One mention of Mount Desert Island and most minds go to Acadia National Park. But there’s so much more to this Down East Maine treasure that can complement a trip to Acadia or stand alone as a separate experience.
Mount Desert Island is without compare as the mountains truly meet the sea here and offers one of the most spectacular settings on the entire East Coast (if not the most spectacular)!
With more than four million visitors coming to Acadia, these Mount Desert Island attractions and activities will help you avoid the crowds while still getting the whole experience of the island.
About Mount Desert Island
Mount Desert Island, one of New England’s largest islands, is linked to the mainland and its vistas are indescribable. With seventeen mountains and four lakes, Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor are magnets that draw thousands every year.
The Park and its 120 miles of hiking trails, colossal views from Cadillac Mountain, and the roar of Thunder Hole provide visitors to Downeast Acadia with memory-filled vacations. Artists flock to photograph or paint the landscape.
At the heart of Downeast Acadia is the bustling resort town of Bar Harbor is a treasure of delights for all ages. There are art galleries and museums including the Abbe Museum, where you’ll find Native American artifacts. The July and August music festivals will keep you humming.
Whale-watching cruises depart daily, and Maine seafood is freshly prepared at many restaurants. Bar Harbor’s neighbors, Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Bass Harbor, attract visitors by land and by water.
The western side of the Downeast Acadia Maine region, known as the “quiet side,” offers a slower pace. Northeast and Southwest and Bass Harbors have ornamental gardens, estates, hundreds of sailing craft, the Wendell Gilley Museum and the Seal Cove Auto Museum, and the annual Oktoberfest.
These small towns are ideal for those looking for a more remote location on the island while having the opportunity to visit Acadia National Park and take coastal boat tours. Shipbuilding in these Maine coastal villages continues to be a proud heritage at Hinckley.
A little further “Downeast” of Mt Desert Island is Winter Harbor and Schoodic Point Peninsula Area of Maine. The Schoodic Scenic Byway has commanding views of Downeast Acadia, however, many are not aware of this small section of Acadia National Park.
The notable communities on the island include:
- Bar Harbor
- Northeast Harbor
- Southwest Harbor
- Tremont: Includes Bass Harbor, Bernard, Center, Gotts Island, and Seal Cove
- Town of Mount Desert: Includes the affluent community of Seal Harbor
The towns along the island’s edge also offer experiences to smaller and niched islands just offshore. The Mount Desert Island land is split between National Park Service property, Mount Desert Island Preserves, town-owned locations, and private property.
You can use this map to see the park boundaries on different scales.
Outdoor Things to Do on Mount Desert Island
We recommend always using a map or GPS to find a location, as several towns, villages, and attractions have similar names. For example, Seal Harbor vs. Seal Cove or National Park Canoe Rental not being affiliated with Acadia National Park.
Visit Acadia National Park
Tourism numbers are growing at Acadia National Park, but if you’re buying a park pass, you should explore as much of it as possible. Must-see places in the park include Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole, Otter Point Overlook, Park Loop Road (take the entire drive), Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, and the night skies.
This mainland section of the park is accessible by car or by ferry from Bar Harbor to Winter Harbor. Your Acadia National Park Pass gets you access to this more secluded section with its own loop, trails, and stunning sights at Schoodic Point.
The Schoodic Institute offers educational opportunities throughout the year with a Welcome Center that is more like a museum and birding tours available.
Outside the federally-protected land, you can explore the Frenchman Bay Conservancy locations, with even more trails and shoreline.
Note: If you want a car-free Acadia experience, use the Island Explorer, which covers the park, communities, and the Schoodic Peninsula.
Explore Bar Harbor
Known as the base camp for Bar Harbor, it’s also where you can catch the ferry to the Schoodic Peninsula section of the park. Walk the Bar Harbor Shore Path or catch the low tide to cross to the Bar of Bar Harbor sandbar.
Considering Blackbeard himself once pillaged along Frenchman’s Bay, it makes a trip a Pirate’s Cove Adventure Cove that much more authentic.
See Seal Harbor
For the best chance of seeing a Fortune 500 Company owner or Martha Stewart, the charming village of Seal Harbor is the place to be. Seal Harbor is a village in Mount Desert (the town).
