When most people think about Acadia, they think about hiking. Okay, they might also think about spectacular pink granite cliffs, incredible ocean views, and the smell of spruce. But hiking is definitely on the list.
There are over 120 miles of hiking trails in Acadia with difficulty levels ranging from wheelchair accessible to rock climbing and everywhere in between. Successful hiking with kids requires that you match up the difficulty level with the ages and temperaments of your young hiking companions. You want your hike to be an exciting challenge, but not too much of an exciting challenge. You also want ample opportunities to enjoy the surrounding nature, a good spot for a snack break, and some points of interest along the way.
So, given that, what are the best hikes for kids in Acadia? Well, the very best is the one that you take, so choose what is convenient and inspires you. Beyond that, here are a few suggestions from my years of hiking in this amazing park with kids. This is just a quick suggestion list. Where possible, I’ve linked to a more extensive hike description. Always hike with a map, know your route, and be prepared.
Toddlers and up
My strategy for hiking with toddlers developed when I realized they are not particularly interested in scenery or walking in a straightforward manner. That means I look for hikes that have additional selling points, like spots to stop and throw rocks or safe areas to play in the water. I also look for very short walks, both because little legs can only go so far and because you will probably end up carrying your little one at least part of the way. This isn’t a big deal if you have a hiking backpack, but if not, do you really want to carry a toddler down a mountain on your hip? I have done it, so I am here to tell you: no, no you don’t.
Even though these are short hikes, make sure you leave plenty of time. Not only will short legs mean that you move slower, but you will probably need to stop and investigate flowers, birds, butterflies, particularly interesting leaves, etc. on the way. You will not believe how long a toddler can throw sticks in a stream. Hours, people. I am talking hours.
This wooden boardwalk starts near the Wild Gardens of Acadia and runs for about half a mile through a birch forest. It’s beautiful, but the real attraction is the smooth surface of the boardwalk, which little kids love to sprint down and is perfect for unsteady walkers. There are periodic benches to rest or climb on as well as interpretive signs to help you identify some of the flora and fauna. This is a great spot to practice listening to nature as well. See if you can get your little one to pause and listen to the wind rustle through the trees or the call of the birds. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Slightly longer than the Jesup Path, this option is both closer to Bar Harbor proper and has a few more activity options. Located right off route 3, this one mile round trip walk has both a tiny stream with a bridge (excellent for dropping sticks and leaves in so you can watch them come out the other side) and rock throwing opportunities at the beach at the end of the trail. Also on the site are the ruins of George Dorr’s family estate “Old Farm,” though that might be more of interest to the older kids and adults in the group. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Preschoolers and up
For this age group, I look for hikes best described as “short but [moderately] intense.” This age group wants action and excitement, but their attention spans aren’t quite up for a day-long extravaganza or delayed gratification. So all of these options have quick pay-offs, varied terrain, and something just a little exciting at the end to lure them along.
Located just outside the town of Southwest Harbor, this 1.4 mile hike boasts some nice wooden steps, a tiny taste of rock-climbing, a quick route to the summit, and a stop at a rock beach. Did I mention great views? No? That’s because kids don’t care about great views, but if you do, you will be rewarded. My family enjoys this hike so much that it is almost always one of the first hikes we do each season. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Another favorite of my family, this 1.5 mile hike is the one we like to take our nieces and nephews on when they visit. Located near the Sand Beach entrance to the park, this hike requires a bit of scrambling but, like Flying Mountain, it has a quick option to the summit and some of the best views for your climbing effort that you will ever find. If you have a energetic preschooler who likes a physical challenge, Great Head is perfection. In addition to the climbing, there are a few log bridges to mix things up and an option to extend your adventure by climbing down to Sand Beach. (See this post for directions and more details.)
If your kid isn’t a climber, this is a 1.4 mile lower-level adventure that everyone will love. A nice, essentially flat meander through the woods brings you out to a rocky beach perfect for rock throwing and tide-pooling. If you hit it at the right time of year, beach roses will lend their fragrance as well. As a bonus, this is located right in the area of Seawall and the Seawall picnic area, so you can combine this hike with some time at both places. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Early elementary and up
Kids this age have slightly longer attention spans and are more confident in their ability, so you can move them on to longer, more sustained hikes. All of these will provide your kids with a great sense of accomplishment once they’ve reached the top–without killing everyone with whining in the process.
