I had a road trip to remember exploring coastal Maine in November. From hanging out with the locals in Bar Harbor to having the whole of Acadia National Park to yourself, Maine in the off-season is pretty much perfect. Read on for a guide of what to do, where to stay, and what to eat during your next fall or winter trip to downeast Maine.
What to Expect
Maine is a much more accessible destination for East Coasters than you might expect. Portland, Maine is about a nine-hour drive from D.C. On our road trip, we spent a couple of nights there (and the food we discovered warrants its own post!) before heading a few hours further north to the cozy town of Bar Harbor.
On the way up the coast, we stopped in Rockland to check out their festive lobster tree. (We also popped into the Home Kitchen Café for some of their famous huevos rancheros.) I have a lot of appreciation for how serious many Maine towns take Christmas and their commitment to holiday cheer.
Our brief exploration of Rockland also foreshadowed what we found to be true elsewhere in Maine – the off-season is truly the off-season. Many restaurants and shops close when the tourists head home at the end of summer. Some are closed October through December, others don’t re-open until “spring.” I say this not to deter you from making an off-season getaway. On the contrary, I felt pretty dang lucky to be able to experience Maine among the locals. But I do mention this to encourage you to make plans for accommodations and restaurants before you go so you don’t have to scramble later.
Acadia National Park was the biggest inspiration for our trip. Acadia is the oldest National Park east of the Mississippi River. It is a mix of forests, rocky coastline, lakes, and mountain peaks. In November, the weather and scenery reminded us of a mix between North Coast California (think: Monterey) and Iceland. This is not to say it was overly cold; dress in layers and you will be perfectly fine. But if you go, definitely keep an eye on the weather. While it only rained one afternoon while we were there, it is not unheard of for snow to show up in early fall. One other thing worth mentioning – because of how far north Bar Harbor is, the sun rises and sets early. It’s a good idea to plan your outdoor activities early in the day. We tried to get out the door around 6 am to beat the sunset at 4 pm.
Acadia in the off-season was unlike any National Park experience I have ever had. When I say, we were the only people in the park – I mean that literally. We saw a total of *maybe* five other cars while driving through the park and only saw another living soul when at the most popular sights. It was an extremely peaceful and serene way to experience nature. Or to put it another way: the absolute opposite experience of visiting Yosemite on the Fourth of July (a stressful story for another time).
Where to Stay
Rolling into Bar Harbor our first night, it felt a bit like a ghost town. Virtually every national hotel chain in city limits closes for the winter. For that reason, finding accommodations can be a bit tricky. We had a great experience with Bar Harbor/Acadia Cottage Rentals. They have a variety of late season rentals around the island. We found a dog friendly cottage downtown that was a perfect home base. (We also explored some Airbnb options but the choices were limited.)
When deciding where to stay, you should consider your proximity to the National Park. One of the unique things about Acadia is that the park virtually surrounds the town of Bar Harbor and is speckled with other little harbor towns on the southwest side of Mt Desert (pronounced like “dessert”) Island. In contrast to parks in the West that can take hours to circumnavigate, Acadia is remarkably accessible. We found Bar Harbor to be a convenient starting point to adventuring in the park.
What to Eat
Bar Harbor is a charming little city of 5,200 people. The walk-able downtown includes several city parks overlooking the water and a variety of shops for all your souvenir needs. Again, many of those establishments shut down at the end of summer and most of the restaurants also have reduced winter hours. Be forewarned that roadside lobster pound shacks that you may have scouted out on Instagram are by and large boarded up for the season.
That doesn’t mean it is hard to find a good bite to eat during the off-season. Here are the top five places we tried and especially enjoyed during our visit to Bar Harbor.
- The Thirsty Whale –. A locals’ hangout with tasty sandwiches, salads, and fries and a good selection of beers on draft. Great for a warm meal after a long day of hiking. Try the giant fried haddock sandwich! Bonus: this is definitely the best name for a pub that I have seen in a long time.
- Havana – A gem of a restaurant with a delicious Cuban menu and upscale vibe. One of the quickest ways to my heart is a good mojito, and this place has got that covered. This would be a good special occasion spot and veers the closest to formal of anywhere we experienced in Maine.
- Blaze – Wood fired everything. While their menu offers much more, their pizzas are solid. I especially loved the fig and ricotta pizza! It is also a great option for takeout.
- Mount Dessert Bakery – Just gonna throw this out there – I had the best chocolate chip pumpkin bread of my life at this adorable little coffee house. Great selection of baked goods and coffee. Pick a coffee mug with your favorite saying and fill ‘er up.
