Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, depending on if you’re afraid of heights. Round trip from Jordan Pond House, loop hikes with the ascent being on the 1.4-mile Jordan Pond Cliffs Trail vary from 3.7 miles to 5.7 miles, depending on if you want to bag one peak (Penobscot Mountain) or two peaks (Penobscot and Sargent mountains). This trail includes iron rungs, narrow bridges, rocky sections, granite staircases, tangles of exposed tree roots and short steep areas that require hand-over-foot climbing.
How to get there: The closest parking area to Jordan Cliffs Trail at Jordan Pond off the Park Loop Road. This parking lot fills up quickly, especially during the weekend in the summer and fall. To avoid being turned away due to lack of parking, arrive early in the morning, plan the hike on a weekday or during the off season (spring and late fall) or hop on an Island Explorer bus.
To get there, drive onto Mount Desert Island on Route 3 and veer left at the intersection to drive toward Bar Harbor. After driving 7.6 miles and turn right to enter Acadia National Park at Hulls Cove Visitor Center. Drive straight forward for a few hundred feet, then at the intersection, turn left onto the Park Loop Road (Hulls Cove Visitor Center and a large parking area will be to the right if you need to pay for a park pass or purchase a trail map). Drive on Park Loop Road for 3 miles, then veer right and continue on Park Loop Road for another 4.4 miles, then turn right into the parking area for Jordan Pond.
Using a detailed park trail map, you can then navigate the carriage roads south about 0.2 mile to Spring Trail, which you can hike 0.3 west to a carriage road, where you turn right to find the Jordan Cliffs Trailhead.
Information: The Jordan Cliffs Trail, climbing diagonally up the steep eastern side of Penobscot Mountain, is one of the most challenging and exciting trails in Acadia National Park, and it offers stunning views of Jordan Pond and beyond, to Seal Harbor and the Cranberry Islands.
Measuring 1.4 miles in length, the trail is ever-changing, presenting different challenges, including a section of metal rungs and rails that hikers must use to scale the steepest section of the trail. The trail is not for those who are afraid of heights, since a good portion of the trail travels along the edge of the cliff, with a sheer drop to one side and a rock wall rising to the other side. It is also not a place for dogs.
Starting at the Jordan Cliffs Trailhead near Jordan Pond House (about 0.5 mile away by taking the carriage road and Spring Trail route), the Jordan Cliffs Trail climbs gradually through a forest of spruce, cedar and pine. Early on the trail is a wooden sign that warns hikers that the trail ahead is steep with exposed cliffs and fixed iron rungs.
Early on, the trail travels over exposed granite spotted with colorful lichen, ducking in and out of the shaded forest, and it isn’t long before cliffs rise up to your left. In the summer, take a close look and you may find purple bell-shaped flowers growing from cracks all the way up the cliffs.
A long staircase climbs up the side of a particularly impressive cliff, then the trail levels off a bit as a view of Jordan Pond opens up. You then reach a rockslide — a jumble of large granite blocks that the trail simply travels over as it continues up the mountain.
After that, you’ll reach one of the most intimidating sections of the trail, a fairly narrow area where the trail travels along the top of a cliff. While this section of the trail is plenty wide enough to hike safely, the dramatic drop-off to your right can be a bit daunting. Just don’t forget to pause here and enjoy the view, which is wide open and extends all the way to the ocean. On a sunny day, you’ll be able to see the different depths of Jordan Pond as the color of the water changes from turquoise to deep blue, and along the edge of the pond, rocks shine in the shallows.
The trail then dips back into the forest and climbs over the twisted roots of impressive white cedar trees. There in the woods, you’ll come to your first section of iron rungs, which will help you get up and over a boulder. The trail then travels along the bottom of a cliff, descends a bit and reaches a long metal rail that leads to an usual wooden bridge-staircase. The trail then continues down, past a tiny rock cave, then back up again and along the top of a cliff once more.
As you’re nearing the end of the trail, you’ll come to the longest section of iron rungs, which form a ladder up the cliffs. Here you’ll need to do a little hand-over-foot climbing, using the rungs as well as natural handholds in the granite. The views of Jordan Pond from this location is spectacular.