Seal Harbor Beach is one of the best public beaches on this side of the island, right off the main road. Little Long Pond has the same carriage roads of the Rockefeller variety but with smaller crowds year-round.
Experience Northeast Harbor
Don’t miss the 1,400-acre Land & Garden Preserve between Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor. The gardens are meticulously cared for and displayed for all to enjoy. Take a scenic cruise on the Sea Princess or play 18 holes at the Northeast Harbor Golf Club, with more than a century of history on the links.
Tour Bass Harbor & Bernard
Kelly Farm Preserve is another MCHT property to explore with a community garden. The reward is a cobble beach and saltwater marsh to explore away from the crowds.
The Bass Harbor Head Light Station is one of the biggest attractions.
Stroll Southwest Harbor
If you are visiting when the Carroll Homestead is open for tours, seize the moment to explore a trip back in time. Take a sail on a schooner with Ambergris Voyages, or stroll through the Rhoades Butterfly Garden.
Indoor Things to Do on Mount Desert Island
Sometimes the last thing you want to do in this outdoor destination is head inside, but when you’re ready, there are plenty of historical and exciting indoor stops on Mount Desert Island.
In Bar Harbor
Dorr Museum of Natural History is named after Acadia’s Founder and his love of this land. He dedicated his life to preserving the natural wonders, many of which are displayed here.
Abbe Museum honors the Native Americans who lived off this land for centuries before settlers arrived.
We are in the homeland of the Wabanaki, the People of the Dawn. We extend our respect and gratitude to the many Indigenous people and their ancestors… We make this acknowledgment aware of continual violations of water, territorial rights, and sacred sites in the Wabanaki homeland. The Abbe is honored to collaborate with the Wabanaki as they share their stories.– Abbe Museum Statement
Around the Island
Petite Plaisance Conservation Fund preserves the home of French literary legend Marguerite Yourcenar, who lived in this Northeast Harbor home until she died in 1987. Her final wishes were honored, with the house and gardens being maintained for guests.
The Great Harbor Maritime Museum is also nearby.
If you need an excuse to go to the more remote western edge of the island, visit the Seal Cove Auto Museum, This collection of cars spans the years 1895 to 1917 (think of the car where Jack and Rose consummated their relationship in Titanic).
TRAVEL TIP: If the weather is nice, check out Pretty Marsh Picnic Area or Seal Cove Picnic Area, with stunning and secluded water views.
The story behind Mount Desert Island is truly a page-turner, and you can learn more at the Mount Desert Island Historical Society Museum. An exhibit also displays how the island is being impacted by climate change.
More history can be found in Bass Harbor at the Tremont Historical Society Museum.
At Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor, art and nature collide in a beautiful display of handcrafted and carved pieces of work.
Additional Attractions Near MDI
Aside from looking to escape the most crowded part of Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, another reason people visit the “Quieter Side” is to take a boat to nearby islands.
Isle au Haut
NOTE: This ferry departs from Stonington, which is a 60-mile drive from Bar Harbor and on a separate peninsula.
This is another landmark location named by explorer Samuel Champlain. Isle au Haut means “High Island” for its mountain peaks. You can take the mail boat to visit this secluded section of Acadia National Park. You’ll find the Duck Harbor Campground here.
Arrange a tour at the Isle au Haut lighthouse or explore one of the trails around the island.
Swan’s Island “Six Miles East of Ordinary”
If you’d rather chill at the beach, one of Maine’s best-kept secrets is the Fine Sands Beach, nestled into an otherwise rocky shoreline.
You can also take a boat to West Sister Island with a view of Acadia National Park in the distance few people get to see.
Another Bass Harbor dock destination is the island of Frenchboro. The Frenchboro Preserve has nearly 14 miles of trails to explore, with scenic views, challenging scrambles, and a rocky coastline. Notice the larger Eastern Beach on the northeast end of the island and the series of Big, Middle, and Little Beach on the southwest corner.
That’s STILL not remote enough for you? Ok, how about the Great Duck Island House, which is a smaller island off the coast of Frenchboro but still has a Frenchboro address? You’ll have the run of the island as the only tenants with nothing but the birds (and a few researchers or tours) of the Nature Conservancy nearby.
