I quickly silenced the alarm that began chirping at precisely 4 a.m. Even as a morning person, forcing myself from a cozy bed while my wife and kids continued to snooze contently required extra motivation at that hour. The reward was looming just outside the door and would unfold over the next 90 minutes. Dressed for the brisk morning air, with a warm drink and camera in hand, I slipped out the door onto the hotel room patio, gazing east as the morning nautical twilight transitioned into civil twilight. A glorious sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean seemed to set the Gulf of Maine ablaze in ever-changing shades of burning red and orange. Fishing and tour boats slipped their moorings as the sea reflected the slow-motion eruption of daylight. Dawn had arrived at Acadia National Park, site of the first sunrise in the continental U.S.
The Maine Idea
Americans often associate their national parks with vast expanses of desolation, from the Rockies westward, yet, many of the National Park System (NPS) gems lie east of the Mississippi River. Some are quite new (like Indiana Dunes, upgraded to a national park in February 2019). Others, like Acadia, have held that status for a century. Almost by definition, many of our national parks are remote and can be challenging to reach. Large commercial airline hubs north of Boston simply don’t exist, limiting commercial flights into the immediate area to only connectors. Enter general aviation and its nearly limitless options for taking us to amazing places faster and easier than driving, while providing views vastly different from those of terrestrial tourism. Fortunately, several general aviation airports can get you close to Acadia and provide the necessary services as well.
I first became aware of Bar Harbor, Maine’s Hancock Co. Airport (KBHB) back in the early 2000s when I flew Reagan-era Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, in on a charter flight. He was a gregarious elder statesman and espoused the many virtues of his adopted home. It was the dead of winter and the town and hotel reminded me of The Shining, buttoned up as they were for the offseason. But the airport services were excellent, even in those frigid conditions. Of course, so far north, tourist season is typically only May through October. Regardless, King Air pilots, with their full weather capabilities, could also choose to partake of the winter wonders the area has to offer (without fighting the summer crowds). Today, FBO services are provided by Columbia Air Services and include everything a King Air pilot might need (rental cars, fuel, tie-downs and hangaring, pilot lounge, flight planning room, etc.). Arrival procedures are straightforward and do not include any published Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STARs). For approaches, BHB is equipped with an ILS and two RNAV-GPS (LPV) approaches. Runway 4/22 is primary (at 5,200 feet long), but Runway 17/35 (3,363 feet long) is available if winds or traffic require (assuming that is within your King Air’s performance limits at the time). Note that some minimums adjustments are necessary when using non-local altimeter settings, which is required when the AWOS is unavailable at this pilot-controlled field (see Figure 1).
As an alternative, Bangor’s Class C international airport (KBGR) is only 30 miles inland. That distance could potentially get you away from coastal weather that might be driving conditions below published minimums at BHB. Or it could be that the larger facilities of BGR better match your performance limitations or personal preferences, thus, offsetting the minor additional driving distance. BGR’s single 11,440-foot runway (15/33) will certainly accommodate any size/weight King Air, while offering much larger safety margins than BHB’s runways. Various ILS and RNAV-GPS approaches are available at both ends of the runway, including CAT II, CAT III, LPV and L/VNAV minimums options (if you are appropriately equipped and qualified). Bangor Approach can even provide you with radar services for an ASR approach (workload permitting), if you’re inclined to practice your if-all-else-fails approach procedures! Once on the ground at BGR, any King Air pilot will feel right at home with Bangor Aviation Services’ standard turbine-level FBO services and amenities.
Whether you are driving from BHB or BGR, you’ll travel Highway 3, which passes right along the southern boundary fence of Bar Harbor airport. During good weather, Acadia Air Tours – the local aerial sightseeing company – stages their aircraft from this area to maximize visibility of their operation, hopefully luring passing cars of tourists in with their attractive fleet of single-engine aircraft and helicopters. They can admit passengers through a gate near the approach end of Runway 35 for the purpose of loading them for a local air tour of Acadia. This is an experience not to be missed, especially if you can score your ride in a one of the several open-cockpit biplanes they operate on a warm summer day. Aerial tour options range from quick 15-minute loops around Bar Harbor and Acadia to more specific and inclusive tours of an hour or more; even sightseeing via gliders are offered.
Back on Highway 3, heading southeast from the mainland, travelers must cross tiny Thompson Island. A stop at the information center there is worthwhile for gathering maps and tourist info for both the park and surrounding areas throughout Down East (the local term for most anywhere along the southeastern coast of Maine). Thereafter, you are mere minutes from entering the first national park east of the Mississippi River.
