Cadillac Mountain South Ridge – Acadia National Park
The seven-mile South Ridge trail takes you to the highest mountain on the east coast – Cadillac Mountain. At over 1500 feet, it is also one of the first places sunlight hits the U.S. each morning, The views from this hike are panoramic and breathtaking!
We’ve driven to the top of Cadillac Mountain. We’ve also walked up the 4.4 mile North Ridge trail a few times. But this is the first time we’ve ever hiked to the summit via the South Ridge route. At seven miles (plus some additional length for the side trip to Eagles Crag and walking the summit path) this route probably qualifies as one of Acadia’s longest hikes. It’s also become one of our favorite Maine hikes. It was fantastic!
The trail starts off in the deep coolness of the evergreen forest. Everything is green – covered with moss and ferns. The thin island soil leaves gnarled roots and rocks exposed along the trail. You have to constantly watch where you’re stepping so you don’t catch a boot toe and trip. Planked boardwalks traverse the boggy, marshy places along the trail. This part of the trail is one face of Acadia, with the other being expansive, open domes of granite.
The first trail junction you come to marks a short side-loop across the Eagles Crag. The trail is quite a bit steeper here and leads out to an open rock ledge overlooking the ocean. We hiked early in the morning, so the view looked directly into the sun, rendering the ocean silver and shiny.
On the return arm of the side-loop, we reentered the woods for a short while. Near the trail junction where we met back up with the South Ridge trail, we found one of the densest patches of wild blueberries we’d ever seen! I stopped to pick and eat some berries before we pushed on. Yum! Blueberries are at their peak in late July and early August, so our trip was timed perfectly for enjoying the fruit.
Near this point of the trail, the forest started thinning out and becoming patchier. There were still trees, but they were broken up by open rocky sections. Eventually we left the shade of the trees completely and stepped out onto the pink granite that Acadia is so famous for. The trail was blazed blue, but we also had cairns guide our way. The granite was punctuated by abundant patches of blueberry bushes and water filled glacial potholes. The view behind and to the side of us was SPECTACULAR! We found ourselves stopping time and time again to take in the majestic views. I’ve been to a good number of national parks. They’re all beautiful in their own way, but there is something really special about Acadia.
There were some sections of rock that required climbing and scrambling, but the way was never really steep or difficult. We climbed one especially large rocky pass and found ourselves looking down into a small forested ravine tucked between two mountains. The trail climbed downward into the trees and past a lovely glacial pond called ‘The Featherbed’.
After the pond, we began the climb up Cadillac in earnest. The first little bit after leaving the pond was quite steep with some mild rock scrambling. Once we regained the ridge, the trail became moderate again. The sun was bright. The sky was deep blue and painted with wispy clouds. The ocean below was sparkling and so beautiful. I must have said to Adam a couple dozen times “It’s so gorgeous! This is a perfect Maine day! We are so lucky!”
Along the ridge, we began to see distant glimpses of cars making their way up the auto road to the Cadillac summit. But we didn’t come close to the road at all until we were almost to the top of the mountain. Once drawback of the shorter 4.4 mile North Ridge is its proximity to the road for much of the hike. We really enjoyed staying away from the road this time.
Near the summit, we passed through one more section of forest and came out on a gravel road behind the gift shop located at the summit. It’s always kind of bizarre to hike several miles along pristine, quiet trail only to summit a mountain with auto access. More than a few people looked at us strangely with our Camelbaks and trekking poles.
Even though it was still pretty early, the summit was packed with people! Adam got cold drinks from the gift shop and I walked around the summit path to take a few photos. The view from Cadillac offers a great look at the town of Bar Harbor and the outlying Porcupine Islands in Frenchman Bay.
With the thick crowds and the notion of a big lunch, we didn’t linger too long at the summit. On the way down, we passed quite a few people heading up the trail. I was really glad we had started around 7:30 and had been able to enjoy a bit of solitude.
The hike down was bright and hot under the mid-morning sun! I had slathered myself with SPF 50, but I missed one spot between my ponytail and my backpack. I ended up with a strange sunburned triangle on my back. 😦
We really enjoyed the views the whole hike down! I was kind of bummed when the trail eventually descended back into the woods. The shade was nice, but losing the view was not!
When we got back to the car we debated whether we should go back to our room and shower, or head straight to lunch in town. In the end, hunger won out and we ate lunch covered with sweat and grime. We went to one of our favorite lunch spots in town – Rupununi. They have the best Buffalo Chicken sandwiches and clam chowder. We got a great seat out on the patio, the food was delicious and I didn’t even care that I was filthy!
A trip to Acadia National Park almost requires you to visit Cadillac Mountain. However, most people drive to the top of it rather than try hiking up. Their are also some insane bikers that bike up the mountain, but we’re not in that kind of shape. Since Cadillac Mountain is the highest summit in the park, we used to feel intimidated about trying to hike up. Several years ago, we hiked up the north ridge since that seemed to be the easiest route. We remembered the north ridge hike being a great hike, so this time we decided to try a different route.
