Acadia’s Ship Harbor ideal for hiking Maine coast in all four seasons

One in a series of historic Acadia hiking trail highlights

With a possible maritime disaster in its past, a big undeveloped harbor and sprawling pink granite, the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park epitomizes a lot about hiking Maine coast.

We’ve often walked the Ship Harbor Trail over the past two decades, but for the first time this past year, we did it once in spring, summer, autumn and winter. While hiking Maine coast, we wanted to experience how a single trail changes with the weather and the seasons.

Snow-clad Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Snow covers the pink granite shore on the Ship Harbor Trail during a January hike in Acadia National Park.

In the winter, we were struck by the contrast of the snow on pink granite and tall spruce. In spring, the trail came alive with rhodora, bunchberry and other wildflowers, while in summer, it was ideal for catching some sun on the shore and enjoying close-up views of nearby islands, as well as purple iris and a thicket of salt spray rose.  The fall foliage in Acadia is splendid and the trail is particularly stunning for yellow beech and blazing red blueberry bushes.

Located on the southwest shore of Mt. Desert Island, the popular hike consists of two loops, or a figure 8, totaling 1.3 miles, with colorful, newer wayside exhibits that explain the sea life in the mudflats and tide pools while hiking Maine coast.

The Ship Harbor Trail in late spring in Acadia National Park

This photo, taken in late May, provides a late spring view from the same spot on the Ship Harbor Trail.

Name of trail may stem from shipwreck

The history of the trail is also fascinating, including the mystery about the genesis of the harbor’s name and a hike by former President Barack Obama.

A park-wide National Park Service archaeological study in 2004 suggests the name of the harbor may stem from the tragic shipwreck of the Grand Design, an English vessel that was carrying Irish immigrants to Pennsylvania in the fall of 1739.

A swath of sunlight surrounds a hiker off the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Standing in a swath of sun light, a hiker peers through binoculars, searching for sea birds off the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park – or perhaps for evidence of a shipwreck?

After the ship was destroyed on a ledge off the harbor, survivors set up a temporary camp, the study said. Some vanished after leaving on foot to find help. Many died of starvation or exposure during the winter before a ship from an English settlement in Thomaston, Maine, arrived to rescue and resettle others.

“There’s a close association between the event and name, but no definitive proof from our study,” John T. Kelly, management assistant at the park, wrote in an email.

Indeed, a separate study, called the Acadia Maritime Cultural Resources Inventory, which was funded in 2008 by the L.L. Bean Acadia Research Fellowship Program, noted that more research is needed about the calamity of the Grand Design. The maritime study said there is some debate among local historical societies about whether the Grand Design disaster even occurred in the area.

Ship Harbor Trail finally built in 1957

The foundation for the Ship Harbor Trail was laid by George B. Dorr, the park’s first superintendent, and the trail was set to be built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. But the trail was among several projects that were never completed before the Corps disbanded in the park at the start of World War II.

Rosa rugosa in bloom along the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

A thicket of blooming salt-spray rose, also known as rosa rugosa, is a sure sign of summer along the shore of the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

In “Creating Acadia National Park,” author Ronald Epp writes that Dorr and John D. Rockefeller Jr., worked to develop roadside access to Ship Harbor in the 1930s.

The trail was finally built in 1957 as part of a national effort to improve the National Park system for its 50th anniversary in 1966, according to “Pathmakers” by the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation

The trail was thrust into the national spotlight in July of 2010 when Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha hiked the Ship Harbor Trail and the summit loop on the peak of Cadillac Mountain, biked the carriage roads around Witch Hole Pond and visited Bass Harbor Head Light during a short vacation in Bar Harbor and the park.

These days, the trail can be busy at times and the environment is fragile. One possible problem, currently fended off, is rock stacking, which can mar the natural ocean shoreline and damage the experience of hiking Maine coast.

A prominent sign, located over the pink granite at the mid-point of the outer loop, warns visitors that regulations ban the removal or stacking of cobbles. The sign, recently posted, seems to work, judging by the absence of rock piles.

Ship Harbor Trail among best in Acadia for physically disabled persons

The trail is also special because it was improved in part for people with disabilities.

Fall foliage on the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Red and yellow foliage partly covers an accessible portion of the Ship Harbor Trail during an October visit to Acadia National Park.

The trail was initially upgraded in the early 2000s to become one of the few hiking trails in the park to meet federal regulations providing access for physically disabled persons.

Then in 2015, the entire first or inner 0.6 mile loop was improved and regraded to comply with access standards for physically disabled persons, according to the 2015 “Acadia Trails Forever” report by Gary Stellpflug, Acadia trails foreman. The work by the trail crew, with help from the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps,  included resurfacing 1,400 feet of tread with smoothly packed gravel.

