Difficulty: Easy. This hike is less than 2 miles in total length and climbs gradually to the highest point of Bar Island, which is 173 feet above sea level, according Google Maps. The surface of the trail varies greatly, from sand to rocks to forest floor.
How to get there: The trail starts at the end of Bridge Street in Bar Harbor. To get there, drive onto Mount Desert Island on Route 3 (Bar Harbor Road) and after crossing the causeway, veer left at the fork, continuing on Route 3 for 9.8 miles. Turn left onto West Street and drive 0.3 miles; turn left onto Bridge Street. You can park at the end of Bridge Street. The trail starts on the sandbar at the end of Bridge Street, which is 0.1 mile long. While parking is permitted on the sandbar, it is not advised, since it is well below the high tide mark. Parking is available along the side of West Street and other nearby roads.
The sandbar is only exposed for three hours each day, during low tide. Unwittingly, many people have hiked across the sandbar and into the woods of the island, only to return to the shore and find the sandbar has disappeared and they are stranded. Another mistake people have made is parking their vehicles on the sandbar, then returning hours later to find their car submerged in the ocean.
Needless to say, when hiking Bar Island Trail, timing is everything. The sandbar is exposed about 1.5 hour before low tide and 1.5 after low tide. But since the time of low tide changes, be sure to check local tide charts and plan accordingly.
Bar Island Trail is a part of Acadia National Park and is about 1 mile long, from the beach on M.D.I. to the highest point on Bar Island. The trail changes greatly along the way, from a sand bar, to a wide forest trail, to a narrower footpath over rocky terrain.
All park visitors are required to pay an entrance fee upon entry May through October, regardless of whether they have to pass a fee collection gate to reach a trailhead. Passes can be found at multiple fee collection areas around the island, including park visitor centers and town offices.
Starting on the beach at the end of Bridge Street in Bar Harbor, the Bar Island Trail crosses the wide sandbar, which is a combination of sand, rocks, seaweed and sea shells. As the tide recedes, more of the sandbar is exposed and some saltwater pools form. Explore these pools to find a variety of sea creatures that live in the intertidal zones, such as a variety of saltwater worms, mussels, periwinkles, whelks, sea stars, barnacles, crabs, sea slugs and little shrimp-like animals called “scuds.”
Upon reaching Bar Island, you’ll cross a rocky beach to reach a kiosk at the edge of the woods. On the kiosk is a map of the trail, tidal charts, and a reminder of some of the park rules. Past the kiosk the trail heads into the woods.
The trail is wide and fairly smooth, climbing gradually as it switchbacks through a mature forest. The trail then travels through a meadow, perfect for bird watching and picnicking in the sun, and re-enters the forest.
Just after the meadow, look for a cedar post sign on the left that reads “Bar Island Trail” and indicates that the summit is in 0.2 mile. Past it, a narrow hiking trail leads up to the summit. This trail is rocky and steep in some areas. There are also some exposed tree roots.
A large pile of rocks marks the highest point of the island and the end of the trail, where you can sit on rock ledges and take in a view of downtown Bar Harbor, behind which rises two impressive mountains: Champlain Mountain (left) and Cadillac Mountain (right). A grassy area near the rock pile is a great place for a picnic.
Dogs are permitted on this trail and on the beaches but must be on a leash that is 6 feet or shorter at all times; and owners are expected to clean up after their pets. All Acadia National Park rules and regulations should be followed on Bar Island. Pack out all trash. Camping and fires are not permitted.
To learn about Acadia National Park and its rules, visit www.nps.gov/acad or call 288-3338.
Personal note: I slowed down the car as I neared the end of Bridge Street. A man walking beside the road gave me a questioning look, so I rolled down the window. While my dog Oreo barked at the stranger, I shouted, “Do you know where to park to walk across to Bar Island?”
“You can park on the beach,” he said. “But I wouldn’t advise it… I’ve seen cars half underwater at high tide … I’d park up on West Street and walk down.
“Don’t get stuck out there,” he warned.
I had checked the tide charts and knew that low tide was scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on April 16. The sandbar must have just emerged from the waves when we arrived at 2 p.m. and walked across, so Oreo and I had plenty of time (about 3 hours) to explore Bar Island.
Several other people were walking back and forth across the sand bar that Thursday, including bicyclists and dog walkers. But I knew it would be much busier in the middle of the summer, when the tourists arrived in full force.
The buzz of chainsaws greeted us on the rocky beach of Bar Island; park staff were hard at work cleaning up the trail after a long, harsh winter.
Once in the woods, the noise faded and the crowd we’d met on the sandbar seemed to disappear. We were hiking alone, up through the forest and across a meadow, over rocks and roots, to the top of Bar Island.
When I first spotted the large rock pile that marks the highest point of the island, I thought were we alone. But as I walked around the cairn, I spotted a man sitting on a rock ledge, taking in the view. I smiled at him and gave him space. Sitting on the exposed bedrock, I poured Oreo some water and photographed the view — Bar Harbor across the water, underneath the snow-dusted humps on Cadillac and Champlain mountains.
I couldn’t help but listen as the man made a business call on his cell phone — a long business call — which in my opinion is a big no-no when it comes to trail etiquette. You shouldn’t disturb the peacefulness of the most rewarding part of a hike by pulling out your phone. I took a few more photos and left, preferring to be on the quiet trail than listen to his one-sided conversation.
Back on the shore of Bar Island, I let Oreo wade into the water as I gazed at seagulls bobbing in the waves. With interest, I watched as one dunked its head underwater, surfaced with a clump of mussels and seaweed, then took flight. Flying high above the shore, it dropped the mussels so they’d break open on the rocks below. Then the bird quickly descended on the fresh seafood.
At about 4 p.m., we walked back along the sandbar long before it disappeared under the waves.