Maine’s Acadia National Park was the first national park east of the Mississippi River, and while it might not be as renowned as some of its Western brethren, it’s every bit as spectacular.
1. Most of Acadia National Park Sits on Mount Desert Island.
While the park extends to some surrounding islands and a peninsula, the bulk of the park is on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine. The park is known for its incredible, lush vegetation; however, the “desert” part of its name makes some sense when you know the history. Famed French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed by the island in 1604, noticed the bare, rocky tops of its mountains, and gave it the French name L'Isle des Monts Déserts, or “the island of barren mountains.” When this name migrated into English, it became Mount Desert Island.
2. Two men helped bring Acadia National Park to life.
In the 19th century, wealthy East Coast residents realized Mount Desert Island was an ideal vacation destination. Many of them started building opulent, mansion-like “cottages” on the island. Harvard president Charles W. Eliot was one of these “cottagers,” and his son, a landscape architect also named Charles, was a fan of the island as well. The younger Eliot died when he was just 38, but not before passionately advocating for the state of Maine to preserve its coastal areas against encroaching commercialism.
Charles W. Eliot heeded his late son’s words and sprang into action in 1901 by forming the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations to buy up local wilderness lands and maintain them for public use. One of Eliot’s key recruits was George Bucknam Dorr, an island resident who became so committed to the cause that he would later be known as “the father of Acadia National Park.”
3. Almost all of Acadia National Park's land came from private donations.
In Dorr, Eliot found the perfect point man for preserving the island. Dorr spent decades buying up available parcels of land with his own money and convincing other wealthy landowners to donate their own tracts for preservation. By 1913, it was clear that to preserve their work, Dorr, Eliot, and their allies would need the help of the federal government. In 1916, the land—which had become an irregularly shaped plot that wrapped around tracts that were still in private hands—became a national monument.
Even after getting this monument status for the project, Dorr continued spending his inheritance and coaxing other landowners to donate property. Thanks to these efforts, the park kept on growing. Eventually, it would grow to over 35,000 acres with another 12,000 acres of private land managed by the National Park Service under conservation easements.
4. Acadia National Park has had other names.
The park has had three official names, all of them sporting heavy French influences. When the park opened on July 8, 1916, it was called Sieur de Monts National Monument. This name reflected the impact of Pierre Dugua, Sieur du Monts, a French nobleman and colonist who served as the early 17th-century lieutenant governor of New France. While Dugua’s title remains on a spring within the park, when the area became a national park on February 26, 1919, it took the name Lafayette National Park in a nod to the Marquis de Lafayette. On January 19, 1929, the name again switched to Acadia National Park, a callback to the 17th- and 18th-century French colony of the same name that included the park’s land.
5. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. made a lasting contribution to Acadia National Park.
Rockefeller was one of the most generous donors to the park. The oil heir and philanthropist eventually contributing 11,000 acres of land. His bigger impact, though, came from designing, funding, and overseeing the creation of an intricate system of carriage roads that crisscrossed the island. Rockefeller wanted to be able to traverse the island without interference from cars, and the 45 miles of carriage roads he helped create between 1913 and 1940 gave visitors an easy way to enjoy all the beauty the island had to offer.
6. John D. Rockefeller left his “teeth” on Mount Desert Island.
Rockefeller’s meticulously designed and landscaped carriage roads contain several notable features, including cedar signposts and striking stone bridges. Perhaps the most memorable are the large coping stones that serve as the roads’ answer to guardrails. These massive, irregularly shaped and arranged blocks of granite are nicknamed “Rockefeller’s teeth.”
7. The roads at Acadia National Park had to be reclaimed from the wilderness.
Rockefeller maintained the roads until his death in 1960, at which point the National Park Service took on the massive task of keeping the network clear. As worker availability and funding became tight, road maintenance fell by the wayside, and by the mid-1980s, Rockefeller’s byways had become overgrown. Luckily, Friends of Acadia and the park service teamed up for an $8 million restoration project, and today the roads are again enjoyed by horseback riders, hikers, cyclists, and other outdoorsy types.
8. A fire gutted Acadia National Park in 1947.
Picturesque Mount Desert Island suffered a crushing blow in late October 1947 when a fire sparked following months of drought. The wildfire quickly spread, and by the time it was finally extinguished, it had engulfed 10,000 acres of Acadia and millions of dollars’ worth of local residences and businesses.
But it takes more than fire to keep a good park down. Locals rebuilt their homes, and many of the sprawling estates of 19th-century vacationers gave way to amenities for parkgoers. Nature took its course, and trees quickly began growing again. The National Park Service explains that while the island’s forests have seen their composition change with birch and aspen replacing pre-fire mainstays like spruce and fir, these evergreens will gradually work their way back into the mix.
9. Acadia National Park has the highest view on the East Coast.
One of the park’s peaks, Cadillac Mountain, is the East Coast’s tallest mountain. At 1530 feet, it offers incredible views from its pink granite summit. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, if you want to find a higher peak on the Atlantic coast, you’d have to trek all the way down to Rio de Janeiro. You can hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain via a variety of trails, or take a winding drive to the summit.
10. Acadia National Park is a great place to spot a bird of prey.
Cadillac Mountain may be tall, but it’s not too tall for raptors that migrate south for the winter. From August through early October, birdwatchers, rangers, and volunteers team up for Hawk Watch to monitor and count the birds flying through the region. As Friends of Acadia notes, these watchers typically spot around 2900 birds a year, so if you’ve been curious about what a peregrine looks like mid-flight, Acadia is the place for you.
11. Acadia National Park is a great place to see fall foliage.
Everyone from U.S. News & World Report to the National Park Service itself says October is an ideal month to visit Acadia. The summer crowds have thinned out, but the fall foliage is becoming spectacular. The Park Service says the autumn leaves reach their zenith in mid-October, but if you’re in the leaf-peeping mood, you can always track the state of the local trees with the state of Maine’s official fall foliage website.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.