6 of Acadia National Park’s Best Shoreline Trails

Exploring the world at the ocean’s edge.

Wonderland Trail, one of Acadia National Park's Best Shoreline Trails
Wonderland Trail
Part of “Acadia’s 30 Best Trails
Photographed by Chris Shane

1. Ship Harbor

A figure-eight trail winding through a boreal forest, this one’s also largely about the destination: a pink-granite shore, where waves crash spectacularly at high tide and pools of tiny seaweed jungles teem with marine life when the tide is out. Bear right to walk alongside the small harbor and see and hear surf pounding up ahead at its narrow neck. On the ledges, rocks chiseled by the elements into blocky shapes and large, gnarled driftwoods serve as benches. Lobster buoys bob just offshore, and Great Gott Island, once home to mid-20th-century author Ruth Moore, sits about a mile distant. Return on the interior paths, which offer subtler pleasures, including a shady, cool stretch of red spruces rising tall and straight from a carpet of pincushion moss. The first of the two loops is wheelchair accessible. 1.3-mile loop, from the Ship Harbor trailhead on Rte. 102A, 1.2 miles west of Seawall Campground.

2. Wonderland

The short hike in is nothing special, a wide gravel path past salt-stunted trees, but it leads to a long stretch of boulder-strewn tidal flats snaking around a pair of twin coves. Wonderland is a top-notch spot for tide-pooling, provided you tread gently on the barnacle-covered, broken granite slabs and take care pushing aside rockweed curtains to look for crabs, periwinkles, and even the occasional sea star. Set aside some time to explore, use caution on the slippery rocks, and watch for the seals that are out there watching you. 1.4 miles out and back, from the Wonderland trailhead on Rte., 102A, a mile west of Seawall Campground.

It isn’t through the looking glass exactly, but there’s something otherworldly about the jumbled rocks and pools at the end of the Wonderland Trail. Click a photo to enlarge.

3. Hunters Cliff

Technically just outside the park, in the care of the Rockefeller-founded Land and Garden Preserve, this little trail flies under the radar of most Acadia hiking guidebooks. It’s a stunner. The path descends Lower Day Mountain and, soon after crossing Cooksey Road, the forest gives way to pink-granite ledges high above the Atlantic. From there, the trail drops down to Hunters Beach, a raw, wild cove that sees few visitors. Walled by stony, soaring Hunters Cliff and Hunters Head, the beach is comprised entirely of smooth, round rocks, from egg-size stones to boulders, colored white, black, gray, pink, purple, and red, or some speckled or striped combination. 1 mile out and back from the Day Mountain trailhead, on Rte. 3, .8 mile east of Seal Harbor village.

4. Compass Harbor

A gentle jaunt and a lollipop loop that leads through mixed forest to pebbly Compass Harbor Beach, near Dorr Point, named after George Dorr, the “father of Acadia” and the park’s first superintendent. It’s a great place to skip stones and admire the Frenchman Bay islands. Not far from the beach are the ruins of Dorr’s old estate, known as Oldfarm. Before you head out, download the National Park Service’s Oldfarm app for a virtual tour of the site, with maps and detailed video history lessons about the blue-blooded naturalist who spent his life and fortune piecing together the lands that form the park. .8 miles out and back from the Compass Harbor trailhead on Rte. 3, a mile south of downtown Bar Harbor.

5. Great Head

A little nub on the eastern edge of MDI, Great Head is an especially fine place to find oneself in the evening, thanks to westerly views back across Sand Beach to the sheer face of the Beehive, behind which the sun dips grandly. That vista comes from atop the granite cliffs that rise steeply from the beach, but the short, moderately demanding loop trail has other charms too. On the eastern side, it meanders through birch woods before becoming rocky and open at the tip of the headland — such a nice perch above the ocean that J.P. Morgan’s daughter built a tea house there in the early 20th century, after her father gave her Great Head and Sand Beach as a wedding gift. Today, hikers can still find traces of the old foundation while they drink up the scene. 1.7-mile loop, with an optional cutoff for a 1.1-mile loop. Accessible by walking across Sand Beach or from the parking area at the end of Bar Harbor’s Schooner Head Rd.

6. Isle au Haut’s Cliff–Western Head Loop

The National Park Service tends to about half of hilly Isle au Haut, some seven miles off the mainland, to MDI’s southwest. The rest is a quiet, year-round island community reached via a day-hiker–friendly mailboat ferry from Stonington. On the island’s southernmost reaches, the Cliff–Western Head Loop shows off some dramatic ocean overlooks, where waves batter chiseled granite bluffs. At low tide, you can scamper out to a pocket island called Western Ear. 3.7-mile loop from Duck Harbor, one of the island’s two ferry stops.

Read up on all 30 of our favorite Acadia National Park trails.

Down East Magazine, August 2021