Every New Englander knows Cadillac Mountain and the carriage roads of Acadia National Park, but a whole world of underrated adventure awaits on Mount Desert Island’s quieter western half. Why wade through tourists when you can explore like a local? And why limit yourself to one activity when you can bag three?
That’s why we’ve put together a do-it-yourself Acadia triathlon: a recommended hike, bike, and paddle on the west side of the lobster-claw-shaped park. These routes come courtesy of Outdoor Adventures: Acadia National Park, by Jerry and Marcy Monkman (AMC Books, 2017). Pick up a copy and find 47 more Acadia hikes, bikes, and paddles waiting for you.
HIKE FLYING MOUNTAIN
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Distance: 1.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 275 feet
Estimated Time: 45 minutes
This short hike leads to good views of the water surrounding the entrance to Somes Sound.
From the intersection of Routes 102 and 198 in Somesville, follow Route 102 south for 5.4 miles to Fernald Point Road and turn left (west). The Fernald Cove parking area is on the left, 0.9 mile from Route 102. There is no direct access to this trailhead via the Island Explorer shuttle. The closest stop is Smugglers Den (stop F, about 2 miles from the trailhead) on the Southwest Harbor route (route 7). GPS coordinates: 44° 17.936ʹ N, 68° 18.871ʹ W.
Flying Mountain stands as a sentinel at the southern end of Somes Sound, jutting into the water at a point that almost closes off the entrance to the eastern United States’ only fjord. At 284 feet, Flying Mountain is more a hill than a mountain, but it provides good views for a small amount of effort. This hike loops over Flying Mountain to Valley Cove, a protected tongue of water that laps up against 500 vertical feet of rock known as Eagle Cliff. For only 45 minutes of work, this hike has a lot to offer.
Start this hike on Flying Mountain Trail, which begins on the west side of the Fernald Cove parking area. The trail, marked with blue blazes, climbs moderately through a pure spruce forest. Recent trail work has shored up the eroded path here with a series of rock and wooden steps. You will reach the summit fairly quickly, 0.3 mile from the parking lot. There are views of the south end of Somes Sound and out to Greening, Sutton, and Bear islands, as well as the Cranberries. Cadillac and Norumbega mountains are also visible across the sound.
About 0.3 mile beyond the summit, a side path leads to the right, toward an overlook offering more views of the sound and the stately homes of Northeast Harbor. Flying Mountain Trail leads to the left then descends steeply to Valley Cove. Here you can explore tide pools and gaze up at the steep walls of Eagle Cliff. The cove is one of the safest places on Mount Desert Island for boats to drop anchor in big storms, as Flying Mountain extends far enough into Somes Sound to prevent large storm swells from making their way into the cove.
As you follow the shoreline, look for a path on the left, just after climbing a set of wood-and-gravel steps. Valley Cove Trail leads right, toward Acadia Mountain, but to complete this hike, turn left and left again when Flying Mountain Trail reaches a gravel fire road in a few yards. Follow the fire road through a mature forest of spruce and cedar. The parking area is 0.6 mile from Valley Cove.
BIKE HIO FIRE ROAD
Difficulty Rating: Easy
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation Gain: 100 feet
Estimated Time: 1 hour
This family-friendly ride follows a dirt road through prime bird-watching habitat, with a short extension to a view of the ocean.
From Southwest Harbor, follow Route 102 south. At the intersection with 102A, bear right to stay on 102. In another 1.4 miles, the Hio fire road will be on your left, just before crossing Bass Harbor Marsh. The closest Island Explorer shuttle stop is the Tremont School stop (stop M) on the Southwest Harbor route (route 7), about 1 mile away. GPS coordinates: 44° 15.227ʹ N, 68° 20.363ʹ W.
Hio Road is an unused dirt fire road near Seawall Campground that traverses a spruce-fir forest in the vicinity of a large bog called the Big Heath. Birds more common to Canada than coastal Maine inhabit the woods along this road, which is relatively flat and has a good riding surface for most of its length. Although there are a few very brief rough spots, kids will enjoy this trip. Since it is short, you can take your time, watching and listening for birds, exploring vernal pools for frogs and salamanders, and enjoying flora such as rhodora, bog laurel, and skunk cabbage. You can also add a short jaunt to a view of the Atlantic Ocean from a seawall.
This is an out-and-back trip that you can start either from Route 102 or from the group camping area in Seawall Campground. This description assumes you will start from Route 102.
From the east side of Route 102, Hio Road begins near Bass Harbor Marsh, which has excellent views of Bernard, Mansell, Beech, and Acadia mountains. The road immediately enters the spruce-fir forest, which attracts such northern bird species as boreal chickadees, gray jays, black-backed woodpeckers, and spruce grouse. At 0.8 mile, you cross a small stream that flows through a northern white cedar swamp toward the Big Heath. In April skunk cabbage is the first herbaceous, or nonwoody, plant to appear in large quantities, sprouting through a layer of fuzzy green sphagnum moss.
The Big Heath is one of Acadia’s largest bogs. Bogs usually form in glacial depressions that were once lakes or ponds. Over time, the lake fills with accumulated plant material that decays slowly. The resulting layer of peat can be as deep as 40 feet and often floats on top of the water. For this reason, bogs are a less-than-pleasant place to cross on foot. If you attempt this feat, consider yourself lucky if all you lose is a boot or two. The slowly decaying plant material creates a highly acidic and nutrient-poor environment that makes it difficult for plants to grow. Insectivorous plants, such as sundew and pitcher plants, survive by trapping and consuming insects. Evergreen shrubs, such as Labrador tea, sheep laurel, bog laurel, and orchids, also tend to grow in bogs. As for trees, black spruce, larch, and white cedar usually manage to survive in the acidic soil. You might find bird species including Lincoln’s sparrow, northern waterthrush, and palm warblers.
