maine’s largest woodpecker and can be quite loud, especially in the spring when it’s trying to attract a mate.
South Ridge Trail truly offered some of the nicest views I’ve experienced on Mount Desert Island, and I’ve hiked most of the mountains on the island. My favorite view on the trail was north of the Canon Brook Trail Intersection, looking south at the sparkling pond below, and beyond that to the ocean.
We continued to watch for ice, which in some places was so clear it appeared to be water. Fortunately, none of us slipped or fell. Even Oreo managed to navigate the icy spots.
Though we battled blasts of cold wind as we hiked along the exposed ridge, the sun kept us warm in more sheltered sections of the trail. Atop the famous mountain we saw a few groups of other hikers, but it was nothing compared to the crowd that will be up there in just a few months.