Mount Desert Island
Acadia makes up about half of Mount Desert Island (MDI), half of Isle au Haut, plus 18 smaller islands, and a portion of the Schoodic Peninsula, which lies east across Frenchman Bay. On MDI, you’ll find the majority of resorts, hotels and B&Bs along the island’s northeast coast and within the town of Bar Harbor. We chose the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel, which offered terrific views, a nice evening restaurant and kid-friendly amenities (pool, free breakfast, etc.), all for midrange pricing. However, many higher-end options also exist – whether you’re looking for a three-star resort with spa, various activities and multiple eating choices, or an elegant four- or five-star bed-and-breakfast. Be sure to book well in advance during peak-season though, especially for the more unique and desirable lodging choices.
Since we arrived well ahead of check-in time, we chose to drive through the western portions of Acadia to the southern-most point of MDI (Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse). A short wooden staircase takes you down to the boulder-strewn coastline, where you too can ramble across the rocks below the lighthouse while enjoying spectacular views of the Gott Islands (and beyond) across Bass Harbor. Climbing back up, trails are available through the wooded areas and up to the still-functional lighthouse. Built in 1858, the lighthouse is one of four within Acadia, but the only one accessible by car.
We cruised a scenic route back north, rather than simply retracing the same way back. Tiny towns and villages remain scattered across MDI (both within and outside of official park boundaries), providing many excuses for brief stops. The roads are narrow two-lane affairs with a mix of local and tourist traffic. We found traffic to be fairly light on the western half of MDI, even during our August/peak-season visit, proving it sometimes pays to visit the more remote and less publicized sites within a given national park if big crowds aren’t your thing. A shortcut across the middle of MDI brought us into Bar Harbor from due west for an evening on the town.
MDI has been inhabited for at least several thousand years. The first Europeans arrived in the 1500s and contacted the Wabanaki natives. French explorer Samuel de Champlain not only founded Quebec and crossed the Atlantic 29 times in his explorations, he also named this area I’Isles des Monts-deserts in 1604. By 1759, the British had won the power struggle with the French for primary control of the area. In 1796, the first “modern” settlement on MDI incorporated as Eden (known today as Bar Harbor). Situated on the East Coast of MDI, Bar Harbor relishes its nearly synonymous identity with MDI and Acadia, making it a matter of semantics to try to distinguish each. As a whole, all proudly proclaim they are the location of the first sunrise on the continental U.S. This can be a confusing claim, given that none are the eastern- or northern-most points. However, parts of Canada block the sunrise from more northeasterly U.S. locations. Thus, the summit of Cadillac Mountain (MDI and Acadia’s highest peak) receives first light at least from Oct. 7 through March 6.
While commercial fishing maintains an employment foothold, Bar Harbor is now the epitome of a tourist economy, well suited for all tastes and wallets. Food and shopping range from the standard tourist-fare to high-end eateries and boutiques, with an emphasis on a wide variety of Maine-lobster and seafood choices. For fine dining, the choices are too extensive to list, but for fine local seafood, three highly rated choices are The Fork & Table, Salt & Steel and Veranda Bar at Balance Rock Inn. For more moderate pricing, casual fish and lobster houses or bars can be found on nearly every city block. Mostly though, you’re drawn to the natural beauty of the surroundings (the views of ocean, mountains, islands, peninsulas, quaint city parks and harbor). While, I’m sure there are times when the population of 5,200 is overwhelmed by tourists, that was not our experience. This likely changes when large cruise ships disgorge their passengers at the harbor; cruise ships, tour boats and scheduled ferries to the out-islands and peninsulas are big business here.
The downtown area is walkable from nearly any of the public parking vicinities. Agamont and Grant Parks, plus the Village Green, all beckon you to just lie in the grass and relax, enjoying the view of Frenchman Bay’s islands and the various vessels coming and going. At low tide, a wide land bridge provides walking access to Bar Island and the many sandbars and shallow areas you can wade to or from, if you can tolerate the chilly water temperatures. On Bar Island, you can explore via beach combing and wooded hiking trails. Caution should be taken not to overstay your welcome, lest the tide return, trapping you on the uninhabited island overnight!
The Heart of Acadia
Acadia was the first national park set aside from exclusively private lands. Wealthy benefactors established a public land trust in 1901 in response to threats of overlogging and other environmental scourges feared by the prominent families who’d established vacation homes on MDI. In 1916, the 5,000-acre Sieur de Monts National Monument was created through cooperation between the trust and the U.S. and French governments. When national park status was granted in 1919, it was renamed Lafayette. A decade later, another renaming labeled it Acadia, a native word meaning “Land of Plenty” and also the name of the first permanent French settlement in North America. Today, it has grown to over 49,000 acres of protected lands.
