Cadillac Mountain - North Ridge Trail

Distance: 4.00 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,118 Feet
Location: Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Cadillac Mountain’s summit is the highest point in Acadia National Park at 1,530 feet. Famously, its peak is the first place in North America to see the sunrise (Wikipedia is telling me that’s only true some months). You can drive up it. There is a parking lot at the top. During (non-COVID) summer months, in the darkness before dawn, the entire lot is full with cars parked on either side of the narrow road so people can congregate on the granite to watch the sun tear the sky open pale white then deep orange before the horizon burns red with the glowing orb at its center, and everyone holds up their phones, squinting into the first morning light.

Then, we all get back in our cars and leave. And we pretend we don’t still worship the sun.

Cadillac is one of Acadia’s most popular features. For good reason. But the best time of year to see Cadillac and to explore Acadia, in my opinion, is before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Before everyone else gets there or after everyone else leaves. The year-round population of Mount Desert Island is a mere 10,000 people, and the last two summers, they’ve had to accommodate 3.5 million visitors. They say the lobster’s better in fall months, anyway.

This guide documents a morning hike in April. Cool morning. Light jacket weather. No leaves yet: dark green pines, white and black birches, and the grey-brown bark of the other deciduous trees. The trail starts through tall narrow trunks allowing plenty of light.

I could stare at the lichens, mosses, and fungi of Maine forever. Sometimes they’re showboats, bringing colors rarely seen in vegetation: sea foam, pale mint, extraterrestrial green. Other times, though, they camouflage themselves. This lichen looks like a human-made camouflage imitating nature, but it’s nature herself.

The true start of the North Ridge Trail is marked by a blue blaze and a birch tree carved with names and initials. Don’t carve your name into the trees. National Parks serve as symbols of preserving a world with minimal or healthy human interaction. If anything, we ought to seek through them to diminish our egos. If you need to write your name on something, check out our Field Notes notebooks.

Before long, we can already peek through branches and see the Atlantic. A promise of what’s to come.

Relative to other trails in Acadia, the North Ridge Trail is noticeably wider. Presumably to allow passage to larger numbers of people. So, while this is the steeper route to Cadillac’s summit, the path itself feels almost surprisingly accommodating. The vegetation soon moves to shrubbier pines that are short and sinewy with tufts of long needles growing from their branches.

In a fairly inhospitable climate, the colors of the lichens on pink granite are a gleeful reminder of nature’s fortitude. 

I’m biased but a true believer that Acadia National Park has a profound intuition about how people and nature ought to exist together. Suddenly, as if carved by Mother Earth herself, time and again, Acadia presents these pseudo-natural features that do not detract from the beauty of the place, only show respect to it. 

Soon, the trees become sparser, growing out of the granite mountainside, revealing how Mount Desert Island earned its name from French explorers struck by the bare “deserted” peaks.

After scaling the granite, the northeastern side of the island reveals itself at Cadillac’s peak with the Porcupine Islands scattered off of downtown Bar Harbor.

To the south, Otter Cliffs.

There’s no feeling I like better than seeing that impossible line where sky meets water. Nothing humbles me, makes me feel small like being confronted with the limits of my vision sandwiched between what appear to be limitless and primitive features of nature: ocean and sky. If you go to Acadia, you should watch the sunrise on Cadillac with everyone taking pictures, hustling about. But I like it best without humanity’s brashness, where I can find the kind of quiet that only exists at home.

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