Mount Desert Island Loop

From rocky coasts to magical forests, you will catch your breath at every turn of this scenic road.

Scenic Roads: Early morning at Eagle Lake

Scenic Roads: Early morning at Eagle Lake

Early morning at Eagle Lake

Scenic Roads: Bar Harbor and Porcupine Islands from Cadillac Mountain

Scenic Roads: Bar Harbor and Porcupine Islands from Cadillac Mountain

Bar Harbor and Porcupine Islands from Cadillac Mountain

Scenic Roads: A historic stone barn in Bar Harbor

Scenic Roads: A historic stone barn in Bar Harbor

A historic stone barn in Bar Harbor

Scenic Roads: One of 16 carriage road bridges.

One of 16 carriage road bridges.

One of 16 carriage road bridges.

    Story by Paulette M. Roy
    Photos by Paul Rezendes

    The alarm rings us awake at 3 a.m., and I give a little groan. Today my husband, Paul, and I are bound for Maine’s Mount Desert Island, best known as home to Acadia National Park. Despite the early hour, we’ll have plenty of company at our first destination: the top of Cadillac Mountain.

    At 1,530 feet, this time-worn granite dome is the highest point along the scenic roads of the North Atlantic seaboard, and from October through March it’s the first place in the U.S. touched by the sun’s morning rays. According to today’s weather forecast, which calls for lowland fog and partly cloudy skies, we have the perfect conditions for a dramatic summer sunrise. Soon, despite the early hour, we’re raring to go.

    After a spectacular sunrise shoot, we pull onto Park Loop Road, which offers 27 miles of stunning scenery. But we drink in only part of it, making a detour for a 2-mile hike down Ocean Path, which skirts the rocky coastline. Between the trail and the waterline, a swath of stepping-stone boulders offers a more adventurous route. The path ends atop 110-foot Otter Cliffs, one of the highest headlands along the eastern coast.

    West and inland, the Jordan Pond House Restaurant is a tradition, not just for its famous popovers but for its scenic view overlooking the pond. We intend to stop and take a break from photography. But with the North and South Bubble Mountains casting reflections across the water, we can’t resist taking a few more photos. Then, all too soon, it’s time to move along.

    We haven’t planned our afternoon itinerary in advance, and now we pause. If this were autumn, there would be no shortage of inland waters hugged by foliage—scenes that simply take your breath away as the million hues of summer greens burnish into autumn’s vivid golds, russets and reds. Our personal favorites are Duck Brook Bridge and New Mills Meadow Pond.

    Asticou Azalea Gardens offers the same spectacular show, but we prefer to stroll its winding paths in spring, when we can gaze at endless shades of pink, orange and red blooms reflected in the placid pond as birds serenade us with their sunny songs. More than 80 avian species call the gardens and its surrounding area home.

    Today being a warm summer day, however, we turn south for a scenic drive along Northeast Harbor. With his Portuguese sailor’s blood, Paul can’t help pausing to check out the sailboats before we head back north.

    Sargent Drive follows the shore of Somes Sound, a narrow, 7-mile body of water that nearly bisects the island. This is the only fjord in the eastern United States.

    Route 102 circles the western peninsula of the island, known as the “quiet side,” an easygoing escape from the busier parts of the islands, like Bar Harbor. You won’t find the typical tourist amenities here, but you also won’t find traffic, overpriced food or crowded hiking  trails. Instead, farmland, fishing villages, peaceful coves, picturesque harbors and scenic roads fill the landscape.

    We reach the north end of the Sound at Somesville, the oldest settlement on the island. We pause to photograph the famous white wooden walking bridge and colorful flower boxes. Down and around to Southwest Harbor, we detour onto the shore-hugging southern Route 102A loop. Mansett treats us to fields of lupines arrayed before an Atlantic Ocean backdrop.

    Further south, we pass Wonderland, a magical forest where silvery moss drips from spruce boughs as the path leads you through a long, shady corrider before opening to a dazzling view from the coast. In autumn, the forest’s huckleberry bushes blaze a fiery red.

    Next up is Bass Harbor—shared by the charming fishing villages of Bass Harbor and Bernard—and historic Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse perched atop its rocky cliff.

    After all this, we hurry back to Cadillac Mountain to grab a sunset from a different vantage point. Satisfied but exhausted, I sigh to myself just a little. Tomorrow, and  another 3 a.m. wake-up, will come much too soon. But as I watch the sun disappear, I think it can’t come soon enough.

    Mount Desert Island Loop is one of Country’s 2013 Best Scenic Roads. Click here for the full list.