Armed with some knowledge of the area’s history and a good night’s rest, we embarked upon a full day of touring the park’s better-known areas via the 27-mile Park Loop Road, which meanders through the more visited eastern half of the park. The famous Precipice Trail is a nearly 1,000-foot vertical and exposed climb up the face of Champlain Mountain labeled “strenuous.” With a rambunctious young son and little safety gear, we skipped it. But, the southeastern point of MDI contains a truly pleasurable hike down to a sand beach, one of the few nonrocky beaches on MDI. After reaching and crossing the beach, we continued along the Great Head Trail, which is steep and challenging in places, but never more than moderately difficult. The views gained when reaching the heights of this rocky headland were well worth the exertion required and proved to make for a great morning excursion. A short distance further, a wayside stop at Thunder Hole was crowded, but picturesque, even though the calm conditions prevented the buildup of trapped air in the narrow channel from making its thunderous escape. So, we pressed on to the 100-foot-tall pink granite cliffs of Otter Point. Further down the Loop Road, we stopped at the Jordan Pond House – site of the only restaurant within the park boundary. Always a popular lunch spot, the nearly perfect warm and calm conditions made dining on the lawn preferable, with its ample seating and amazing view of Jordan Pond and the glacier-scarred Bubble Mountains beyond. Be sure to partake of the local fare they’ve been famous for serving since the 1890s: flaky and delicious popovers with jam and Maine-blueberry infused teas and lemonades (all worth the cheat-day from your low-carb, low-sugar diet). After overstuffing ourselves, the trails and pathways along the shores of Jordan Pond proved the perfect antidote. At 1.2 miles long, up to 150-feet deep and covering 187 acres, it is certainly not your typical pond! Jordan’s pristine, clear waters and breathtaking vistas encourage you to keep moving just to see what views are hiding around the next bend.
No tour of Acadia or MDI would be complete without a visit to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, either via the curvaceous Cadillac Mountain Road or one of the many hiking trails that converge at the peak (some many miles in length). Cadillac’s views down upon MDI and Acadia are all-encompassing, offering a true panorama of the entire area. While a mere 1,530 feet above sea level, no higher peak along the Atlantic coast exists in the U.S. With parking near the top, the views can be enjoyed while strolling the paved walking path that encircles the peak, offering great photo opportunities in every direction. Unfortunately, over the near century that crowds have flocked to this pinnacle, they’ve not always been good stewards of it. Be sure to stay on-trail to avoid contributing to the already extensive loss of soil and vegetation. Careless tourists have put several rare plants at the mountaintop into a threatened status. For any disappointment the calm conditions caused at Thunder Hole, the sedate winds were welcome atop Cadillac’s exposed peak.
Departures and Returns
Acadia National Park offers more to do and see than can realistically be accomplished in a single visit. One must select which of the 125 miles of hiking trails to enjoy (and which match your fitness and equipment levels). If you prefer biking or horseback riding, you can thank famous American millionaire and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller. Fearing the park would be overrun by automobiles, he began having narrow stone carriage roads built in 1913. Eventually, they stretched 45 miles through the park and across 17 bridges made from local granite and cobblestones. He also donated more than 10,000 acres for the park. If swimming or water activities are more your thing, there are several ocean beaches and fresh-water valley lakes to enjoy, though they remain cool, even in the hottest months. For us, any return visit would hopefully include some carriage road biking and exploration of the Schoodic Peninsula and some of the minor islands.
When your time in Acadia does expire, the drive back to the airport is fairly short – even if you chose the more distant Bangor versus Bar Harbor. At either locale, a quick call to the FBO can have your aircraft fueled, awaiting your arrival. Conveniently, rental cars can be returned at the FBO as well. Departure procedures are as straightforward as arrival options. As with STARs, no Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs) are published (with the exception of the simple, radar vectored Bangor 3 SID out of BGR). Although, you should note there are several published Obstacles Departure Procedures (ODPs) for BHB (see Figure 2). While Maine’s Down East is certainly not as mountainous as the Rockies, it is also a far cry from the Central Plains. ODPs are published for many area runways and care should be given to comply accordingly. Even with the specific procedures the ODPs require, with typical King Air turbine performance you’ll be above the highest obstructions in short order. Whatever your route home, you’ll likely spend much of it mulling your Acadia experiences and contemplating a return trip.
Copyright 2019, Matthew McDaniel.
First publication rights granted to Village Press, for King Air magazine. All other rights reserved by copyright holder.