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Acadia National Park: Art of the Trail

Acadia National Park: Art of the Trail
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Dorr Mountain was named after him, and that’s appropriate; the trails up the eastern face offer some of the best examples of the park’s distinctive aesthetic. As I ascend Dorr Mountain from a small pond called The Tarn, it’s clear to me that the trail builders had both stamina and a tremendous fondness for stairways. The ascent is a masterwork of a ziggurat: huge stone slabs edging along a smooth rock face here or past dour glacial erratics there.

At higher elevations, smooth, lichen-streaked rock faces break through stunted forest like a friar’s pate, and here the trail builder’s art shifts from building to plotting. The route, linking one smooth rock face with a view to another, is marked here with artful stacks of stones called cairns, each one typically a large flat rock set across two smaller ones, much like a bench. This style was dubbed the “Bates cairn,” after Waldron Bates, another early trail advocate who’s sometimes called the “father of Acadia’s trail system.”

Bates was “a tireless walker and fearless climber,” wrote the noted landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. “He enjoyed nothing so much as working out a good path up an incredibly steep crag or finding a way between rock ledges to some quiet grove hidden in a fold of the mountain.”

The Bates cairns offer a simple, pleasingly druidic, way of finding one’s way across treeless uplands. I follow them across the rounded top of Dorr, then descend into a dusky col before ascending Cadillac Mountain, picking up the cairns again as I climb out of the beech and maples.

Nearing the top of the park’s tallest point, which is accessible by car, crowds thicken as drivers and their families spill out of minivans and sedans. I find myself now amid a new tourist ecosystem, occupied by a tribe that views nature not only as inspiration but also as a yawning pit of horrors; I hear much shouting for children to stay away from the edge, which is odd, since Cadillac Mountain lacks much of an edge. (The summit was sanded smooth by ancient glaciers.)

I spend a few minutes trying to enjoy the summit, and in theory there are no obstructions to the view here. But the milling crowds, the glare from windshields in the parking lot, and the teeming gift shop offer larger if less tangible obstacles. I don’t linger long; leaving the commotion behind, I set off down the South Ridge Trail.

I’d be a liar if I reported that all trails at Acadia are hauntingly beautiful sculptures handcrafted of ancient rock. Take, for example, the West Face Trail down Cadillac. After turning off the ridge, I find that it hasn’t benefited much from the hand of man; it’s an unrelenting drop, crossing stretches of jumbled, angular boulders that tumbled down the mountain eons ago and came to rest with malice aforethought, their sharp corners facing up. I no longer feel as though I’m strolling through a pleasant gallery but instead am now involuntarily engaged in some reality-TV obstacle course, gingerly picking my way down–aware that a misstep may mean, if not certain death, then abrasions, inconvenience, and humiliation. I long for the stair builders.

I survive the descent with dignity mostly intact. At the base of the mountain I come to the shore of lovely Bubble Pond, encased in emerald hills. At the pond’s outlet I find a small stream. It’s obvious what I need to do: remove shoes, apply feet. While soaking and paying somewhat closer attention to moss than is customary for me, I catch glimpses of mountain bikers gliding specter-like through the forested hillside above. Recuperated and reshod, I walk up to investigate. And there I find myself back in Acadia’s spectacular trail gallery.

Acadia’s carriage roads are rightly famed for their beauty and grace. They were designed for an earlier era, yet suit ours perfectly. Broad and well-wrought of finely crushed stone, often edged with boulders, these gently winding roads have a medieval, fairytale-like quality, and you half expect a troop of knights to come galloping along, pennants fluttering. The roads were one of the grand extravagances of the early 20th century, built so that island denizens could take their horses and buggies out into the wilds, without suffering the indignity of unattractive sights or untidy lanes. Paid for largely by John D. Rockefeller Jr., they weave through forests, along streams, and (gradually, so as not to tax the horses) up hills, with ocean or lake views that blossom with every yard of elevation.

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