Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hike – Cadillac Mountain, West Face

West Face of Cadillac over Bubble Pond
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 West Face Trail, the hardest and most dangerous way to summit Cadillac.  It also describes a loop down part of the South Ridge trail, down the Canyon Brook trail, and back along a carriage road to the starting point at Bubble Pond.

Directions – To get to the Bubble Pond starting point take the Park Loop Road entrance off of Route 233, as if you were going to drive up Cadillac Mountain.  Go past the road to the top and in another mile or so you will see parking for Bubble Pond on the left.  There is a carriage road entrance here, so you may see quite a few cars.  There is a bathroom here, but no drinking water.

Caution – I have to warn you that the West Face Trail is not to be taken lightly.  People injure themselves on it every year.  Do not attempt this hike without proper hiking footwear.  Footing is precarious in many places and you need as much grip as you can get.  Don’t bother to take hiking poles; you will need to use your hands for gripping rocks and trees to help you up the trail safely.  I suppose a dog could make it up over, but I wouldn’t advise taking one with you.  I strongly recommend that you do not try to descend on this trail, especially if it is wet.  If you don’t want to make the loop hike described here, then have someone pick you up at the top and bring you back to your car.

Having mentioned these cautions, I also have to mention that the sheer technical challenge of figuring how best to ascend on this trail made it the most interesting hike I have had in Acadia.

The trail starts to the left of Bubble Pond as you face it from the parking area.  The pond is a small body of water nestled between Cadillac and Pemetic mountains.  Walk down to the shore and then clockwise a little ways around the shore to reach the trailhead. 

Bubble Pond with Cadillac Mountain to the left and Pemetic Mountain to the right

What makes the trail so challenging?  First, before meeting South Ridge Trail it rises 1,100 feet in less than a mile, and some of that distance is actually flat.  Second, it climbs mostly over angled ledge that has water running down it in many places, making it slippery, especially when you add in the moss, lichen, leaves, and pine needles.  Third, it has not one single artificial assist (stone step, iron rung, etc.) to help you.  Fourth, and most important, the angled ledges usually end with drop-offs where if you were to lose your footing, injury is likely, and serious injury is a possibility.

My brother-in-law, George, and I started hiking it one foggy morning when it had rained the night before.  There was water running down everywhere and we almost immediately found ourselves pausing to figure out the best places to get our footing as we made our way up.  Sometimes one of us would get 10 or 15 feet up then come to a place where we didn’t trust the footing, so we would backtrack.  Sometimes we would each find our own way to get to the same point higher on the trail.  We made use of every handhold and toehold we could find to ensure that we did not slip and fall.

At one point I gave George a scare.  I had walked through a small puddle and wanted to dry off the soles of my hiking boots as much as possible before attempting the next rise.  I scraped them off on dry ledge and that made it sound as if I had slipped and fallen.  George was ahead of me and whipped around to see if he could help.  After that, whichever of us was behind the other would give a warning if we were going to do something like that, so the other would not be startled.

There were multiple ledges that would have given excellent views down to Bubble Pond, but the fog that morning was obscuring them.  On a clear day they would probably be great places to pause.

Bubble Pond through the fog

After quite a bit of elevation change the trail levels out as you make your way along the side of the west face.  This is a respite from the footing challenges, right?  Wrong.  This was actually the hardest part of the hike.  Even though it was not rising, it made its way along the same kinds of angled ledges that we had been ascending on.  Now we had to make our way across them instead of up them.  This meant that instead of being able to lean forward to keep our weight ahead of us, and to grab onto handholds, we now had to try to make our way sideways, where if we leaned too much toward the ledge we risked our foot sliding down the ledge on us.  There were still small trees along here and I made liberal use of them as I made my way across.

After this “level” section, there is one last push up over ledge to where this trail intersects with the South Ridge Trail.  The ledges here are not angled as much as the ones below and they were mostly dry.  The trees had mostly stopped at this point, too, so from here to the top we had to watch for cairns and blue blazes painted on the rocks.

Once you reach the South Ridge Trail the West Face Trail ends and you are not far from the summit.  Turn left and continue up over a much gentler rise to the top.  It was still foggy in places when we reached here, but when it is clear you have unimpeded views all the way to the ocean.  We were now above the fog/cloud line that we had come up through on the hike.  We could see the top of Pemetic to the west.