The Cranberry Isles
Acadia National Park hosts ranger-led tours of Little Cranberry Island and Baker Island. On Great Cranberry Island, you can also take a boat to Islesford and tour Little Cranberry Island with a stop at the historical museum.
MDI to Canada
Restaurants on Mount Desert Island
The best thing we can say about dining on MDI is OMG. You’ll get ripe blueberries (did you know that blueberries are the official state berry of Maine?!?) that rhetorically are said to change the way you think of blueberries for life and even fresher seafood. With this rich agricultural region, there’s plenty of farm-to-fork for every tastebud.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: A “Lobster Pound” is a place that serves fresh lobster right from the water. It’s a restaurant but usually has a section where you can buy fresh lobster to take with you.
MDI’s Best Casual Restaurants
Stewman’s Lobster Pound in Bar Harbor offers individual and shared dishes for the whole family, with an intensive drink list and a kids’ menu. Geddy’s is another family-friendly restaurant nearby with great views of the water.
Jordan Pond House restaurant offers sit-down options with carry-out available for those exploring the carriage roads.
In Northeast Harbor, people can’t stop raving about Ted’s Takeout from the food truck (and that includes Condé Nast). The Nor’Easter Pound & Market includes restaurant dining, a supply store, and a fresh seafood deli. Check the special events in the evenings and the Sunday brunch menu.
If you need to carb up or crave something other than seafood, Milk & Honey Kitchen is the right place for you.
Saltmeadow Farm offers family dining with fresh menu items that sell out quickly. To get as close as possible to the lobster you’re about to eat, look for the waterfront location of Thurston for Lobster.
Early risers, hikers heading to Cadillac Mountain for the sunrise, or anglers can visit Hansen’s Outpost. Opening time is as early as 3:30 am. For a post-summit meal, get in line at Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast.
Upscale Dining on MDI
Bar Harbor is 1,700 miles from Cuba, but Havana is on Main Street, serving highly acclaimed Latin American food. Dine in a former speakeasy with a historic edge but beautiful art adorning the walls at Galyn’s Restaurant.
Wine and wildly creative dishes pair well at The Burning Tree Restaurant. You can also create your own Charcuterie board at the store in front. Land lovers will want reservations at Jack Russell’s Prime Steak House, with free parking!
Red Sky Restaurant in Southwest Harbor prides itself on making an upscale dining experience anything but arrogant. Rogue Maine is a restaurant that isn’t anything but rogue. The small menu selections come with big tastes and unique presentations.
Copita offers a drink and wine menu much longer than the food list, but every bite and sip is worth savoring.
Sweet Treats & Coffee Shops on MDI
Bar Harbor’s Coffee Matter/Mother’s Kitchen serves coffee concoctions and grub to fuel the day’s adventures. Not fruit is forbidden at the Slice of Eden Pastry Shop, with a high-end espresso pair and delicious bakery choices.
For one big breakfast, try Two Cats with coffee creations like the Milky Way.
Ice Cream in Bar Harbor is its own food group. Here are just a few of the options:
Southwest Harbor’s go-to pastry and coffee location is the Little Notch Cafe. Grab a bottle of wine or a pint of ice cream for later. You can also escape the crowds to the Quiet Side Cafe & Ice Cream Shop. Ask for a sample of the blueberry pie. 123 Main Street is the name and the address of this Northeast Harbor pastry and coffee stop.
Head to Northeast Harbor for a mix of coffee, ice cream, and souvenirs all in one place at McGrath’s.
Mount Desert Island Breweries & Wineries
Bar Harbor Cellars at Sweet Pea Farm has something for everyone. This family-friendly location has a tasting room, chocolate room, gift shop, outdoor spaces to sip, and 100 acres to explore. You can head to Gouldsboro, about an hour off the island, to visit Bartlett Winery.
Atlantic Brewing Company has two locations in Bar Harbor, one with a tasting room right where the beer is made and another on a 10-acre farm. Fogtown Brewing offers 18 spouts of beer, hard seltzer, ciders, and wines. There’s also a dog-friendly location in nearby Ellsworth.
Where to Stay on Mount Desert Island
Mount Desert Island hotels offer options you haven’t even considered. Whether you want a remote campground that redefines rugged or to vacation like a Rockefeller, it’s all here.