To start the hike, we parked on Route 3, almost directly across from the entrance to Blackwoods Campground. You take a few steps up and then the trail begins. This first section is just about the only part that is completely in the woods. At .8 miles, you reach a junction with the Eagles Crag trail. We took a right and went on the Eagles Crag trail, which joins back on to the South Ridge Trail at 1.2 miles. The Eagles Crag trail was probably the toughest climbing on the trail, but it does take you out of the woods to some nice views to the east of Otter Cove and Gorham Mountain. In retrospect, we feel that it really isn’t necessary to do Eagles Crag, since you will quickly see tons of views right after you rejoin the trail. But, if you want more views and/or some more challenge, go for it. When you rejoin the South Ridge Trail at 1.2 miles, the trail begins to open up to more views in a short distance. You will need to pay attention to the cairns on the trail since there are no tall trees to mark trail paths. The views on this trail are completely amazing! You have to turn around to see the great views on the way up. We found ourselves taking pictures from a gorgeous spot and then going another .1 mile and finding even better views behind us. At 2.4 miles, you reach a summit of a small hill where you can see the small pond, The Featherbed, below. You climb down this small hill and then reach The Featherbed and a junction with the Canon Brook Trail at 2.7 miles. Stay straight on the South Ridge trail as you begin your next ascent to reach the summit. At 3.2 miles, you reach a junction with the West Face Trail to the left, but stay straight. The trail is steeper up this last section of the trail. There are a few areas where you will climb up some rocks (even using one iron rung handrail), but we didn’t find it to be overly difficult. Through this section, you are likely to hear or see people along the Auto Road heading up Cadillac Mountain. At 3.7 miles, you will reach the summit of Cadillac Mountain. Go back the way you came.
You feel like you are making an accomplishment when you hike up Cadillac Mountain. While many of these people are driving to the top, you feel like you really earned the views. The actual summit marker for Cadillac Mountain is not as easy to find. As you’re coming up the South Ridge trail, you may walk right past it. I like to get a picture of each summit we make. Unlike most of Acadia that marks the summit with a large wooden summit marker, Cadillac Mountain only has a USGS marker in the rock. To find it, walk behind the gift shop by about 100 steps where the gravel ends. To the right, you will see a greenish-looking marker on a rock. This marker has an arrow, that points about 20 feet to another marker on another rock. This is the true summit marker.
We took a little time to hit the bathrooms, buy some cold drinks (that is always welcome when you are finishing a hike), and take in the views. From Cadillac Mountain, you can see just about all of Mount Desert Island and on a clear day, the views are spectacular. Many people drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain to see the sunrise. This is the second earliest place where you can see the sunrise on the east coast (only to be beaten slightly by Maine’s own Mount Katahdin). While Christine was off taking some photos, I relaxed and talked to a family that just arrived from New York. They were impressed that we hiked up it and I told them about some other things they should do during their week of vacation. I could tell the father of the family was ready to tackle it all, but I could see some of his family wasn’t as enthusiastic. After talking with me, they were going to try and hike up Cadillac Mountain that afternoon.
Cadillac Mountain does have some interesting history. The area was named after Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, a french explorer and trader. This area was well-explored and controlled by the French and Antoine was given this area (now known as Bar Harbor) with this mountain (then known as Mount Desert). When I was attending a ranger program while I was trying to achieve my rank as a “Acadia Senior Ranger”, I learned about how this man was much-hated and was basically run out of this area for misappropriation of money. He then left this area and founded what became Detroit. The Cadillac car is named after this man and the seal is his family crest. It is funny that this country holds the car in such high esteem, when the man was a criminal (once called “one of the worst scoundrels to set foot in New France”).
If you are interested in geocaching, you can find a geocache near the top of Cadillac Mountain that is located near the beginning of the north ridge trail: Cadillac Mountain Cache.
As Christine and I were reflecting on all of the hiking we have done in Acadia, I will say this is my favorite hike to do in the park. You truly don’t get any better views than on this hike up the south ridge of Cadillac. There were times that I even felt tears welling up due to the awe-inspiring, panoramic landscape. The north ridge trail also has great views along, but several times you are walking very close to the Auto Road and you are limited to views on one side of the trail. With the vast expanses on the south ridge trail, it can’t be beat. If you are up for doing a longer hike in Acadia, make this the one to do!
- Distance – 7.4 miles
- Elevation Change – approximately 1300 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The hike is steadily uphill but is quite moderate.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail is occasionally root-covered and has a lot of open granite.
- Views – 5. It doesn’t get any better than this!
- Waterfalls/Lakes/Streams – 4. The Featherbed is beautiful and you get lots of distant views of the bay and ocean.
- Wildlife – 1. Maybe some red squirrels and (if you’re lucky) hawks on Eagles Crag.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Just follow the markers, blazes and cairns, and you can’t go wrong.
- Solitude – 1. We started early and didn’t see many people on the trail, but the summit is always very crowded.
Directions to trailhead: Located on Route 3, about 5 miles south of the Jackson Lab. Look for the signs for Blackwoods Campground and park directly across the road from the entrance to the campground. You will see a break in the woods with a few steps that starts your trail.