When planning our first family trip to a national park, I wanted to go somewhere that had lots to offer for my young boys (ages 3 and 5). Obviously we wouldn’t be participating in anything too dangerous or strenuous, and I didn’t want to be anywhere too remote in case of an emergency.
I landed on Acadia National Park in Maine, and I fell in love with it! Because of how small the park is, we were able to see and do so much every day. And since it borders the cute little town of Bar Harbor, where we stayed, there were plenty of dining options and grocery stores to stock up on necessities. Our trips into the park felt like we were remote, when in reality we were just a 5-minute drive from civilization.
To be fair, there was a decent amount of danger that I was not expecting, mainly in the form of cliff edges and unsteady, slippery rocks, but we all got out of there with only minor bumps and bruises.
I did so much research about our trip and I’m proud to say my itinerary was perfect for our little clan. I’ve outlined how we spent our time at Acadia for reference in case you’re thinking of taking a family trip there, which I 100% recommend! Below is a day-by-day itinerary complete with bulleted lists of activities, followed by detailed explanations with suggestions.
Day 1 – The Quiet Side of The Island (Half Day)
- Thompson Island Information Center
- Wonderland Trail
- Ship Harbor Trail
- Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse
- Dinner at Beal’s Lobster Pier
Mount Desert Island is home to Acadia National Park. Half of the island can be experienced via the 27-mile Park Loop Road, which provides access to many of the park’s main attractions. The other half is known as the quiet side because it’s less crowded. Since we were arriving on a Sunday, which I thought might be a busier day of the week, and I kept seeing how busy Acadia can be at peak season, we went straight to the quiet side of the island.
We had no trouble finding parking at any of our destinations, and there was by no means an overwhelming amount of people there.
1. Stop by The Thompson Island Information Center to Get Your Jr. Ranger Book
We entered the west side of the park and stopped at the Thompson Island Information Center. This is just a small building full of free brochures with bathrooms, but it’s an ideal starting point because you drive right by it and it’s not crowded like some of the other, larger visitor centers can be.
The purpose of our stop was to pick up the boys’ Junior Ranger books. With all the Internet research I could possibly do, this was the only missing piece that I was unable to access until we arrived. I was able to see when various Jr. Ranger Programs were taking place from the NPS website, but I wasn’t sure if the book would have any additional activities to add to the itinerary.
Fortunately, as I’d hoped, the workbook consisted of pencil-to-paper activities that didn’t impact our itinerary. I flipped through it and found something relevant to what we’d be doing that afternoon, showed the boys some pictures and then closed it until we had some downtime to complete the activity based on what we’d explored.
The number of activities that need to be completed depends on the child’s age. In addition to the workbook activities, kids also need to attend a Ranger Program, interview a park ranger and recite the Junior Ranger pledge. Upon completion, the child is awarded a badge or patch. Everything is free and the boys had a ball with the programs they participated in.
2. Become Acquainted With The Tide Pools on The Wonderland Trail
The Wonderland Trail is best visited during low tide in order to fully experience the tide pools, which are the puddles of water left in between rocks after the tide goes out. Since Maine’s tides are so dramatic – 12 feet per tide – during low tide there is substantial dry land exposed, providing the perfect spot for searching for snails, crabs, starfish, urchins and other previously submerged creatures.
The Wonderland Trail is an easy 1.4 mile out-and-back hike on gravel and bedrock. Although it’s an easy hike, there is danger in anything when you’re with small kids. Upon minutes of beginning, Eli (age 3) tripped and fell, knocking his head on a rock and cutting his leg and finger. I was discouraged! Then the mosquitoes started biting and I’d left the bug spray in the car.
After some tears, kisses on booboos, bandages and bug spray we made it to the end of the trail where the rocks meet the water. We carefully started making our way over the unsteady, slippery rocks to the water’s edge.
The ocean views were beautiful. The water was cold and clear. And the rocks were so colorful. The boys had fun hunting for snails and throwing rocks in the water.
We felt like we were missing something because no one was in sight. We got back on the trail and realized other hikers had taken side trails down to other tide pools.
We took another dangerous walk on the huge rocks and sheets of granite looking for critters. All we found were snails, but it was still loads of fun. Little ones won’t be able to resist getting their feet wet, so I’d recommend having them wear some type of sturdy water shoe.
Once we’d explored for another 20 minutes or so we hiked back to the car. The boys started complaining that their legs were tired, so I wasn’t sure how the next hike I had planned would go. Fortunately sugary fruit snacks tend to be the magic cure for tired legs, so after a quick snack, water, and 5-minute rest while driving to the next trailhead, we were all perked up for our next hike.
