BAR HARBOR, Maine — Thank you National Park Service. From the bottom of my spokes to the top of my seat post, thank you.
I had honestly thought I had seen Acadia National Park in every way possible — from hiking on Cadillac to driving its scenic byways to even taking a sail plane ride to view from above.
But all it took was two days and two wheels to prove to me the best way to view Acadia’s rock bound coast and shadowed woodlands is atop a bicycle.
Last year, Bicycling Magazine included the 27-mile Park Loop Road in the best cycling route in Maine as part of what the publication dubbed the Cadillac Challenge Loop.
“Pedal these 98 winding miles through Acadia National Park and you’ll pass rocky cliffs, secluded coves and lighthouses, [and] climb up 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain, the park’s high point and the first spot in the United States to catch rays from the rising sun.”
What the magazine did not include was the fact that, in a normal year, cyclists share the narrow, two-lane park road with hundreds of vehicles coming from all over North America by tourists who help make Acadia National Park one of the top 10 most visited national parks in the country.
But this month, in a sort of “making lemonade out of lemons” move, NPS made the unprecedented move of delaying the opening of the Park Loop Road by a month to vehicular traffic, but allowing cyclists free reign of close to 30 miles of traffic-free pavement.
I suspect that when I die and pedal my way in through the Pearly Gates, heaven is going to look a great deal like that Park Loop Road.
“Bicyclists are the clear beneficiaries of a decision by park management to keep certain motor roads closed to automobiles during this month long period due to budget cuts forced by the federal sequester,” according to a statement released by the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “The ability to pedal portions of the Loop Road or Cadillac Summit Road this late in the spring without vehicular traffic is unprecedented.”
The moment we learned of the decision to open the park to cyclists only from April 15-May 15, my two best cycling friends and I knew the opportunity of a lifetime was before us.
So, last weekend we loaded up three bikes, helmets, jerseys, gloves and enough energy snacks to see us through the Tour de France, and we headed south.
There are several access points to the park — all but one gated off at this time of year — and we decided to park at the end of Otter Cliff Road and begin our adventure there.
Turns out, that access point is at the bottom of a 10-and-a-half-mile, category five hill ending at the entrance to the Cadillac Summit Road.
Cyclists love to talk about hills in terms of “categories.” At some point, a group of individuals within the International Cycling Union figured it would be a good idea to rate climbs based on elevation gain and distance on an ascending scale of difficulty from five to one, with one being the most challenging.
My friend,Penny McHatten — who was on this trip — however, believes the climbs are actually rated by fat old men sitting in a back room chuckling maniacally as they smoke cigars.
Either way, a “cat 5” may be the easiest of the rated climbs, but after spending 10 solid miles conquering that ascent, my quads had a few things to say — none of them particularly pleasant.
But we did conquer it, and it was worth it.
“After those climbs, the views were awesome,” McHatten said. “But I could have gotten a postcard if all I was after was the view. Having a road dedicated just to cyclists is a dream for everyone on a sunny day.”
And the best part about that climb? The descent down the other side.
Flying down that hill on my road bike purchased at the end of last season [and which I had spent all winter admiring] was like flying. Trees rushed past as we sped in and out of shady spots on the road. Ponds glistened in the sun. Eventually, we shot up another hill, and there was the Gulf of Maine in all its glory laid out in front of us.
Cruising along the last couple of miles back to Otter Cliffs, we saw an ambulance and rescue crew just packing in from responding to an incident at Precipice Trail, not far from the park’s main entrance.
Soon after, several cars passed by us and we grew very annoyed by what we surmised were opportunists driving into the part through the gate opened for the ambulance.
When the fifth car started to pass, I could not contain my annoyance and commented that, for this month at least, the road belonged to two wheels.
The driver, who really was very nice, rolled down his window and pointed out, quite correctly it turns out, that the mile or so between the main entrance and Thunder Hole is, in fact, open to traffic right now.
My bad. So, riders do need to take note there are cars out and about accessing two of the park’s most popular attractions. They need also be aware metal gates are closed at certain points along the loop and must be walked around.
The next day, Penny deferred from cycling, but my friend Alan Jenkins and I headed back for one last ride.
While I took the opportunity to capture some Maine coast photos and engage in some hill-repeat workouts — basically riding up and over the same hill several times, a task somehow made easier by those amazing park views — Alan opted to ride his bike up the Cadillac Summit Road.
Even for him, a stellar hill climber, the road was a challenge, but, he said, worth every single pedal stroke after he found himself alone at the summit with a 360-degree view of the island.
He may have been alone on the summit, but none of us were alone on the Park Loop Road which we shared with dozens of cyclists of all ages and abilities from hardcore road riders on racing machines to families and children cruising along on hybrid or mountain bikes.
The road is open to cyclists during the summer season, but keep in mind there is traffic.
One resident of Bar Harbor with whom I spoke said anyone wishing to bike the loop in season is well advised to do so before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. when traffic tends to be ligthter.
In the meantime, with two weeks left of bicycles-only on the Park Loop Road, I recommend everyone who owns a bike to pull it out, pump up the tires, lube the chain and get out there.
The park service has given us an amazing gift, we owe it to them to take full advantage of it.
Information on the Park Loop Road and Acadia National Park is availabel on the website http://www.barharborinfo.com/events/bike_in_acadia/