Mountains shape Acadia National Park and, of course, Mount Desert Island. Most visitors approach MDI from the north, and the familiar Champlain Mountain-west-to-Bernard Mountain skyline dominates the horizon. Sailors and Cranberry Isles residents enjoy a 180-degree view, naturally, a view that I would argue surpasses the Million Dollar View from Route 1 in Sullivan — at least when fog doesn’t roll across Eastern Way.
Avid Acadia hikers have their favorite summertime mountain trails. I like the Parkman Mountain-to-Bald Peak jaunt (“wow-wee” views across Upper Hadlock Pond), South Bubble Trail, and Pemetic Mountain Trail. Many hikers — and I really can’t disagree — claim the South Ridge Trail on Cadillac Mountain as their favorite Acadia ascent.
Hike this trail this summer to find out why. The 3.5-mile South Ridge Trail ascends Cadillac’s southern spine and provides, particularly past the treeline, stunning views of earth, sea, and sky.
The trail starts at a sign post located on Route 3, diagonally across from the Blackwoods Campground entrance. Set beside granite steps, the sign informs hikers that the Cadillac summit awaits them 3.5 miles away.
For the next 0.9 miles, the trail climbs gradually — almost imperceptibly — while winding across roots, dry terrain, and the occasional muck. In a shaded glen, the trail reaches a weather-beaten sign post directing hikers “straight” to the Cadillac summit or “right” 0.1 miles to the Eagle’s Crag.
Turn right. The trail climbs abruptly and emerges onto granite ledges jutting from the tree-covered South Ridge.
The Eagle’s Crag provides physically unhindered views across MDI’s eastern peaks — Huguenot, Champlain, Beehive, and Gorham — to Frenchman Bay and Schoodic Point. Otter Creek Valley lies below and Otter Creek Cove and Otter Point to seaward.
The Eagle’s Crag Trail edges north along the ledges and intersects the South Ridge Trail at a four-sign post. From here, the trail rolls relentlessly northward across expansive granite ledges abutted by stubbly jack pines.
These aesthetically “cute” trees block most views, except where open ledges extend westward to reveal Pemetic’s forested south ridge matching Cadillac almost foot for foot in elevational gain. Look backward occasionally to enjoy southerly views extending across The Triad and Day Mountain to Eastern Way and the Cranberry Isles.
Cairns and painted blue blazes identify the South Ridge Trail as it rises toward the blue summer sky. Higher up, the ledges widen, and views reach across MDI’s Quietside to Swans Island, Frenchboro, and distant Isle au Haut. Now a hiker glimpses Cadillac’s physically imposing heights through the trees, and views open northward through Bubble Pond Valley.
Then occurs what I call The Moment: The South Ridge Trail reaches a spot where Cadillac suddenly dominates the northern horizon, where a hiker stops and thinks, “Wow!” The earlier, fantastic views south, west, and east really do not compare with the geological wonder flowing north across three discernible humps to a fourth hump, where teeny-tiny humans stand on Cadillac’s actual summit.
The South Ridge Trail now rises along Dike’s Peak, named for the faded gray basalt dike laid down when a volcano rumbled beneath Cadillac eons ago. The mountain briefly falls away, especially to westward, as the trail reaches an overlook above The Featherbed.
Three cirques, freshwater ponds left by retreating glaciers, nestle among Acadia’s eastern peaks. The Bowl nestles behind The Beehive, and Sargent Mountain Pond (allegedly frequented by skinny-dippers) lies in the col between Penobscot and Sargent mountains.
The Featherbed is Cadillac’s cirque. Descending to the pond where frogs croak in summer, the trail intersects the Canon Brook and Pond trails before seriously attacking the last 1.2 miles north to the Cadillac summit.
Views open westward across Eagle Lake, and Dorr Mountain gradually dominates the eastern horizon. At 0.5 miles from the summit, the South Ridge Trail intersects the rugged West Face Trail and angles northeast for the home stretch.
Of the trail’s 3.5-mile length, the last half mile teases and threatens. The Blue Hill Overlook sign jutting above the trees suggests an easy jaunt to the top. However, en route the South Ridge Trail assaults a knoll accessed by the trail’s only iron rung, which eases a 7-to-8-foot vertical climb over pink granite ledges.
Southbound on the South Ridge Trail, a woman fell and died here a few years ago. Considering this fact, the ease with which the trail could be relocated to parallel the road, and the eroded descent awaiting hikers on the knoll’s eastern face, I always wonder why the National Park Service does not bypass this dangerous section.
Atop the knoll, the trail crosses ledges adjacent to the Cadillac Mountain Road and turns east to descend behind the gift shop and emerge beside a sign post indicating that Blackwoods Campground lies 4.2 miles “that away.”
Finish the hike by walking to the actual summit. Enjoy the northerly views unavailable along the South Ridge Trail.
I recommend arranging for a car-driving friend or relative to meet a hiker at the Cadillac summit. Round-trip hikers should follow the Cadillac Mountain Road back to the Blue Hill Overlook and work their way past the knoll to the trail. Do not climb down over the iron rung.
Caption: Hikers ascending the South Ridge Trail on Cadillac Mountain (above) pass a cirque called The Featherbed (above, right) and reach a point where the Cadillac summit appears on the horizon (right).