3. Enjoy Views and Even Better Tide Pools During Your Ship Harbor Trail Hike
This is another easy 1.4 mile hike through the woods. This hike is a double loop shaped like a figure eight. If you keep to the right while going out you’ll have better views of the harbor. Otherwise you’re just walking through the woods.
I didn’t realize we’d be able to walk down to the water on this hike, but since the tide was low we made our way down to the middle of the harbor. This area was so neat because the water was rushing out of the harbor while the waves from the ocean were still crashing toward us. We got our feet wet in the frigid water and found exciting new creatures here, including a sea star and urchin.
We hiked back to the parking lot where we spotted a buck eating. We watched him until the mosquitoes wouldn’t leave us alone and then made our final stop before dinner.
4. Get a Glimpse of The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse
We took another short drive to the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. I felt like the boys had had enough, so I just hopped out and took a couple pictures. There’s a paved path to the right of the lighthouse that leads you right up to it, and there’s another scary jaunt down a cliff to get a better view. I quickly did both and then got back in the car and showed the pictures to the boys, who as I expected, were not that interested.
5. Enjoy an Authentic Lobster Dinner at Beal’s Lobster Pier
The Southwest Harbor is a tiny town on the quiet side of Mt. Desert Island and not officially part of Acadia NP. We turned off the main road and drove about a mile to Beal’s Lobster Pier.
This place feels authentically Maine being right on the water with boats and fishermen everywhere. The ordering counter has live lobsters and the employees were happy to show them to the boys. We ordered and took a seat at one of the picnic tables and shortly after Robert’s lobster, my lobster roll and the boys’ PB&J arrived.
Day 2 – Cadillac Mountain & Diver Ed (full day)
- Cadillac Mountain
- Peregrine Falcon Watch Ranger Program
- Diver Ed
- Bar Island Land Bridge
- Dinner at Side Street Cafe
1. Drive Up Cadillac Mountain & Enjoy The View
A “must-do” activity when visiting Acadia is seeing the first light of the U.S. from atop Cadillac Mountain. It seemed like something we could manage until I realized the sun rises at 5 a.m. there. We don’t sleep in, but we definitely don’t wake up at 5 purposefully.
Instead of getting there at the crack of dawn, we got coffees from Choco-Latte, a yummy little breakfast spot near our AirBnB, and drove up to the summit around 8 a.m. By this time the sun was pretty high in the sky, and it was cool and breezy. I don’t think we missed much not being there at sunrise. It was a beautiful time of day and not crowded at all.
A paved path circles the top of the mountain and the views of the water, islands, cruise ship, and town below were unbeatable. We had to keep reminding the boys to walk because I feared them tripping and falling off the side of the mountain. It’s like they see something dangerous and they can’t help but gravitate toward it. We stayed up there as long as we could enjoying the feeling you can only get standing on top of a mountain, until the boys’ behavior told us it was time to go. Our next stop was Luke’s favorite part of the trip.
2. Watch For Peregrine Falcons
We drove to the Precipice Trail parking lot for the Peregrine Falcon Watch Ranger Program. Upon parking we saw 3-4 telescopes pointed up at the side of a mountain. One of the telescopes had a camera attached and was capturing footage of the falcons and showing it on a monitor, making it much easier for kids to be part of the action.
These birds are a big deal for kids because they’re the fastest animal on earth. But to me, they didn’t appear very exciting. I was expecting something huge and regal like a bald eagle, but they’re the size of a crow and don’t really have anything striking about their appearance.
We had fun learning about them and looking through the telescopes. Even though it was a Ranger Program (not a Jr. Ranger Program) it seemed geared toward kids. They showed stuffed animal falcons and had lots of kid-friendly demonstrations.
3. Take a Boat Ride With Diver Ed
After a picnic lunch we drove to our excursion at the College of the Atlantic to go on a boat with Diver Ed. We boarded a large boat with several rows of seating. Onboard were two huge Newfoundland pups, one of which giving everyone a chuckle as he participated in the life jacket demonstration.
We boated out about 15 minutes and anchored off the coast of one of the islands in the bay. Diver Ed suited up in his cold-water dive gear and the kids tossed him overboard.
He dove with a huge camera wired to a very HD TV onboard, narrating what he saw on the ocean floor while we could see it live. He filled a bag with creatures and brought them aboard. After telling us all about the animals we were able to handle them ourselves.
As educational and funny as I thought Diver Ed was, he scared off a few kids by putting the animals a little too close to them. He asked for brave kids only to come up front for his demonstrations, and he meant it!