Pemetic peaking out of the clouds

As you near the top 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.  [Note – this is a more accurate description than what I had originally posted for the Cadillac South Ridge hike.  I have also updated that post with this better description.  The old description could have taken someone off the trail onto the first maintenance road by mistake.]

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.

The viewing area on Cadillac was above the cloud layer

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.)

It took George and I just under two hours to summit Cadillac.  Stopping to figure out the best ways to ascend had one advantage – I didn’t really get tired at all on the way up, despite how steep it was.

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.

Continue down the South Ridge Trail past where the West Face Trail connects in.  In about a mile you will come down to a small pond named The Featherbed.  The Canyon Brook Trail crosses over the South Ridge Trail on the northern side of the pond.  Turn right onto this trail.

The Featherbed as seen from north of it on the South Ridge Trail

After a short distance from The Featherbed this trail starts to descend rapidly.  We made our way down both sides of Canyon Brook, and sometimes even in it as the trail wound back and forth.  There were many stone steps set in place on this trail.  There was even one particularly steep section where an iron railing had been put in place to steady hikers.  This section of the trail drops 400 feet in only two tenths of a mile. 

The trail ends up leveling off at a beaver bog.  The water had even risen to the point where it was washing over part of the raised walks that had been put in place.  Once past this bog the trail rises slightly before leveling off again.  Not too long after this you will see a carriage road to your right.  The trail parallels this road for a while before finally crossing over it to the Pond Trail that leads to Jordan Pond.

The beaver bog on Canyon Brook Trail
I'm not sure how the beavers plan to move the tree once they get it to fall.  Seems like poor project planning.
The beavers used the log walk as part of their dam

Prior to starting the hike George and I had discussed the possibility of doing a transit of Pemetic to get back to the Bubble Pond parking area.  The Pond Trail would have led to a trail up Pemetic, then another trail would have come down Pemetic very near the parking area.  As it turns out, it was now well past lunch and after coming down Canyon Brook Trail, both George and I had tired our legs out much more than we had on the ascent.  Neither of us were that concerned about going up Pemetic; it was coming down another steep trail off a mountain that concerned us.  After having a snack, and considering it for ten minutes, we decided to just walk back the mile and a half on the carriage road.

We were passed by one jogger and several bicyclists, but no one on horseback.  There were the occasional “horse apples” to avoid on the road.  This walk was relatively level.  Eventually we reached the far end of Bubble Pond and at this point the road runs right along the western shore of the pond.  We continued along the pond until we came back to where we started.  We recognized two cyclists who had started off down the carriage road the same time we had started our hike.  We compared notes on our days and gave each other tips if we were to try the others’ activities.

The carriage road running alongside Bubble Pond
A strange connection between two trees on the carriage road

All in all, it was a good day.  The fog had completely burned off during the hike and it was now nice and sunny.  I had had an interesting and fun hike up Cadillac.  George and I also had a sense of accomplishment from taking on the challenges of this trail and succeeding.  Each of us has now ascended Cadillac three of the four ways you can hike it.  (George has also bicycled to the top via the auto road.)  Both of us just have left the Gorge Trail that comes up the east side of the mountain.  We plan to do it next May when we are there again.

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

Cumulative distance:             5.2 miles
Cumulative elevation gain:   1,475 feet
Cumulative duration:            4.5 hours (including time for photos and summit activities)

Acadia Hiking Guide


  1. Thank you, Chip for posting this hike on your blog. I really miss being able to hike with you guys. Nice pictures too!!

  2. Thanks for the nice words, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Hey Chip, Did kind of the opposite of what you did here this past weekend (well at least part of it)... Went up the south ridge trail, starting at the trail head across from the blackwoods camp ground, and then made it all the way up to the peak of the cadillac mountain. on the way back, decided to take a detour and go down to the Bubble Pond (basically did the 1 mile hike down). I am a new to hiking but that 1 mile hike down to the Bubble Pond was challenging and satisfying once we made it!

    1. It does give a big sense of accomplishment when you finish it, doesn't it? Thanks for sharing your experiences.