Watching a spectacular sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain in southern Maine's Acadia National Park is a bucket-list trip for many travelers. Located on Mount Desert Island, it is, after all, the highest point on the eastern seaboard, with an elevation of 1,530 feet, and it's where the first light emerges in the U.S. during certain months of the year.
With the mountain its prized treasure, Acadia is among the top 10 most-visited national parks in the country, says the National Park Service, attracting some 4 million visits per year. The Acadia region of Maine, also home to popular Bar Harbor, is the ancestral land of the Wabanaki Native American people, who hunted, fished, and shellfished the coastal landscape for more than 10,000 years. The Wabanaki also was known to have helped guide French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he arrived on Mount Desert Island in 1604.
Cadillac Mountain was named after another French explorer, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, in 1918. It was called Green Mountain before that, but its early Native American name was Pemetic, meaning the range of mountains or sloping land.
Today it's called crowded, at least in the summer and fall tourism months. And that's why visitors need to plan ahead if they want to see the first light from the top of Cadillac Mountain.
Yes, You Need A Permit To Drive To The Top Of Cadillac Mountain
Like most top attractions across the country, there are rules and regulations tied to accessing Cadillac Mountain by car. It's important for travelers to plan ahead since the destination is wildly popular, and a limited number of sunrise permits are issued for each day.
First, visitors need to pay admission to the park. That costs $30 per vehicle. Those who plan to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain for sunrise pay an additional $6 per car, and advance reservations are required. The permit must be reserved online at recreation.gov for access to the Cadillac Summit Road from May 25 to Oct. 22. Under National Park Service rules, 30 percent of vehicle reservations are released 90 days in advance of each available date, while the remaining 70 percent are released two days ahead, at 10 a.m. EST.
It means that, for example, visitors planning a week's stay in the Mount Desert Island area can wait to reserve their permit until two days before they wish to ascend the mountain for sunrise. This scenario enables travelers to check weather forecasts close in to their preferred date, but they'll have to scramble to make sure they can reserve their permit. Those who book several weeks out from their visit will take a gamble on the weather, but they'll have their reservation confirmed.
Due to the sheer number of permit seekers and limited parking at the summit, the park service assigns specific arrival times for each permit holder. Visitors have a 90-minute window to arrive at the summit. For instance, if the booked arrival time is 5 a.m., the permit holder can arrive anytime between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Once on the mountain top, visitors can stay as long as they like. The earliest sunrise reservation times vary, from 4:45 a.m. in June to 6:15 a.m. in October.
And travelers should remember that only one sunrise reservation is allowed per vehicle in a seven-day period.
Tips For Making Your Cadillac Mountain Sunrise A Success
The weather at the top of Cadillac Mountain could be quite different from, say, Bar Harbor, so it's important to dress in layers for a sunrise excursion. Even in summer, long sleeves and a jacket are recommended, along with a blanket to sit on and a hot beverage in a thermos.
The right footwear is crucial, too, given the rocky terrain at and near the mountain top. It's best to arrive at the summit about an hour before sunrise to get the full effect of the changing light, and that means visitors should remember to bring a flashlight or wear a headlamp.
Some visitors who wish to enjoy a Cadillac Mountain sunrise won't arrive by car. Instead, they'll hike up the mountain or ride a bicycle. Permits are not needed for either.
For walkers, there are two trails to the summit of the mountain, Cadillac North and Cadillac South. The north route is a 4.4-mile roundtrip loop, described as having moderate difficulty. It's a rocky trail along some steep granite slopes but offers panoramic views of Bar Harbor and its environs, including Frenchman Bay and the Schoodic Peninsula. The south route is a more gradual climb, but it's also longer – about seven miles roundtrip. The park service strongly recommends headlamps for those trekking up the mountain for sunrise. Bicyclists can traverse the three-mile summit road to the mountaintop but should be aware that it's steep and has some blind turns and corners.