QUICK TRAIL FACTS
- Preserve Size: 2,700 acres
- Trail Mileage: 18 miles in network
- Pets: yes
- Difficulty: easy to challenging
- Sights: Ocean vistas, pebble beaches, coves and harbors, maritime forests, bogs
On Isle au Haut, the park covers more than half the island, or 2,700 acres, and the combination of stunning national park and a close-knit, quirky Maine island community is hard to resist. Most of the islanders we met, particularly the ones who live there year-round (and whose families have often been there for generations) were exceedingly nice. They will ply you with stories if you ask for information, and some will even invite you to cross their land to take short-cuts (but only trespass with permission! As you know).
The national park on the island, like all parts of Acadia, is impressive and beautiful, with varied terrain criss-crossed with well-tended trails. If you walk the 18 miles of trails, you’ll explore craggy coasts, bogs, and forests of pitch pine, spruce and balsam fir. We stayed overnight at the tiny five-site Duck Harbor Campground (you have to be very quick in reserving spots when they go live online each year). Many people take the daily mail boat from Stonington to spend a few hours hiking. If you do that, be sure and tackle a reasonable hike — it would be horrible to get stuck overnight without supplies. The rangers greet each boatload of visitors and offer advice on which trails to walk from the dock in order to get back in time.
There are 18 miles of trails in the park, and even more “town” trails outside of the park. As far as I can tell, the town trails are not maintained by any particular organization, just by local people who walk them. (Except there is one Maine Coast Heritage Trust preserve on Head Harbor.) I’ll get to them soon! You can pick up a map of all the island’s trails at the wonderful gift store, Shore Shop Gifts.
Below are brief descriptions of the park trails: These are all moderate to challenging since the terrain is rugged and rocky, with lots of ups and down. They’re mostly all blazed or marked with stone cairns. The paths sometimes drift onto stone beaches, and you have to peer into the distance to the other end of the beach to see the next cairn or blaze painted on a rock. For the most part, you can avoid walking along the main island road, which makes a 12-mile loop around the island. Much of this road, especially the sections in the park, is a narrow dirt lane, great for biking.
Cliff Trail — This was my favorite path in the park, a 0.7-mile trail along the dramatic cliffs on the eastern side of the island. (The western side of the island is a bit tamer, but no less beautiful.) A woman we met on Cliff Trail said she had been dreaming for ten years of returning to one particular spot where you can stand high on a bluff, looking south down the length of the island. Along this trail, not only are there cliffs, but booming beaches (where waves make thundering noises against rocks, not to be confused with the actual Boom Beach outside of the park), narrow inlets, and stone beaches. The path goes up and down, and is rugged.
Goat Trail — If you have time, continue your walk from Cliff Trail along the 2.1-mile Goat Trail to see more beautiful cliffs, beaches, and marshy areas.
Western Head Trail — 1.3 miles of walking along small coves and pebbly beaches.
Duck Harbor Mountain Trail (difficult) — My sister hiked this 1.2-mile trail and said that there were sections so steep she scouted down on her backside to avoid falling. The AMC describes the trail as “a long, steep, craggy” walk along the spine of the mountain. There are views from the 309-foot summit, and other periodic views along the way from exposed rocky knobs (also called the Puddings, evidently?).
Median Ridge Trail — This 1.8-mile trail starts at the sea and follows the length of a ridge through pitch pine, with twisty, gnarled, stubby trees, to a darker, cooler forest.
Nat Merchant Trail — My friend hiked this 1.1-mile trail, and said that it is similar to Median Ridge Trail.
Eben’s Head Trail: 0.8 miles of beauty. The highlight is the rocky bluff of Eben’s Head, which is right at the start of the trail.
Duck Harbor Trail: This 3.8-mile links the ranger station to Duck Harbor Campground. The middle section is the prettiest, with stretches along the quiet Moore Harbor and a side trail to the small (cute) Deep Cove. You can catch the Black Dina town trail from the northern section.
Long Pond Trail: A 3.0-mile loop, possibly the least hiked in the park? and at times a bit difficult to follow, brings you to the edges of the narrow Long Pond (to swim, check out the little sandy area off the main road at the southern end of the pond, outside the park). The trail can be difficult at times, with big climbs and rugged areas.
Bowditch Trail: A peaceful 2.0-mile hike in the woods at the northern section of the hike. There’s a fairly significant uphill—a good workout! From this trail, you can hike out of the park and onto the town trails. At the point where the trail brushes up against the park boundary, look for a wooden sign post. Behind it is a hard-to-see narrow trail, marked with orange flags, that heads into the woods. This trail connects to trails to the “highlands” of the island (nothing higher than 500 feet — Jerusalem, Sawyer, and Champlain Mountains (Sawyer and Jerusalem don’t have views. Chamberlain is the highest point of the island, around 543 feet). More to come on this.
Thunder Gulch Trail — A 0.8-mile one-way trail extends down Eastern Head to Thunder Gulch, a deep crack in the high cliffs in which the waves pound. Be careful as you look down at the frothy spectacle. You can also explore the open, stony point with views of open ocean and the little neighboring island, Eastern Ear. This trail is often left off official maps because the park wants to discourage day trippers from attempting to walk it and consequently missing the afternoon ferry. But if you’re staying at the campground, you should add it to your list. The sign for the trail is off the main island road, and is more visible if you’re coming from the direction of Long Pond. From here, you’ll walk down a residential dirt road past a handful of houses before coming to a wooden sign for Thunder Gulch pointing right (west) across a field. The trail then passes close to a house, be respectful! It takes about half an hour to walk from the main road to the gulch.
Western Head Road: For those who need an easier walk, this 1.7-mile trail follows a narrow dirt road. It’s wide and fairly flat.
Directions: Take the mail boat from Stonington. The address is 37 Seabreeze Ave. The boat, which can pack in a surprisingly number of people, runs more frequently from June through October and slows down in the winter. During the tourism season, it’ll make two stops: at the town landing and at Duck Harbor campground. Most of the trails leave from the campground, so is the destination for most hikers. If you have a bike, you are only allowed to get off at the town landing. The ferry takes approximately 45 minutes to travel between Stonington and the town landing.