You reach the end of Hio Road 2 miles from Route 102. Through the gate is the group camping area at Seawall Campground. From the group camp, it’s about a 0.4-mile ride over pavement to the Atlantic Ocean, where there’s a picnic area on a natural seawall overlooking the water. The 10-foot-high cobblestone seawall is impressive, winding its way along the coast for about a mile.
PADDLE SOMES SOUND
Difficulty Rating: Depends on weather conditions
Distance: 7.5 miles
Estimated Time: 4 hours
This unique paddle visits the only fjord in the eastern United States, with views of tall ocean-side cliffs and possibly even wildlife.
Just south of downtown Southwest Harbor, turn left off Route 102 onto Route 102A. After 1 mile, turn left onto Mansell Lane. At the end of the road, turn left onto Shore Road. The boat ramp is a short distance on the right. GPS coordinates: 44° 16.109ʹ N, 68° 18.509ʹ W.
Weather and tide considerations: When the wind and tide are moving in opposite directions, ominous standing waves can develop in the shallow and narrow mouth of Somes Sound, known as The Narrows. Otherwise, tides are not much of an issue in the sound. The wind is another story. Running north to south, with mountains rising up on both its eastern and western shores, Somes Sound experiences a strong wind-tunnel effect when winds are out of the north or the south. These winds can make it very difficult to paddle, and you’re better off trying an alternate trip, such as Mount Desert Narrows. Winds out of the east or west usually aren’t a problem.
Somes Sound is a narrow finger of water that almost cuts Mount Desert Island in two. A glacier created Somes Sound, scouring a deep, “U”-shaped valley between Acadia and Norumbega mountains. The glacier carved through Mount Desert Island all the way to the ocean, and now the valley is filled with seawater. This paddling trip starts near the mouth of the sound, in the working harbor of Manset, where you can explore the shoreline of Greening Island before making your way up the sound to Valley Cove, Eagle Cliff, and a waterfall at Man o’ War Brook. Like all of the kayaking trips around Mount Desert Island, Somes Sound provides good opportunities for seeing wildlife, such as seabirds, bald eagles, and seals.
From the boat ramp in Manset, Southwest Harbor is to your left, and Greening Island is across the water to the northeast. Straight ahead is a passage between Southwest Harbor and Greening Island that is the most direct route to Somes Sound. The water is shallow in this passage, which sometimes makes for a bumpy crossing. For this trip, head to the eastern tip of Greening Island and paddle around the northeastern side of the island before heading north into the sound. With Southwest Harbor to the west and Northeast Harbor to the east, the waters around Greening Island get a fair amount of boat traffic, so keep your group together and stay aware of your surroundings.
Greening Island marks the entrance to Somes Sound, which is named after Abraham Somes, one of the first permanent settlers on Mount Desert Island, having built a log cabin at Somes Point after sailing there from Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1761. Still privately owned, Greening Island has stunning views of the sound and surrounding mountains.
As you paddle north from Greening Island, you will make your way through the mouth of Somes Sound, known as The Narrows. Here the sound is only about 1,000 feet across and the water is very shallow—less than 10 feet deep in spots. If the wind is blowing against the tide, there can be some fairly choppy water. Farther north in Somes Sound, the water attains depths of up to 150 feet. The gently sloping field on the western shore of The Narrows is known as Jesuit Spring. A French colony that settled on this site in 1613 was quickly attacked and destroyed by the British, one of many skirmishes between the two naval powers in eastern Maine and Maritime Canada during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Just beyond Jesuit Spring, Flying Mountain rises 271 feet from the waters of Somes Sound. Follow the shoreline on your left around the mountain and into Valley Cove, a sheltered inlet bordered by Flying Mountain on the south and the spectacular 400-foot face of Eagle Cliff on the west. This is one of the most sheltered coves on the island, and it is still used as a place to anchor boats in extremely rough weather. The shoreline here is part of Acadia National Park and makes an excellent spot to stop and take a break. Flying Mountain Trail is only a few yards from shore and takes you to the summit of Flying Mountain or the top of Eagle Cliff, both of which have excellent views of Somes Sound. We have never seen bald eagles on Eagle Cliff, but they are common visitors to the sound and could be seen at any point during this trip. To the north of Valley Cove is Acadia Mountain and across the water to the northeast is Norumbega Mountain, which, at 850 feet, is the highest point above the sound.
From Valley Cove, continue north along the western shore of Somes Sound. Eagle Cliff and the northeastern shoulder of Saint Sauveur Mountain dominate the shoreline for much of the way to Man o’ War Brook, which marks the low point between Saint Sauveur and Acadia mountains. At Man o’ War Brook, the water rushing over steep rocks into the sound is deep enough for large boats. This deep water made it easy for schooners to sail into the sound, quickly collect freshwater, and head back out to sea. The easy access to freshwater in a hidden cove probably is responsible for the stories of pirate ships using this area. Today, Man o’ War Brook is a scenic stop for boats, with its cool, cedar-lined shoreline flanked by the dramatic slopes of Acadia and Saint Sauveur Mountains providing beautiful visual relief.
From here you can return to Manset either by following the western shore or by paddling across the sound to the rugged shoreline under Norumbega Mountain. South of Norumbega, the shoreline becomes gentler as you pass some of the biggest summer homes on Mount Desert Island, in the wooded outskirts of the town of Northeast Harbor. On your return paddle to Manset, keep your eyes peeled for guillemots, cormorants, and loons, as well as harbor and gray seals. Looking south and east past Greening Island, you can see Sutton Island, the Cranberries, and out to the open Atlantic.