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We have a tendency to take our national parks for granted. We don't realize that they are among our country's best vacation bargains. Or that the "ooh-ah" wonder of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser, the surprise of seeing a bison block traffic, or the magic of a misty October morning in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains can make family memories as resonant as a trip to Disney World.
The concept of a national park is a uniquely American idea, introduced by the early 19th-century landscape artist George Catlin. Worried about the impact of settlement on wildlife and wilderness, Catlin proposed, "a nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty." His idea caught the imagination of a young country eager to match the cultural treasures of the Old World with its own natural wonders. And so Congress donated Yosemite Valley to California in 1864 for preservation as a state park, and in 1872 designated two million acres straddling Wyoming and Montana as Yellowstone National Park, the first area to receive such protection.
Today, nearly 60 million visitors flock to 384 national parks every year. And you won't have to wander far from home to enjoy one of these national treasures with Maine's Acadia National Park nearby.
When the French explorer Samuel Champlain first spotted a cluster of granite-peaked islands rising out of the sea in 1604, he named them L'Isles des Monts Deserts, or "Islands of Barren Mountains." With a name like that, their future didn't look promising. But 250 years later, that dramatic meeting of sea and mountain drew famous landscape painters, like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, and their wealthy patrons, to what became known as Mount Desert Island. These early visitors savored the area's fresh salt air and stunning scenery and began to push for preservation. The result? Acadia National Park -- the first national park east of the Mississippi -- was born in 1919.
Spread over a series of separate islands and a peninsula, most of Acadia is located on Mount Desert Island, about an hour south of Bangor and six hours north of Boston, off Maine's east coast. Mount Desert itself is a hodgepodge of parkland, private estates, fishing villages and the town of Bar Harbor, a tourist haven where you can find plenty of t-shirt shops and bowls of clam chowder. Although its 47,549 acres make it the eighth-smallest national park, three million annual visitors make it one of the 10 most visited. To avoid heavy traffic visit in May, June, September or October; get an early start to your day (on clear summer days, traffic is heaviest between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.); and take advantage of the Island Explorer Shuttle Bus.
The top of Cadillac Mountain is a must-see. From here you can walk the Summit Trail until you find an east-facing nook in the rocks overlooking Frenchman's Bay. It's America's most eastern point. From late July through August you can find sun-ripened blueberries along the trail.
While it's definitely worth driving around the sloppy figure-eight that links the eastern and western halves of Mount Desert, many of Acadia's top attractions aren't accessible by car. Its famous carriage roads, a beautifully graded and landscaped 57-mile network of broken stone roads built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for horse-drawn carriages, is a good place to ride horseback or wander at a relaxed pace while smelling the sun-warmed spruce trees and listening to a silence broken only by chattering chickadees.
Ambling along the carriage roads is as easy as sauntering on a sidewalk. For something more strenuous, try Acadia's 120 miles of hiking trails. The imbedded stone steps of the Gorge Path trail make clambering up slopes equivalent to climbing stairs. Others, like the Ocean Trail, skirt the cobblestoned shoreline. Ocean temperatures rarely exceed 55 degrees, even in summer, so swimming is for only a hardy few. If you brave the cold, exploring tidal pools alive with conchs, hermit crabs and sea anemones is like looking through a window at a different and fascinating world.
Be sure to succumb, too, to the siren call of the Cranberry Islands. The closest and easiest to get to is Little Cranberry Island. It's only 20 minutes by frequent mail boat, but it's worth making a reservation for the two-and-a-half-hour cruise led by park rangers who explain the geology and history of the region. You'll learn even more about the seafaring residents at the Isleford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry, where photographs, model ships, lobstering tools and children's toys tell a moving story of life on the small island.
For information about Acadia National Park, including the Island Explorer shuttle bus and cruises to the Cranberry Islands, call the park headquarters at 207-288-3338 or go to the National Park Sevice's Acadia web site (see below). The park is open year-round. There are plenty of options for accommodations, ranging from inexpensive motels to antique-filled B&Bs in ornate historic homes. The park also operates two campgrounds with tent and RV sites. Reservations are a good idea during fall foliage season and absolutely essential during the summer. Call the Chamber of Commerce of Bar Harbor (207-288-5103), Northeast Harbor (207-276-5040) or Southwest Harbor (207-244-9264) for more information. Even if you're not staying in Southwest Harbor, stop for a delicious meal at Beal's Lobster Pier (207-244-3202); its pier-side location overlooks the very lobster pots that caught your dinner.