Bar Harbor, being the largest town on Mount Desert Island is often thought of as synonymous with the Park, but it’s just one town of several. Acadia visitors can also stay in charming Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Bass Harbor, Otter Creek, Seal Harbor, or Somesville.
Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor on the southwestern end of Mount Desert Island afford visitors both a quieter and more affordable stay.
Bar Harbor Lodging
As tourism increases, Bar Harbor is keeping up with several new hotels and overnight options. Salt Cottages offer the archetypal accommodations for an affluent Down East Maine visit and was recently named one of the Top 100 New Hotels by Travel & Leisure.
Queen Anne’s Revenge has the essence of regal sailing ships with a tinge of the Blackbeard pirate history that lends its name to this newest boutique hotel.
Visitors can’t really ask for more than Terramore Outdoor Resort, with inclusive options to surround your senses with everything that brought you to MDI in the first place.
Southwest Harbor & Bass Harbor Lodging
Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor on the southwestern end of Mount Desert Island afford visitors both a quieter and more affordable stay.
Cafe Drydock & Inn offers a mix of rooms and suites available year-round with immediate access to the town’s central district. Experience the rural comforts close to the water and the town at Hutchins Cottages at Acadia. To be as close to the sea as possible, Harbor View Motel & Cottages could be perfect for your stay.
Seawall Campground is part of Acadia National Park, with close access to Seawall within the park, where the rugged stacks of rocks tell a story of mighty ocean waves. Dysart’s Great Harbor Marina offers a deluge of rentals available for boaters who need a break from the water.
Ann’s Point Inn provides amenities at the tip of a peninsula while catering to romantic getaways with water views on three sides. Rustic cabins await at Boathouse Way Cottages. For those who need more cottage space, check out Bass Harbor Cottages.
Campers can consider Bass Harbor Campgrounds, a private location not under the reign of Acadia’s park camping rules.
The Harbourside Inn has been welcoming guests since 1888. The seclusion of the inn while still being close to all the villages and the national park is appealing to guests while still offering private access to the Northeast Harbor Trail system.
Colonel Suites is right in the village and near the harbor, with a restaurant on site and accommodations that feel like home. The Asticou Inn stands among towering trees with some of the best water views. Cabins and more private accommodations are available on the property.
Kimball Terrace Inn takes your overnight stay right to the harbor, with easy access to the ferry.
More About Mount Desert Island (MDI)
The Wabanaki people originally inhabited the island before the arrival of European explorers in the 17th century. French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited the island in 1604 and came up with the name.
It is very high, and notched in places, so that there is the appearance to one at sea, as of seven or eight mountains extending along near each other. The summit of most of them is destitute of trees… I named it Île des Monts Déserts (Mount Desert Island). – Samuel Champlain, 1604
The island became a popular summer resort destination in the 19th century, attracting wealthy vacationers like Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. “Junior” Rockefeller and George Dorr, the “Father of Acadia,” led to the land being preserved for a park.
About 10,000 people live on the island year-round now, with some celebrities like Martha Stewart having homes in secluded and stunning enclaves.
Winter on MDI
It’s a four-season destination with as many restrictions as opportunities opening up when the cloak of winter sets in. Winter in Acadia National Park is a truly unique experience, too.
If you are planning to visit to Mt Desert Island in the winter, the carriage trails make for excellent cross-country skiing, the park loop road is a haven for snowmobilers, and the trails under their coating of white take on a fresh new look.
Acadia’s peaks and cliffs also offer new workouts to the experienced in this most challenging of seasons. Ice climbing routes abound and trails show a truly wild side.
FAQs About Mount Desert Island
What is the “Quiet Side”?
This name is used in two ways. First, the Schoodic Peninsula is called “The Quiet Side of Acadia,” meaning it’s still part of the park but on a separate peninsula. The “Quiet Side” of MDI is near Bass Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and surrounding towns on the opposite side of the island from the main entrance in Ellsworth.
Where is the best place to see the sunrise and/or sunset?
What port is best to visit the islands?
Start Planning Your Visit to Mount Desert Island
There’s so much to explore on Mount Desert Island, don’t be surprised if you start talking about “next time.”