Autumn in Acadia is prime time and place for enjoying the Pine Tree State's beauty

August 21, 1994|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to The Sun

Autumn sweeps over coastal Maine like a magic wand, waving away the summer people and returning the craggy inlets, misty mountains and quiet offshore islands to the residents.

And to us.

We think of Maine in October as our Maine and have made an annual one-week pilgrimage to Acadia National Park, a treasure trove of mountain hiking trails, woodsy bicycle paths, and

stunning coastal drives. Scout around and you'll find harbor seals, whales and puffins, in addition to abundant deer and herring gulls.

The Northeast's only national park, Acadia sprawls over 54 square miles of 108-square-mile Mount Desert (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable) Island, a lobster-claw-shaped region that bulges out into the Atlantic Ocean about three-quarters of the way up Maine's Atlantic coast. The island is split nearly in half by beautiful Somes Sound, the only natural fiord (a seaway lined by mountains) in the continental United States.

Acadia is one of the nation's smallest national parks, but, like San Francisco, its compactness makes it all the more accessible. It is, in fact,the second most visited national park after Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee: 4.5 million visitors toured Acadia in 1993.

Weaving though the park are 51 miles of gravel carriage trails built at the beginning of the century by J. D. Rockefeller Jr., who was outraged by the introduction of the tranquillity-shattering automobile in 1915. He laid out $2 million for these horse-and-buggy paths through the woods as an antidote to the car and made them available to his friends, who spent summers in the region seeking Maine's sensual solitude. (Rockefeller later donated one-third of the land for the national park, which included his beloved carriage trails.)

Today, commercially operated carriage rides are available, but the paths mainly are used by walkers and cyclists, who appreciate the gradual grading. There are some 13 hand-cut stone bridges over the paths; the ride through the woods and under the bridges is a splendidly serene.

In summer, the boutiques, cafes and bed-and-breakfast inns of tony little Bar Harbor (the base for most Acadia visitors) and the cheap motels and steamy lobster stands along the route to town draw millions of tourists -- "people from away," as Mainers call anyone not from the Pine Tree State and even some natives short on ancestral roots here.

But come September, poof, they're gone. Many of the island's inns and restaurants close down at the end of October, but for those two precious months between Labor Day and Halloween, Acadia is both full-service and untrammeled. Even in high season, however, the 120 miles of hiking trails never seem

crowded. The throngs drive the 22-mile Park Loop Road, taking in the mountain, lake and sea views from open windows and leaving the open wilds to the rusticators, as Mainers call everyone from a weekend woods-walker to a mountain biker.

Getting to Acadia really is half the fun. While the closest airports are in Bar Harbor (a five-minute drive from the park) and Bangor (an hour away), we prefer to fly into Portland, some three hours south.

A mini-San Francisco, Portland is surrounded on three sides by the deep blue sea. Our routine is to rent a car at the city's diminutive airport and head north to Acadia along U.S. 1, which is, for the most part, a pretty, coastal span, though it can get quite crowded on weekends.

The three-hour drive northeast takes us through the windjammer resorts of Boothbay Harbor, Camden and Rockland, and past Freeport, home of L. L. Bean, the outfitter that's open 24 hours a day year-round.

If we're in the mood, we detour to Monhegan Island, a land of high rocky cliffs, crashing surf, inland forests, and artists' studios just 10 miles offshore via mail boat from Port Clyde.

But Acadia's the heart of our quest, and the closer we get, turning off U.S. 1 at Ellsworth, then south to Mount Desert Island on narrow state Route 3, the more overpowering our sense of anticipation. We lose our cool completely and break into unrestrained cheers when we see the first lobster pound.

The colors in autumn are no less than breathtaking. The cool wind seems to scour the mountains and sea of the summer haze, turning everything crisp and bright; at times the scenery seems more like an idyllic painting than real life.

Weather doesn't matter

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