Acadia National Park

Adventure to Isle au Haut, Maine’s Off-the-Radar Gem

Posted by
Sarah Lamagna
May 05, 2024
Updated May 03, 2024

boats at Isle au Haut
Photo: Damian Quigley

Acadia National Park is full of rugged cliffs towering over the Atlantic Ocean — and plenty of travelers. But tucked in the corner is Isle au Haut, a quiet spot beckoning visitors to experience its unbeatable views.

As one of the most well-known tourist destinations in New England, Acadia National Park welcomes close to four million visitors every year with most visitors coming for summer and fall. 

It’s easy to see why since the park has over 150 miles of trails traversing bald mountain summits, rugged coastline, and old-growth pine and spruce forest. Some of the best views in the park include watching the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain (you can drive up to the top if you don’t want to hike) and the infamous Beehive to Precipice Trail with its ladders and iron rungs bolted into the cliff face. 

Despite their beauty, these iconic spots are often overrun with tourists wanting to snag that Instagram-worthy photo. But, there is an often-overlooked secret gem begging to be explored: Isle au Haut.

Hiking on Isle au Haut
Boardwalk paths are the norm in Isle au Haut (Photo: Sarah Lamagna)

Isle au Haut, Maine: Acadia’s Undiscovered Paradise

Of the millions of visitors to Acadia National Park, only a handful of them (7,000 – 8,000) experience the tiny island called Isle au Haut. For centuries, the Wabanki people called Isle au Haut (pronounced locally “i-la-ho”) Sulikuk or “Place of the Empty Shells.” But as history has seen time and time again, European explorers (more specifically, a French explorer) took over the island and renamed it to its current name which means “high island.”

You can only get to Isle au Haut by passenger-only ferry from Stonington, Maine. The ferry operates year-round to the island’s town landing and adds another stop during the summer months to Duck Harbor Campground. Make sure to snag a highly sought-after spot to stay overnight on the island. If you’re just planning a day hike, the ferry is on a first-come, first-served basis so get there early!

Visiting during the off-season means the ferry is empty, save for a few locals to the island. The 45-minute boat ride is gorgeous in its own right, but the seas can be angry — bring some Dramamine if you struggle with sea sickness. Once at the town landing, follow the signs towards the Acadia National Park Ranger Station where you pick up the Duck Harbor Trail. The National Park Service (NPS) owns about half the land on the island while the rest is privately owned. It’s extra important to stay on the trails here so you don’t disturb residents.

Heading out on the Duck Harbor Trail, meander through towering pine and spruce trees and over wetlands. Like most northeastern trails, this path can be waterlogged and muddy with roots jutting out and creating hazards along the way. We last visited in April 2024 and several large trees were downed due to a recent winter storm. Maneuvering around the tree slowed our pace. It’s almost four miles to Duck Harbor from the town landing with a few spots you can walk along the pebble beach and take in the sea views.

There are close to 18 miles of trails on Isle au Haut, many of which traverse spruce and pine forests. If you are traveling during the off-season, you’ll have to take Duck Harbor Trail no matter what trail you want to do. For the quintessential “Acadia view,” you’ll want to head on the Cliff-Western Head Trail once you reach Duck Harbor and the campground.

standing on isle au haut
Lamagna soaks in the majestic Isle au Haut views. (Photo: Sarah Lamagna)

Here’s a tip: while we love the solitude found in the off-season, remember that the peace can add some chaos. The ferry doesn’t run to Duck Harbor during the quieter months, so I tacked on a bonus 7.4 miles of trekking as I hoofed it back to catch the last ride from town landing to the mainland. 

Whether or not you hike three miles or three times that, the views are worth it and rival the ones you see in the main part of Acadia. Even the view from Eben’s Head is just as good as the one you see from the famed Cadillac Mountain — with way fewer people.

Truth time: the views in the main part of Acadia might be spectacular but it can be hard to enjoy them when you are surrounded by other tourists. Isle au Haut gives visitors the same views but better because you won’t be surrounded by hundreds of your adventuring friends. If you escape into to nature for peace and solitude, put in the extra effort it takes to head to Isle au Haut and experience a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view Acadia all by yourself.

Ranger Station in Acadia
The Isle au Haut Ranger Station is 0.3 miles from Town Landing. (Photo: Sarah Lamagna)

Isle au Haut at a glance

  • Nearest towns: Stonington (5 miles), Bar Harbor (63 miles), Lincolnville (78 miles)
  • Acreage: 3,200 acres
  • Day use fees: $22 per one-way adult ferry ticket, $11 per child under 12, $15 per bike, and dogs ride free
  • Campground: 5 lean-to sites ($20/night). Sites must be reserved online.

Best for: Hiking, biking, dogs, endless ocean views, birdwatching

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