One of the easiest mountain climbs in Acadia and right off the Park Loop Road, Gorham has wonderful views of Sand Beach and the Atlantic Ocean with relatively moderate climb. Part way up, the Canada Cliffs trail splits off to the right and then rejoins a short while later. Canada Cliffs has some climbing and adds some difficulty, which is a nice option if your family likes that sort of thing. Either way, climbing Gorham is about one mile to the top. You can turn this into a loop trail by going down the other side and walking back via the Ocean Path, but at 4 miles long, it’s a bit longer than I like for kids. We usually have a snack at the top and then just come back down the way we came for a two-mile hike. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Located off the Park Loop Road on the way to Jordan Pond, this popular trail system offers two peaks, a lakeside walk, and the chance to try to push a giant glacial erratic down a mountain. There are many route options to try in this popular area–too many to list here–so pull our your trail map and let the kids help find your way. Any option offers good views and some good climbing. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Famous in my house for being my daughter’s favorite hike, it’s probably debatable whether it’s appropriate for kids this young, so please know your child. The Beehive is a nearly straight-up climb that involves iron rungs and steep drops, which spectacular overlooks of the Sand Beach region. Anyone–adult or child–who has a fear of heights should not undertake this trail. Period. That said, if heights don’t bother you or your child and challenges don’t scare you, this trail is a heck of a fun rush. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Middle school and up
These trails have the same essential qualities as the last bunch, only they have something about them that makes them harder: longer, or with more sustained difficulty.
This is one of my favorite trails in Acadia. It is pretty challenging in spots, with some nearly vertical climbs both on the ascent and descent, but there are breaks in-between the tough patches and the views over Somes Sound are spectacular. This hike requires a certain amount of height and the ability to focused, especially on the descent. You can extend the hike by going over neighboring St. Sauveur Mountain as well, but I prefer to keep it at about three miles and end by circling back on Man o’ War Brook fire road. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Beech Cliff Trail
Starting at the Echo Lake parking lot, this ladder trail is like the Precipice in feel, but shorter and less dangerous. If you want to see how your kids will do on a hard trail, this is a great test. A quick half-mile up, there are lots of ladders, rungs, and cables to help you make your way up the cliff, where you will have wonderful views of Echo Lake and a good chunk of Mount Desert Island. To come down, circle down the one-mile Canada Cliffs trail and end with a jump in Echo Lake. You deserve it. (See this post for directions and more details.)
Teenagers and up
Teens of all stripes will enjoy most of the hikes on this page (as much as teens are willing to admit they enjoy anything). But if you have especially adventurous and experienced teens, these two options will give them something to talk about afterward.
Cadillac Mountain South Ridge
There are shorter ways to get up Cadillac Mountain, but if you are looking for a great day-long experience for your teens, this one is the best around. I think it’s also straightforward enough for high schoolers to navigate on their own, especially if they are experienced hikers. Drop them off at the trail head with some lunch and lots of water and come back hours later to exhausted, triumphant teens who have just tackled the highest mountain in the park. What could be better? (See this post for directions and details.)
One of Acadia’s most famous–and dangerous–trails, the Precipice is not for the out-of-shape or faint-hearted. Like with the Beehive, if you are afraid of heights you absolutely should not attempt this trail and I wouldn’t send teens alone. But if you are prepared, wearing good footwear, and really want to have something to brag about and bond over, give it a try. Climb ladders, slide along tiny ledges, and scale walls all the way to the top of Champlain Mountain. (See this post for directions and details.)
In celebration of Acadia’s Centennial, I’m running a series of posts about making sure your trip to Acadia is the best yet.This is part two.
Part one, planning your trip, is right here.
Part three, great swimming spots, is here.
Part four, great camping spots, is here.
Part five, rainy day activities, is here.