4. Hunt For Crabs on The Bar Island Land Bridge
As we boated in with Diver Ed, we could see our next stop had risen out of the water. The Bar Island Land Bridge is walkable at low tide and you can cross it all the way to Bar Island. We walked around for yet another round of tide pooling. Here we found countless crabs and the boys had a ball chasing them down and picking them up. They made friends with lots of kids doing the same thing and we spent at least an hour here, poking around and spotting crabs.
5. Dine at The Side Street Cafe
Just off Main Street in Bar Harbor is a cute little street with a few restaurants. We ate at the Side Street Cafe, which I was happy to see had a variety of foods because I was over lobster. Robert hadn’t had his fill and got a lobster grilled cheese. I had salad. The boys? You guessed it – PB&J!
Day 3 – Biking the Carriage Trails & Jordan Pond House (Full Day)
- Bike the Eagle Lake Carriage Trails
- Lunch at Jordan Pond
Although these activities took up our whole day, you could get through it much faster or do something afterward. I was just pretty beat, so we stayed at our AirBnB and ordered pizza that night.
1. Bike The Eagle Lake Carriage Trails
Biking is one of the top activities at Acadia but I didn’t think it was an option for us since the boys are not at biking age. Then I found out that Acadia Bike offers bike attachments for little ones. For Luke (age 5, uses training wheels on his bike at home), we got a tag-along, which was a bike seat with pedals that went on the back of Robert’s bike. For Eli (age 3, helpless on a bike), we rented a trailer for him to sit in and I pulled it behind my bike.
After getting the bikes from the shop, we biked a block to the Village Green in Bar Harbor to take a bike shuttle to the Eagle Lake Carriage Trails. We unloaded and started on our trek.
The route the shop suggested was more than I thought we could handle – about 11 miles around Eagle Lake and Jordan Pond. I’m in shape, but not in great cardio/cycling shape, and it was very hilly. Plus I was towing probably 75 pounds behind me, so there were points when I had to get off and walk the bike. Fortunately our lunch spot was about halfway through the loop, providing a great opportunity to take a break and reenergize.
On the way to Jordan Pond House we mainly biked through the woods on gravel. At one point we came to a cliff overlooking one of the lakes, which was really scenic. Shortly after we were at the edge of Jordan Pond next to the restaurant. We spent a lot of time here looking at The Bubbles, which are the two mountains in the distance, while the boys spotted fish and frogs in the shallow water.
Our highlight on our bike back to the pickup spot was our stop at Bubble Pond. It was so peaceful and scenic. It was like we had come to life on a postcard it was so surreal feeling. After our stop it was pretty smooth sailing on flat ground. Robert and Luke took off leaving me and Eli in the dust. It was pretty exhausting but exhilarating!
2. Refuel With Popovers During Lunch at Jordan Pond House
Jordan Pond House is the only dining technically part of Acadia NP and it has a long history of serving popovers and tea. I made a reservation well in advance, and I’m glad I did because this was the most crowded part of our whole trip. There were people everywhere waiting for a table. We had soup, sandwiches and delicious popovers while enjoying the scenic view of Jordan Pond with the Bubble Mountains in the background.
Day 4 – Park Loop Road & Bar Harbor (Full Day)
- Sand Beach
- Jr. Ranger Program “Super Sand Sleuths”
- Ocean Path to Thunder Hole
- Park Loop Road
- Bar Harbor Shore Path
- Dinner at Geddy’s
- Walk through town of Bar Harbor
1. Dip Your Toes in at Sand Beach
Our morning at Sand Beach was one of the highlights of the trip. The boys loved running along the beach and playing in the sand. Robert and I sat down, wishing we’d brought our coffees and watched them play while taking in the views of the cliffs and ocean. There were a few crazy people swimming, but the water never gets above 55 degrees, which is much too cold for our thin Florida skin.
We are beach people, but this was unlike any beach we’d seen. The cliffs, rocks, huge trees, freezing water, and colorful sand were all so much different from what we see in Florida.
2. Become A Detective at The Jr. Ranger Program “Super Sand Sleuths”
At 9 a.m. a Junior Ranger program began at the beach where the kids were tasked with solving several mysteries about the beach. They learned all about how the beach was formed, dug for granite, used magnifying glasses to look at shell remnants, took nets to the water to see how the waves brought the sand and hunted for snails. I was really impressed by the program and the boys were active participants.
3. Enjoy Cliff and Ocean Views on Your Ocean Path Walk to Thunder Hole
Ocean Path begins at Sand Beach and it’s a 0.7 walk along Park Loop Road to Thunder Hole. It’s a scenic walk overlooking the ocean and cliffs with lots of places to walk off the path to the edge of the cliff. We saw people with their kids on leashes, which we wished we’d had for our boys.
