Metal railings help hikers traverse a cliffside section of Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Back in the early 1900s, on Mount Desert Island, a man named Rudolph looked up at the sheer cliffs on the east side of Champlain Mountain and thought, “Let’s make a trail.”

Or, I imagine that’s how it went.

Rudolph Earnest Brunnow (1858-1917) is the trail builder behind Precipice Trail, which is known as the most challenging trail in Acadia National Park. Climbing more than 1,000 feet in less than a mile, Precipice is filled with iron rungs and ladders that allow hikers to scale vertical walls of granite and creep along narrow cliffside ledges.

“OMG! My palms are sweating!” a friend recently commented on a photo I took of the trail.

For those who are afraid of heights, Precipice is a nightmare. For those who used to swing upside-down from the top of the jungle gym as a child, it’s a delight.

Acadia National Park hikes

A complete guide to hiking in Acadia National Park, which features more than 120 miles of iconic hiking trails.

It’s a special trail, but one to be approached with caution. For beginner hikers, I suggest trying the nearby Beehive Trail first. It’s like a mini Precipice, with rungs and ladders. Brunnow built them both.

Brunnow lived in a summer cottage called High Seas near Champlain Mountain, which was called Newport Mountain at the time. He was known for building some of the most rigorous trails in Acadia National Park.

Metal rungs help hikers climb vertical rock faces on the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki)

In fact, Herbert Satterlee, who constructed a teahouse on the nearby Great Head, criticized Brunnow’s trails. He believed that they were “a danger to inexperienced climbers and distasteful to experienced climbers,” according to a history posted online by the National Park Service.

I wish Brunnow could have had a glimpse of the future. Both Precipice and Beehive are now among the most celebrated trails in the park.

I’ve hiked Precipice a number of times, and I love it. But I’m also aware of the risks.

Though rare, hikers have died on the trail. Most recently, in 2012, a University of Maine student fell 60 feet from the cliffs and died.

Not far from the trailhead, hikers must clamber up and over a wall of granite using three iron rungs. I’ve always seen that particular spot as a sort of test. It requires upper body strength, a certain degree of flexibility and the willingness to trust that the iron rungs are securely embedded in the stone. If you find that you can’t complete that section or you don’t like it, then you know that Precipice isn’t the trail for you.

A stone staircase hugs a cliff on the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki)

I’ve always wondered if the trail builders intentionally included that early challenge to deter hikers before they get halfway up the steep trail and realize that they absolutely hate it.

Beyond that challenge is a boulder field where hikers hop from boulder to boulder, following blue blazes painted on the rough granite. I particularly love the end of that section, where the trail travels underneath a few large boulders and in and out of “caves.” (I don’t know if they really qualify as caves.)

Views open up early on. From the cliffs, hikers can look out over the forest and ocean to Egg Rock Light, which is known as the ugliest lighthouse in Maine due to it having a squat, square tower. I think it’s pretty.

Closer to shore is Thrumcap, a small granite island that supports one of the state’s most significant colonies of double-crested cormorants, a type of seabird.

To the north, the iconic Porcupine Islands peek out from behind the mountain. And as you climb higher, you can spot Sand Beach and Great Head to the south.

Someday I’ll count the number of metal rungs along the Precipice Trail and report back, but I think it’s safe to say it’s in the dozens. If you have trouble climbing tall ladders, you won’t like this trail.

Metal rungs and ladders help hikers climb vertical rock faces on the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki)

Near the top of Champlain Mountain, which was renamed in honor of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, the trail levels off and travels through a beautiful pitch pine forest that’s filled with huckleberries, blueberries and sheep laurel. It then goes up and over one more ledge, with rungs, before reaching the summit at 1,058 feet above sea level.

It’s far from the tallest mountain in the park, but its summit does offer some spectacular views.

The park advises against climbing down Precipice Trail, and for good reason. It’s more difficult and dangerous to climb down steep trails than up, especially when rungs and ladders are involved. Plus, you’d be traveling against the flow of hiker traffic. On a cliff. Not fun.

Fortunately, there’s a wonderful way to hike down Champlain Mountain: the Champlain North Ridge Trail. A gradual trail with open views of the Porcupine Islands and Bar Harbor, the Champlain North Ridge Trail leads to the Orange and Black Path, which circles back to the Precipice Trail.

The steep eastern side of Champlain Mountain is home to the Precipice Trail, which is known as the most challenging trail in Acadia National Park. (Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki)

I suggest using a detailed trail map to navigate the trail system because there are a few options. I like taking the Orange and Black Path down to the Park Loop Road. I then cross the road and continue downhill to the path that traces Schooner Head Road. I take that to a trail called Murphy Lane, which leads back up to the Precipice parking area. Round trip, the hike is a little under 3 miles.

Precipice is especially popular to hike in the fall, and not just because of the colorful foliage. The trail is closed much of the spring and summer to protect the peregrine falcons nesting on the cliffs. So there’s a small window of time when it’s open and ice-free.

To avoid the crowds, I suggest hiking early in the morning and past peak fall foliage.

Oh, and dogs aren’t permitted. That would just be silly.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...