Matt Dickerson: Acadia National Park 3: The Gorham Loop
We pulled off the famous Loop Road to park at the trailhead to hike the Gorham Mountain Loop trail. Or, rather, we tried to park. Unfortunately, Memorial Day weekend had turned Acadia National Park into Acadia National Park-ing Lot. Not only did we find every lot full, but the right lane of the one-way, two-lane Loop Road had also been turned into additional parking, and for more than a mile in each direction every foot of pavement was taken by a car.
Expecting crowds, we hadn’t actually planned on hiking that Sunday in Maine. During the previous two weeks, I had alternated between writing about the park and time exploring it so that I would have material to write about. By canoe, bike and foot my wife, Deborah, and I had wandered and observed the park’s wooded, mountainous landscapes, its numerous lakes, ponds, streams and tidal marshes, and also its rocky shorelines and tide pools. We’d listened to wood thrushes serenade us in the woods, osprey screech at us from the air, and to waves and wind rumble in the rocks off Schoodic Point. We’d watched lagoons, saltwater ponds and tidal rivers fill, and drain, and fill again. Expecting to see some beautiful sunrises, we’d seen instead some stunning sunsets. I’d also spent time on a couple field trips with National Park Service employees working on conservation projects within the park and learning about work to restore alewives and anadromous brook trout to the park’s waters.
And we had become spoiled by the quiet. Our hiking and biking routes had occasionally brought us in contact with others, but never with crowds. Only once in 13 different paddles — even on the park’s best-known waters — did we see even a single other boat on the water with us. The loudest disturbance we had to put up with from our canoe was the frantic prolonged calling of a pair of loons on Echo Lake when a bald eagle soared over Beech Cliff (though the crows and seagulls did occasional put up a racket when we walked along the seashore). The only places we’d experienced crowds were when we drove to the top of Mount Desert Island’s famous Cadillac Mountain, and then down in Bar Harbor when we stopped at one of the island’s half-dozen famous local homemade ice cream shops. (Both the view from the top of Cadillac and the homemade ice cream were worth the crowds.)
Knowing Memorial Day weekend would change all that, we decided to take a break from Acadia and instead booked a whale watch out of Bar Harbor. An hour before our boat was to depart, however, the trip was canceled because of five-foot swells on the ocean. Not wanting to waste the two-hour round-trip drive from the other side of the park, we decided to go on a hike. We had come prepared with hiking shoes, hiking attire and a picnic lunch — and Deborah had scouted a promising route on the Maine Trail Finder website. We were less prepared to see the Loop Road bogged down with two long lanes of cars, one parked and the other creeping along only slightly faster.
When we pulled into the final lot along the ocean side of our intended loop and saw it full, we were ready to give up and maybe go canoeing instead. And then a car pulled out of the final spot in the lot — the one right next to the trailhead. Rejoicing, we claimed it and changed from whale-watching attire into our hiking clothes. A short time later, we were heading up a rocky ridgeline with a salty sea breeze blowing on our backs.
The Gorham Mountain Loop is not an especially rigorous trail. It begins by the shore, climbs up a 535-foot-high peak, follows the ridge a short way before dropping back down to Sand Beech (one of the park’s iconic scenes), and then parallels the road back to the trailhead past Thunder Hole (another of the park’s iconic landmarks). Unlike the more famous Precipice Trail, it has no ledges to traverse, or cliffs to ascend or stare down. The total length is only 3.5 miles.
Yet the views over those 3.5 miles and 535 feet of elevation gain are quite stunning, and certainly worth the moderate effort. Only a short way up the trail, after a brief stop for a picnic lunch on a ledge with open views out over the rocky point, we came to a fork in the trail. Knowing the routes would converge a short distance ahead, we took the one on the right — perhaps the way less traveled, though I’m not sure. It ran along the bottom of Cadillac Cliffs, plunging at times through narrow gaps between boulders, or under overhanging rocks. On our left we gazed into the remnants of sea caves carved millennia earlier at the bottom of the tall cliffs when the sea level was a couple hundred feet higher.
After that, the summit of the Gorham Mountain offered the best views one could imagine from an elevation so low: a panoramic spectacle of much of the park, including open ocean on three sides, the higher ridge of Cadillac Mountain on a fourth, and a view of Sand Beech where we would be in little while. Blueberry bushes in blossom lined the ground on both sides of the trail. We paused to enjoy yet another stunning view, and to snap the requisite selfies, then continued on.
Working our way down the back side, we admired numerous climbers working their way up the steep side of the famed Beehive. We thought how much our sons would have enjoyed climbing it — for the same reasons we decided to forego it on that afternoon: ascents up a steep cliff-face requiring iron-rungs, exposed narrow ledges, and precipitous falls. Instead we walked down to Sand Beech and observed the famous massive rock just outside the cove responsible for funneling the currents into the cove, which were in turn responsible for carrying in and creating the unique fine sand from the crushed shells of untold numbers of mollusks.
The hiking loop ended with a walk along the rocky shore past Thunder Hole, famous for its tremendous channeling and funneling of waves at high tide and the thunderous sound made by that funneling — none of which we heard because we were there at relatively low tide.
Back at the car, content from a delightful — though not exhausting — hike, and all the beauty we’d had the privilege of enjoying, we continued driving the rest of the Park Loop road, which in the later afternoon had grown a little less busy. I was thinking both that I was looking forward to the park at midweek with a return to the quietness of pre-tourist-season May, and also that even during the busy peak of a holiday weekend it was still a beautiful and worthwhile place to be.
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