Trails: North Ridge and Cadillac Mountain Loop Trails
Hike Location: Acadia National ParkGeographic Location: south of Bar Harbor, ME (44.37949, -68.23227)Length: 5.1 milesDifficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)Last Hiked: July 2019Overview: A rocky, occasionally steep out-and-back with short loop to the summit of Cadillac Mountain.Park Information: Route Map: Highlight:
Directions to the trailhead: This trailhead is most easily accessed using the Island Explorer shuttle bus. From the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, ride either the Jordan Pond route or the Loop Road route to the North Ridge shuttle stop, which is the trailhead for this hike.
The hike: For my introduction to Acadia National Park, see my hike at the park’s Beech Mountain. With an elevation of 1530 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the highest and perhaps most popular point in Acadia National Park. The mountain’s popularity is partly due to its accessibility: the 3.5 mile Cadillac Mountain Summit Road allows visitors to drive to the summit’s fantastic views. Also, due to Cadillac Mountain’s elevation and its location on the east coast, for most of the year the first rays of sunlight to strike the United States hit the top of Cadillac Mountain. Thus, hiking or driving up the mountain in the dark and timing your summit arrival to coincide with daybreak has become a traditional activity for Acadia visitors. Geographically speaking, Cadillac Mountain consists of an oblong lump of granite that runs from north to south. Thus, of the multiple hiking trails that lead to the mountain’s summit, the harder trails ascend the mountain’s steep east and west sides while the easier ones ascend the more gradual north and south sides. Although the vast majority of visitors drive to the summit, hiking to the summit provides the opportunity to earn your views and allows you to get up close and personal with the mountain’s rocky environment.Two classic hiking routes make their way to the summit: the 2.2 mile North Ridge Trail and the 3.5 mile South Ridge Trail. Because the summit road also ascends the north side of the mountain, many experts view the South Ridge Trail as the preferred route of ascent for hikers. Nevertheless, the North Ridge Trail described here has several advantages: it is more than a mile shorter each way, it has 400 fewer feet of elevation gain, and its trailhead is served directly by the park’s shuttle busses. Also, the nearby summit road can serve as a bailout option if the trail proves too steep and rocky. Truth be told, I hiked up the mountain on the North Ridge Trail and hiked back down along the summit road.

Trailhead at North Ridge shuttle stop

From the North Ridge shuttle stop, the single track dirt trail heads into the forest on an eastward course. After several hundred feet of gradual climbing, you reach the shoulder of the Park Loop Road where the Kebo Brook Trail exits left. Angle right to cross the road and reach the official beginning of the North Ridge Trail.The grade intensifies as the trail alternates between exposed rock outcrops and shady pine forest. Blue rectangular paint blazes mark the trail, as do some interesting rock cairns. Each cairn consists of three rocks, one long flat rock placed atop two shorter rocks that act as support pillars. Take care not to knock over the cairns, and also refrain from building new cairns that might confuse hikers who come after you.

Climbing the north ridge

At 0.5 miles, the grade eases but the rockiness continues as you top a small knob some maps call Great Pond Hill. 1 mile into the hike, the summit road comes close on the right for the first time as you get your first clear eastward view toward the Atlantic Ocean. Next the grade intensifies again, and perhaps the hardest part of the climb ensues. This part of the trail becomes a creek after a heavy rain, and the terrain is both steep and rocky.

Climbing on rocky trail

Just shy of 1.5 miles, you leave the shady pine forest for good and break out onto the open rock ledges. You will need to use your hands to get up some of these ledges, and the sunny bare granite was scorching hot on the late morning in late July that I hiked here. The top of the first ledge offers an expansive view to the east. The summit road comes close on the right again, and a small parking area near this spot ensures that plenty of drivers from the summit road also come here.More jagged ledges will need to be scrambled over, and some slickrock granite will need to be clambered up as the North Ridge Trail continues to climb. At 2.3 miles, the trail comes out at the summit area near where the summit road enters the summit parking lot. To tour the summit area, angle left and walk through the parking lot to reach the start of the paved Cadillac Mountain Loop Trail. Head southeast from the parking lot to begin a counterclockwise trip around the summit loop trail.

View at Cadillac Mountain summit

Throughout the loop unimpeded views can be had to the east and southeast. The views were fantastic on my 2019 visit, but on my 2004 visit the summit was covered by clouds. The trail descends slightly from the summit to a point that offers a great view down Cadillac Mountain’s south ridge. As you continue around the loop, Dorr and Champlain Mountains rise below you and to the east, and Bar Harbor comes into view to the northeast.

Looking down Cadillac Mountain's south ridge

View over Bar Harbor

At 2.7 miles, you finish the Cadillac Mountain Loop Trail and return to the summit parking area. Now all that remains is to get back down. The shuttle busses do not run to the Cadillac Mountain summit, and the shortest route to a shuttle stop is to retrace your steps back down the North Ridge Trail. For a longer and harder route, you could descend one of the other trails such as the South Ridge Trail. If you have had enough of scrambling over rocky ledges, you could walk back down the summit road, but this option will mean constant dodging of cars. Whichever way you go down, the views going down are just as good as they were coming up.