Snow-covered bog walk in Acadia National Park.

Bog walk, wider than the usual two planks, carries plenty of hikers on the Ship Harbor Trail, even in winter.

At various points along the west side of the inner loop, which borders Ship Harbor, crews widened the trail and installed log crib and rock walls. Each upgraded area was matted and seeded with local vegetation, making the trail far more pleasant as well as accessible, the report said.

Also, in 2015, on the outside loop of the figure eight, the “Cadillac of bog walk” was built on almost 300 feet of low-lying areas. Because of the heavy use of the trail, the wooden bog walk is one third wider than the usual two planks.

Rhodora along the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

In late spring, rhodora, a shrub that thrives in bogs, hugs the “Cadillac of bog walk.”

Hiking Maine coast trail provides great views of islands and easy ocean access

Though the origin of the “Ship Harbor” name is uncertain, the hike itself is no secret, perhaps because it provides great views of islands, big slabs of granite for relaxing and access to the ocean with little effort. According to the trails report, as many as 300 to 400 people a day hike the Ship Harbor Trail.

Still, during each season, the trail and shoreline seem to provide plenty of room for people, especially at off hours in the Maine national park.

Island views are a highlight of the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Island views are a highlight of the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

The trail has undergone more changes over the years. It used to be the only self-guided nature trail on the western side of the island, with 14 sign posts, but those were taken down more than a decade ago, followed by removal of a wooden sign with a line from “October Weekend” by poet Robinson Jeffers, “There is wind in the trees and the gray ocean’s music on the rock.”

While it is no longer a guided nature trail, or home to a poet’s words, the Ship Harbor Trail never loses its allure, no matter what season of the year for people hiking Maine coast.

Acadia National Park’s Ship Harbor Trail delightful in winter, spring, summer, fall

hiking maine coast

Winter along the Ship Harbor Trail.

acadia national park

Wet snow clings to the branches bare of foliage, along the Ship Harbor Trail.

Bizarre tree stump off the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Even draped with snow, this surreal tree stump along the Ship Harbor Trail is hard to miss.

Twisting tree stump off the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

When details of the stump are unveiled after the winter snows, the shape is still a mystery along the Ship Harbor Trail.

A wayside exhibit on tide pools near the ocean off the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

During the dead of winter, tide pools off the Ship Harbor Trail could be alive with sea urchins, periwinkles, barnacles and mussels, as described in this wayside exhibit.

A wayside exhibit explains the life of a tide pool off the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

But late May seems a more hospitable time to take up the seeming invitation by the “Tide Pool Tenants” exhibit, to  navigate the pink granite to reach the shore off the Ship Harbor Trail. Be careful on the slippery rocks, and be mindful of the tide and surf, when exploring the tide pools at low tide.

The "Mudflat Metropolis" wayside exhibit is posted in the foreground along the shore of the snow-covered Ship Harbor in Acadia National Park.

The “Mudflat Metropolis” wayside exhibit in January…

This photo, taken in late May from the same angle as a winter shot, shows the mudflats of Ship Harbor as described in this wayside exhibit.

…and in May along the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Purple iris is a beautiful find along the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

The vivid purple Iris is a perennial herb on the shore of the Ship Harbor Trail.

Bunchberry in Acadia National Park.

Bunchberry is common in early July in Acadia National Park and the Ship Harbor Trail is no exception.

The Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park meets federal regulations for access for physically disabled persons.

The yellow leaves of a small beech tree stand out amid the conifers near an accessible stretch of the Ship Harbor Trail during an October hike in Acadia National Park.

Red blueberry bushes along the Ship Harbor Trail in autumn in Acadia National Park

Blazing red blueberry bushes provide some fall color along the Ship Harbor Trail.

Pink granite glows in the October sun along the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Under a bright blue October sky, a lone hiker rests atop the rocky shore of the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park.

Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

About Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

Dolores Kong and Dan Ring are co-authors of the Falcon guides Hiking Acadia National Park and Best Easy Day Hikes Acadia National Park, and also blog at acadiaonmymind.com. They’ve backpacked the 270-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and are members of the Northeast 111 Club, having hiked all major peaks of the Northeast. Dolores, a former staff reporter at The Boston Globe, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Professional and senior vice president with Winslow, Evans & Crocker, Inc. (member of FINRA/SIPC) in Boston. Dan, a journalist and former Statehouse bureau chief in Boston for the old Ottaway News Service and for The Republican, the daily newspaper for Springfield, Mass, is also an operations professional with Winslow, Evans & Crocker, Inc. (member of FINRA/SIPC), in Boston. They are married and live outside Boston.