Visit Mount Desert Island: New England’s largest island

Mount Desert Island is the largest American island in New England and the second largest on the East Coast (after Long Island). The island is located just off the coast of Maine and is home to many summer colonies and is a favored vacation destination. The island offers many of the best hiking trails in Acadia National Park. The island was shaped by the Ice Age when the Laurentide Ice Cap that covered much of northern North America also covered this island. Today the mountains show the marks of having been carved and shaped by ice.

The island of French and British colonial history

The name comes from French (so it’s pronounced more like “Dessert” than in a piece of pie). French explorer Samuel de Champlain saw its treeless mountain peaks and thus called it “Deserts of the Ile de Monts”. It means “the island of bare mountains”.

  • Cut: Approximately 108 square miles

For much of its colonial history, it was part of the French province of Acadie. But it soon became contested territory between the British and the French until the British seized all French possessions in New France and Acadia in the French and Indian Wars.

  • The highest point: Cadillac Mountain at 1,532 feet
  • The biggest: Cadillac Mountain is the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast

Climb to the top of Cadillac Mountain and you’ll see the first rays of sunshine hitting the continental United States.

Related: If You’ve Never Heard of a Fall Foliage Train Tour, Now’s the Time to Take One

Heart of Acadia National Park

Most of the island is part of the famous Acadia National Park – one of the most popular national parks for hiking in the United States. It is a land famous for its seaside cliffs and numerous hiking trails. Acadia National Park preserves about half of Mount Desert Island as well as part of Isle au Haut, the tip of Schoodic Penisula, and parts of smaller outlying islands.

Acadia was established in 1916 as Sieur de Monts National Monument and became the first US national park east of the Mississippi in 1916 as Lafayette National Park. The name was later changed in 1929 to Acadia National Park. Much of the national park land was donated by Rockefeller.

The part is home to some of the tallest mountains on the Atlantic coast and the region’s great biodiversity and heritage. The island (and the park) are known for its U-shaped valleys, glacial erratics, granite domes and pebble beaches.

  • To see: Rockefeller Historic Road System

On Mount Desert Island, the historic system of motorable roads will be seen. It was built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. between 1919 and 1931. He opposed the introduction of cars to the island and so built a network of motorable roads closed to motorized traffic. Much of this network is now inside Acadia National Park.

A summer camp destination

The island also has several charming little towns that were one of the exclusive summer playgrounds of New York and Boston’s wealthy elite – like Rockefeller. One of the most charming towns is Bar Harbor, the others being Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor. You could say that Mount Desert Island is about as charming as the New England seaside.

  • Charming coastal villages: Bar Harbor, Bass Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Tremont

The island’s population is just over 10,000 year-round, but is visited by millions of tourists every year.

Related: 10 U.S. National Parks to Visit in Fall

How to get there and where to stay

One can drive to the island – it’s about a five hour drive from Boston (so it’s a long weekend). There is also the possibility of flying with Cape Air which offers daily flights to Logan Airport in an eight-seat Cessna. Residents of Mount Desert Island often say “if it was easy to come here, everyone would do it”.

  • Best by Island: By car (5 hours from Boston)

When looking for accommodation on the island, take a look at the many B&Bs and Airbnbs listed. Try to find a place near the waterfront on the island.

One of the best options is a historic waterfront hotel called Balance Rock Inn in Bar Harbor. Balance Rock Inn offers stunning views of the Porcupine Islands, a private sauna, live music on select nights, and more. For a quieter option in Northeast Harbor, take a look at Asticou Inn (it was an Ariana Rockefeller favorite).

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