Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hike – Cadillac Mountain, South Ridge

Close-up of the Featherbed
Cadillac Mountain is the highest point in Acadia National Park in Maine.  It is also the highest mountain on the Atlantic Ocean anywhere north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In the Fall and Winter it is the first place in the U.S. that sees the sunrise.  It has a free auto road that allows people to drive right to the top.  It also has multiple hiking trails to the summit.  Some are more challenging than others.  This post describes a hike up the South Ridge trail, the longest trail, but also the easiest.  It also describes a walk from the top of Cadillac Mountain all the way to the sea.

Directions – There are two different places to start this hike.  There is a trailhead in the Blackwoods Campground that leads you through the woods to Route 3.  There is then parking and a trailhead on Route 3 itself.  Unless you are staying at Blackwoods Campground I recommend starting at Route 3.  There is no parking available at the trailhead in the campground and starting at Route 3 shortens the hike for those concerned about the length.  If you get back down to where you started and decide you want to do the whole trail you can then hike across to Blackwoods and come back in order to complete the entire hike.

To start from Route 3 park in the wide dirt section on the right of the highway just after the entrance to Blackwoods Campground.  This is coming from Bar Harbor.  If you are driving the other way on Route 3 the parking will be on the left of the highway just before the entrance to Blackwoods.

The trail naturally breaks into three sections: Route 3 to the Eagle's Crag, the Eagle's Crag to the Featherbed, and then the Featherbed to the summit.  These are roughly equidistant sections.

Route 3 to the Eagle's Crag - This is approximately a mile in length.  It is completely wooded for the entire length.  It rises gradually and is an easy hike.  It took me less than 30 minutes to get to the Eagle's Crag.

At about a mile in you will come to a split in the trail.  Signs for the Eagle's Crag will point you to the right.  Take this trail.  This will lead you out onto a rock ledge (the Eagle's Crag) that gives you the first views to the ocean.  You have not gained a lot of elevation yet, so the views are not comparable to seaside peaks such as Gorham Mountain, the Beehive, or Champlain Mountain.  There is also tree growth that hindered the view some.  It is a hint of what is to come, though.

The Eagle's Crag to the Featherbed - You do not need to retrace your steps back to the original trail.  You can continue off the back of the Eagle's Crag on a trail that connects back onto the South Ridge Trail a little north of where you left it.  When you come to this junction, head right to continue up the South Ridge Trail.

This section is still wooded for a while.  You will hike over two small hills.  The second hill looks down upon the Featherbed - a small pond that has formed between the hill and Cadillac Mountain's upper section. By this point the views will have opened up and you can see for more distance.  You will have to hike down about 100 feet to reach the Featherbed.  There is a bench where you can sit and rest or just relax and look at the water.  Two other trails meet here.  The one coming from the left would eventually take you to Jordan Pond.  The one coming from the right would connect you to trails for Dorr Mountain.  There were 8-10 people that had collected here at the Featherbed.

Just north of the Featherbed on the South Ridge Trail.  The ocean is in the distance.

The Featherbed to the Summit - This section starts with an immediate elevation change up and away from the Featherbed.  This is probably the quickest, sustained elevation gain of the entire hike.  After a few hundred feet up, though, it eases back to a long, gradual rise until just short of the summit.

You will now be hiking over exposed ledge so make sure you watch for the cairns to stay on the trail.  The view back behind you is now unimpeded all the way to the ocean.

As you continue upward you will come to one final trail that connects in - the West Face Trail.  This is the shortest, steepest way to get to the summit of Cadillac.  It comes in from the left and from this point both trails combine for the remainder of the hike.

You will come very near the auto road that goes to the summit.  At this point the trail has a couple of small, sharp rises requiring your hands (one is 6 - 8 feet and another is 20-30 feet.)  In between these you will drop about 50 feet in elevation and come to a maintenance road.  Cross over it to continue the trail.  The trail ends up coming out on a second maintenance road beside the tourist store that is at the end of the auto road.

There are bathrooms and water fountains at the store.  You can buy food, snacks, and drinks inside, along with any number of "touristy" things.  You can also walk over to the boardwalk to join with the sightseers who drove to the top. 

There is a loop "trail" that has been built near the summit.  It consists of a quarter mile of boardwalk and crushed stone that you can follow.  It starts from either side of the viewing area and drops down the mountain towards the views.  This can be an interesting little walk and it gets you away from some of the crowds that are at the top.  You can also get some different angles for photos from this boardwalk.

Note that at this time you have not actually summitted Cadillac.  The viewing area is not built on the true summit.  You can find that up in back of the store.

Just at the point where you started downhill on the maintenance road toward the store, and while facing towards the store, head off the road to your left.  Keep an eye out for a couple sets of ledge that rise from the top of the hill.  Go over to them and you will see metal disks set into them.  The further of the two indicates the true summit and elevation (1,532 feet.)

When you want to start back down you can avoid the last small sections where you had to scramble over some quick rises.  You can instead choose to walk down the auto road a couple tenths of a mile to a scenic overlook.  A worn path leads left off the auto road back to the South Ridge Trail.  It connects where you found yourself closest to the auto road on the hike up.  You could also use this to skip by the last few scrambles on the South Ridge Trail on the way up.