The main attraction at Thunder Hole is the loud boom that occurs when waves crash into those particular rocks. We timed it right according to the tides, arriving 2 hours before high tide, but it was not thundering for some reason. My guess is that the ocean was just too flat for it to create enough force to cause a boom. It was gurgling, and it was a neat area of rocks, so it wasn’t a total miss. I was glad we had walked there because the parking lot was jammed and people were everywhere.
4. See Acadia’s Diverse Landscape on Your Drive Around Park Loop Road
We looped the rest of the way around Park Loop Road, relishing in our last views of the park. Robert and I kept going back to the fact that we were seeing so many different settings all just a few miles from each other. One minute we were on a beach, the next a lake with mountains in the distance, the next in the woods, the next in town. The diverse landscape will be one of the most memorable things for us about Acadia NP.
Driving along this road is often recommended as the must-do activity at Acadia, but since we had already seen so much of the park, there wasn’t much new to see. It was still worth a drive since Robert and I were able to keep the boys in their car seats to hop out for some scenic selfies.
5. Walk Bar Harbor’s Shore Path for a Picnic & Bay Views
After leaving the park we parked at our AirBnB and walked to the Shore Path in Bar Harbor. This is another scenic stroll where you can see fishermen at work, sailboats anchored in the bay, and even a cruise ship if you’re lucky. You pass by mansions and hotels, as well as green spaces, making it perfect for a picnic. There are a couple good climbing trees that occupied our boys for a while, as well as museum in the streets signs that tell you about the landmarks.
6. Have a Fun Family Dinner at Geddy’s
Geddy’s was hands-down my favorite dining experience on the trip. The place is decked out in sea-related decor, and we all got coloring placemats redeemable for a prize from their treasure chest. They top some drinks with little rubber lizards, and our server gave the boys a handful of them to take home. Plus the kids menu has more to offer than peanut butter and jelly. The boys split butter noodles with apples and peanut butter. After dinner we picked out our items from the treasure chest, including a parachute guy, a lobster and a spinning top.
7. Stroll Down Bar Harbor’s Charming Main Street
After dinner we took a leisurely stroll through town back to our AirBnB. There are ice cream shops on every corner, so the boys indulged while we passed by tons of cute shops. I was on a mission not to purchase anything, so we didn’t go in anywhere, but if you’re a shopper, this is a dream. Not only are there souvenir stores, but there is also an old bookstore, sporting goods stores, dog accessory stores, and lots more. I had seen a popcorn shop, so I headed there while the boys finished their ice cream and played with their new parachute guy at the Village Green park.
Day 5 – Sieur de Monts Visitor Area (2 hours)
- Wild Gardens of Acadia
- Jr. Ranger Program “Wild Things”
- Sieur de Monts Nature Center
For a post titled a 4-day itinerary you’re probably wondering why I included a Day 5. We had a few hours to burn before departing and I wanted to hit another Jr. Ranger Program so we made the last minute decision to enter the park and check out the Sieur de Monts area.
1. Become a Botanist at Wild Gardens of Acadia
We entered the Wild Gardens of Acadia and saw clipboards with a botany scavenger hunt. We considerd attempting it, but it was much too detailed for little kids, so we opted to just walk through the garden instead. The boys took off through the gardens making more ruckus than they should have based on the looks we got from other visitors. These gardens seem to encourage peaceful activities like bird watching, so you may want to pass if you have little ones.
The highlight of the gardens was the two bard owls we spotted in the trees, which the bird watchers were fawning over.
2. Act Like Animals at The “Wild Things” Jr Ranger Program
Once again the Jr Ranger Program did not disappoint. The boys learned all about the animals in the park and participated in animal olympics where they had to compete using an animal skill. They raced like deer, balanced like squirrels, slithered like snakes, hopped like hares and then built a beaver lodge. This is exactly the type of thing my boys enjoy most, and they excitedly took their Jr Ranger Oath and earned their badges afterward.
3. Learn Even More at The Sieur de Monts Nature Center
We walked through the Sieur de Monts Nature Center quickly after the Jr. Ranger program ended. For a small building, there’s a lot you can learn about the park, and there are a couple hands on things for kids. It might not be worth a visit if you were pressed for time, but since we were right there it was an enjoyable pitstop before getting on the road.
There you have it! If you want to see everything in Acadia, this is a good way to do it! Check out all the Ranger Programs and pick a few that appeal to you and your family and plan your days around them. Also don’t forget to check the tides. Tide charts are available online, so you don’ tneed to wait until you get there to make your plans.