This story was originally published in August 2020.
Difficulty: Easy to strenuous, depending on your route. Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island is home to about 45 miles of carriage roads that intersect in many places, forming a multitude of possible bike routes. The roads are 16 feet wide, smooth and surfaced with crushed rock. Some sections are hillier than others.
Information: Winding through the forest around mountains and ponds, the carriage roads of Acadia National Park are a great way to explore the park by bicycle. These wide, smooth roads are closed to motorized vehicles (with a few exceptions). They feature massive historic stone bridges and lead to some incredible views of Mount Desert Island.
With a whimsical, rustic feel, the carriage roads follow the natural curves of the landscape, circling around Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake, and visiting several smaller bodies of water. They also hug the slopes of several mountains, including Day, Penobscot, Parkman and Sargeant.
While the carriage roads thread through much of the eastern portion of the park on Mount Desert Island, they are absent in other areas of the park. To plan your adventure on them, study a detailed trail map that includes access points and all the numbered intersections. And take note that many hiking trails intersect with the carriage roads, and bikes are not permitted on hiking trails. Trail maps will usually make clear what is a hiking trail and what is a carriage road, either by color or line type. Also take note of contour lines on maps, which will give you an idea of how hilly — or flat — a section of carriage road will be.
Recreators have been enjoying the carriage roads for about 100 years. Between 1913 and 1940, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., financed and led the construction of approximately 57 miles of carriage roads on Mount Desert Island — 45 of which now lie in the national park. From the beginning, he intended the roads to be used for recreation. In fact, Rockefeller was a skilled horseman and designed the roads so he — and others — could travel by horseback or carriage into the heart of the island’s wilderness.
The gravel roads were engineered to withstand Maine’s fluctuating temperatures and wet weather, with stone culverts, wide ditches and high crowns. They were also built with an eye toward the natural environment. The many stone retaining walls, for example, were put in to prevent erosion, preserve the natural contours of the terrain and save nearby trees from toppling over during and after construction.
While the carriage roads are certainly hilly, the grade is gradual and the turns are gentle to accommodate horse-drawn carriages. Two historic gate lodges, one at Jordan Pond and one near Northeast Harbor, welcome recreationists to the road system. In addition, the carriage roads travel over 17 scenic stone-faced bridges — each unique in design.
At carriage road intersections, towering wooden signs point the way to major landmarks (such as Jordan Pond or Bar Harbor). These signs also display an intersection number. This can help you find your bearings, especially if used with a trail map that includes those numbers.
An interesting fact: the large granite blocks or coping stones lining the road have been referred to as “Rockefeller’s teeth” and simply serve as guardrails.
Some carriage roads extend outside the park onto private property. For example, at the south end of the park, they cross over onto the Little Long Pond Preserve, where biking is not permitted. For this reason, it’s important to be cognizant of the park boundaries.
The carriage roads in Acadia are open year round, except for mud season in early spring. They are closed to motor vehicles, except class 1 e-bikes and — on some sections — snowmobiles. Dogs must be leashed at all times, and that leash cannot exceed 6 feet in length.
While exploring the trails, always remember that bicyclists should yield to all other road users. And everyone should yield to horses. This means it’s your responsibility to slow down, move out of the way and in some cases, stop. When passing a horse that’s going in the opposite direction, the best practice is to stop and allow the horse to pass by. When passing a horse that’s going in the same direction as you, the best practice is to announce yourself at a distance and ask if it’s alright to pass.
Also, stay to the right, and give a clear warning before passing anyone on the left. Move to the side when stopped. Wear a helmet and carry plenty of water and snacks, as well as a trail map.
Bicycling on the carriage roads is a major cause of visitor injuries in the park, so watch your speed and be prepared to stop. The gravel can be slippery if you’re stopping quickly.
All visitors to Acadia National Park are required to pay an entrance fee upon entry May through October. All vehicles must display a park entrance pass clearly visible through the windshield. Park passes are usually available at multiple locations on Mount Desert Island, including park visitor centers. However, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the park is encouraging all visitors to buy and print a pass online before you arrive at the park. The only in-person pass sales location currently available on the island is the Sand Beach Entrance Station. For more information, visit nps.gov/acad or call 207-288-3338.
Personal note: It took us a while to find a parking spot in Acadia National Park on Aug. 26, and I’m sure plenty of people can relate. Driving along the entire Park Loop Road, we found parking lot after parking lot full on that sunny, cool Wednesday. Fortunately we didn’t need to start our adventure at any specific trailhead. Our plan was to explore some of the carriage roads by bike. Without a particular route in mind, we could be flexible about where we started. And finally, we found a spot at Eagle Lake (where we’d kayaked earlier this summer).
Once we got on the carriage roads, the crowd thinned and it was easy to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others — an important thing in the age of COVID. Pedaling along with my husband, Derek, and his mother, Geneva, we biked 13 miles that day, tracing the edges of Eagle Lake, Bubble Pond and Jordan Pond in one big loop.
One of my favorite stretches of carriage road on that trip was on the slope of Penobscot Mountain to the west of Jordan Pond. The section traveled beneath an impressive rock field and featured open views of the nearby Pemetic Mountain and The Bubbles. I also enjoyed seeing two horse-drawn carriages crossing a stone bridge near Day Mountain. We stepped to the side of the road while I snapped a few photos.
Even though I’ve spent a great deal of time in the park, I found that I needed a detailed trail map to avoid frustration or getting lost. If looking for a great trail map of Acadia to use on your own adventure, I suggest the Maine-based Map Adventures waterproof trail map. It’s just $10.
Next time I bike in the park, I’d like to check out the carriage road that circles around Day Mountain. I’m also curious about the carriage roads in the Hadlock ponds area and exploring the slopes of Parkman Mountain. One adventure always seems to lead to 10 others.
How to get there: There are several access points to the carriage roads of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Your best bet is to purchase a detailed trail map, which will show you which parking areas provide access to the network. Some trailheads that provide access to the carriage roads include the parking lot at the north end of Eagle Lake, the parking lot at Jordan Pond House, the parking area at the north end of Bubble Pond, the parking areas at Upper Hadlock Pond and Lower Hadlock Pond, and the large parking lot at Hulls Cove Visitor Center.
If biking in the park for the first time, you may want to start at Hulls Cove Visitor Center, which features a large parking lot and quick access to an easy loop around Witch Hole Pond. This loop connects over to more carriage roads that circle Eagle Lake and beyond. You can also ask for assistance in finding other parking areas and trailheads at Hulls Cove visitor Center.
To get there, cross the causeway onto Mount Desert Island on Route 3, and veer left where the road splits by the convenience store, remaining on Route 3. Drive about 7.8 miles and the road will become two lanes. Stay in the right lane and turn right to enter Acadia National Park. At the stop sign, turn right to find the parking lot.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.