To get back to where you started the hike, simply follow the same trail all the way to the branch trail for the Eagle's Crag.  Unless you want to visit it again, just stay on the main trail.  You will shortly go past the trail you originally took to the Eagle's Crag and then you have one mile through the forest back to where you started.

You now have two options - call it a day or decide to do the section to the trailhead in Blackwoods Campground.  I decided I would go for a third option - get all the way to sea level and touch the ocean.  This was perhaps not the wisest choice on a hot day, but it was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Of all the trails that lead to the top of Cadillac only one, the South Ridge Trail, comes out anywhere near the ocean.  On the way down I had decided that this was a great opportunity to walk from the highest point on the island to the lowest.

I therefore walked across Route 3 to continue to the Blackwoods Campground trailhead.  This was a relatively level walk through the woods, over roots and rocks.  It came out onto a paved road in the campground.  It was about seven tenths of a mile from Route 3.

I had expected that there was a way to get to the Park Loop Road from the campground, but I had to ask some campers how to get to it.  I took a right from the trailhead and walked around the perimeter of the campground on a paved road.  Several other roads connected in to this one from the left, but I stayed on the perimeter road.  I eventually came to a dirt road leading off to the right.  This was a maintenance road that connected to the Park Loop Road.  I picked up speed as I figured my goal was close at hand.  I walked across the Park Loop Road on a painted crosswalk, stepped through some trees and saw the ocean - 75 feet below me down a sheer cliff.  It was one that I would not have been able to get down even if I hadn't just hiked nine miles.

I made my way back and forth over the rocks looking for a way down, but finally decided there was no way to get to the water from here.  I knew that the Park Loop Road came to a sharp turn at Otter Cove, which was to the north of where I was standing.  What I didn't know was how far it was to reach that point.  I had only ever driven the Park Loop Road.

There was no way I was going to give up now with my goal so close.  I still had plenty of water since I had filled up at the summit.  I also rationalized that I wouldn't have to walk all the way to Otter Cove; that logically the shoreline would drop as I got closer to it and that I ought to be able to find a way down somewhere along the way.

I walked for what felt like a mile, but was really about half that.  I tried here and there to make my way down to the water, but had to stop each time.  I had to avoid the occasional poison ivy plants. 

I finally reached a spot where there was a little dirt beside the road, as if a car parked there periodically.  I took a closer look and saw a steep dirt path leading down to some rocks.  I decided to try it.  I had to use my hands to grab trees to ensure I didn't lose my balance, but I made it.

As I came out on the rocks I saw a small shack that had seemingly washed up on the shore.  There were No Trespassing signs on the doors and windows, though, so perhaps someone came there to fish and that is why there was the dirt shoulder and path.

I stepped carefully over about 40 feet of wet rocks and finally achieved my goal of walking to sea level.  I reached down into the ocean and used the water to cool off my arms and legs.  There was no dry place to sit, though, so after all that I didn't stay more than a few minutes before turning around to leave.

I now faced a steep scramble up over the dirt path to the Park Loop Road, a walk back uphill to get to the dirt maintenance road, a walk up this road to the Blackwoods Campground paved road and then a walk uphill to the trail head.  It's funny how I never noticed all those were downhill when I was first walking them.

I finished my hike "from the mountains to the sea" by crossing back across to Route 3 to my car and the additional water that I had in it.  I was also quite happy to be able to finally sit down and rest my legs.

So, was it worth it?  I feel it was.  I'll probably never be in a situation like that again, with both the opportunity and the desire to see it through to the end.  I am glad that I accomplished it.

(You can read about hiking up Cadillac via the North Ridge Trail here, via the West Face Trail here, and via the east side Gorge Path here.)

Basic Hike:

Cumulative distance:             7.4 miles
Cumulative elevation gain:   1,460 feet
Cumulative duration:            3-4 hours (including time for photos and summit activities)

Full South Ridge Trail Hike:

Cumulative distance:             8.8 miles
Cumulative elevation gain:   1,460 feet
Cumulative duration:            4 hours (including time for photos and summit activities)

“From the mountain to the sea” Hike:

Cumulative distance:             10.5 miles
Cumulative elevation gain:   1,660 feet
Cumulative duration:            5 hours (including time for photos and summit activities)

Acadia National Park Trail Guide


  1. Thanks very much for the great description of the southern trail of Cadillac Mountain! My son and I hiked the face of the "Beehive" yesterday and it was very difficult, not to mention terrifying! We would like to do the Cadillac Mountain hike but didn't want do do another heart-stopping hike, and it doesn't sound like Cadillac Mountain would be that way. Your detailed description is perfect, and I think we'll do the hike tomorrow. Much appreciation,

    1. Thank you for the kind words. As you probably know by now, this hike is much less difficult and terrifying than the Beehive. Other than the length, it's the easiest way to hike up Cadillac. I hope you enjoyed it.

      I've written about some other hikes in Acadia here that you also might be interested in. You can find them in the "Index of Hikes" link in the upper right.

  2. My family and I made the hike today and your post was invaluable. Thank you.

    1. I'm glad I was able to help. Thanks for letting me know.