- Everyday Joe’s – this is a relatively no frills market and grill that is a convenient spot to grab an early breakfast and snacks for the trail before heading to Acadia.
One more thing: as a rule, Bar Harbor is casual. I felt comfortable in hiking clothes and/or flannel everywhere I went.
If you are looking for something truly special, one of the hardest reservations to get anywhere is the Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine (a small town between Portland and Bar Harbor). It is a 40 seat restaurant that is infamous for booking up a year in advance. We were on the waiting list but never got the call up. Oh well… next time! We did happen to see the chef, who was signing copies of her new cookbook, at the L.L. Bean flagship in Portland.
What to Do
Acadia’s gates remain open during the off-season although snow can obviously impact accessibility. All visitor centers are shut down in October. There is no cost to enter the park. Pro tip: you can pick up maps and get advice about hiking trails at downtown Bar Harbor’s information center. The local blog Acadia Magic also provides some local insight into Mt Desert Island. For dog owners, note that many of Acadia’s trails are dog friendly, which is somewhat unique for a National Park. Here is a list of some of the best things to do in Acadia.
- Drive the park loop – First things first, get acclimated. There are several routes into Acadia. Coming from downtown Bar Harbor, it’s easy to jump on the one-way Park Loop Road to drive the larger, eastern side of the park. It takes you to some of Acadia’s most well-known sights, including the famous Thunder Hole, where waves crash into a cave in the mountainside to make its namesake thunderous noise. Sand Beach is close by and is an easily accessible, pretty spot to watch the waves. There’s also a lot of history to soak up. For example, Acadia is home to two historic and beautiful gatehouses, whose gatekeepers were tasked in the 1900s with ensuring the interior carriage roads that Rockefeller loved so much remained car-free.
- Hike – Because Acadia is not as remote as the western Parks, it’s easy to get on the trail in no time. Two of its most beloved hikes are the Beehive and Precipice Trails. Both are strenuous, and both rely on a variety of iron rungs and ladders that have been built into the craggy rock to help adventurers scale the mountainside. If you don’t have a fear of heights, both are must-dos. It is also easy to customize the length of your hike because many trails are interconnected. The historic carriage paths are car-free routes in the interior of the park that are accessible by foot or bike. You won’t find a lot of wildlife here although there is some good bird watching.
- See sunrise at Cadillac Mountain – Another iconic Acadia moment is getting up before dawn (remember, the sun rises early here!) to be among the first in the U.S. to see the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the east coast. Luckily, you can drive to the top. The top of the mountain is all rocks and moss. It offers a gorgeous view of the park, ocean, and twinkling lights of little Bar Harbor.
- Check out the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse – Going to Maine and not seeing a lighthouse is just plain wrong. Thankfully, you can find a historic lighthouse on the very southwest tip of Mt Desert Island. Along the way you will find little towns that are built into the Park. We stopped by the picturesque Café Dry Dock for a lobster roll in Southwest Harbor. The town touts itself as “the quiet side of the Island” and that is hard to argue with. It feels like a step back in time.
- Visit Jordan Pond – Beautiful Jordan Pond is centrally located along the Park Loop Road. It’s a serene spot with a variety of hiking trails for all levels of hikers. The two twin mountains seen by the pond are known as the “Bubbles”. Sadly, the historic Pond House Restaurant is closed for the winter so we missed out on their famous popovers. (Missing those was probably the one thing I regretted about visiting in November. #priorities) But the views were still lovely.
- Explore Schoodic Point – If both the eastern and western halves of Acadia are simply too hustling and bustling for your tastes, never fear. Somehow, an even quieter option exists! Schoodic Point is technically part of Acadia but is located on a neighboring peninsula. It’s a 45 minute or so drive from Bar Harbor. On the way, you pass through various adorable tiny towns such as Winter Harbor full of local color. The scenery here is dominated by rocky, dramatic beaches.
Acadia National Park is a wonderfully accessible, beautiful road trip destination that is especially serene during the off-season. Bar Harbor is the perfect home base for exploring the park. Don’t be afraid of visiting in autumn. Check the weather forecast and pack appropriately. Be warned that some local shops and restaurants close at the end of the summer but that won’t put a damper on your fun. With a little planning, you too can enjoy having a National Park all to yourself!
Did I miss something? Have you been to Acadia National Park during the off-season and have additional tips to share? Please leave a note in the comments. Thanks for reading! For more road trip itineraries, click here.