Soon after this difficult climb, you’ll come to an intersection marked with a sign. Here you have a few options, depending on how long you want your hike to be and if you care about bagging a summit. Whatever you choose to do, it’s advisable not to descend the Jordan Cliffs Trail, as descending steep trails is more dangerous than ascending them.
If you turn left at the intersection, it’s 0.4 mile to the summit of Penobscot Mountain, and from there, you can descend the mountain on the Penobscot Mountain Trail for a loop hike that is about 3.7 miles long. Some people even add in the peak of Sargent Mountain and loop down to Jordan Pond for a hike that is 5.7 miles.
If you turn right at the intersection, you will be continuing on the final 0.2 mile of Jordan Cliffs Trail. When it ends at Deer Brook Trail, you can turn right and descend 0.3 mile (crossing a carriage road) to Jordan Pond Path. There you’ll turn right to hike an easy 1.5 mile back to Jordan Pond House for a hike that is 3.7 miles long.
It’s important to keep in mind that Jordan Cliffs Trail is usually closed for the spring and the bulk of the summer because the cliffs are a nesting site for peregrine falcons, a bird that listed as endangered in Maine, and studies show that human proximity to their nests can result in nest abandonment. Typically, the trail is closed sometime in March, when the falcons arrive at the cliffs, and they reopen in nearly August, weeks after their offspring have successfully flown from the nest. Other trails in Acadia closed for nesting peregrine falcons include the Precipice Trail and the Valley Cove Trail.
While dogs are permitted on most trails in Acadia — if kept on leash no longer than 6 feet at all times — they are not permitted on the Jordan Cliffs Trail or a number of other trails that include ladders and rungs, simply because dogs cannot climb these trails safely.
All visitors to Acadia are required to pay an entrance fee upon entry May through October. Park passes are available at several locations on the island, including park visitor centers. For information about the park, call 288-3338 or visit www.nps.gov/acad.
Personal note: We walked a mile in the wrong direction on Aug. 8, and I blame Jordan Pond. It was just too beautiful to part from, with it’s crystal clear waters, ruffled by a warm breeze and sparkling in the sun. My husband Derek and I had walked along the boardwalk of Jordan Pond Path nearly to the pond’s north end before we realized we were headed in the wrong direction to hike Jordan Cliffs Trail. So after apologizing to Derek, I turned us around and we walked the beautiful, easy path back to the south end of the pond. At least our legs were warmed up for the hike, I told myself, though I dared not say it aloud.
From that point on, we looked at our detailed trail map probably more than necessary, double checking that every turn was correct. Navigating the carriage roads and Spring Trail, we made it to the Jordan Cliffs Trailhead just as a group of six young adults were also preparing to embark on the challenging hike. They had a dog with them, and though I dislike being a know-it-all, I voiced my concern that the dog wouldn’t be able to hike the steep trail because of the iron rungs. They decided to try it anyway.
About half-way up the trail, as we approached the top of a cliff, I turned to see the dog off leash trotting up behind us. I shooed it back, then told the group that they needed to put their dog on leash. A girl in the group replied that she didn’t think her dog would jump off the cliff. And I argued that she didn’t know that — dog’s do weird things. I watched as she put her dog on a leash. Feeling a bit better about the situation, I continued on with Derek.
As we crossed a narrow bridge and climbed the cliffs using granite holds and iron rungs, I wondered how the group behind us were doing. They had either slowed down considerably or finally decided to turn around because they were no longer catching up with us each time we stopped to photograph the landscape of shoot video of tricky sections of trail. I hope they got down safely with their pup. We didn’t see them for the rest of our hike.
Not one who is particularly afraid of heights, I truly enjoyed the trail, especially the steep sections where I could run my hands over the warm granite searching for handholds and footholds, then use them to hoist myself up onto iron rungs. Standing at the edge of the cliffs, with Jordan Pond and the lush forest far below, made me feel almost like I was flying, taking it all in from the wing.
As we neared the end of Jordan Cliffs Trail, we turned left and hiked up to the top of Penobscot Mountain, then descended on the Penobscot Mountain Trail, which traces the mountain’s bare ridgeline back down to Jordan Pond. The views along the way were so amazing that I had to force myself to stop taking photographs — and picking wild lowbush blueberries — or we’d never get off the mountain.