Acadia’s Trails Tell a Story Now Marked in National History

The Largest System of Trails on the National Register of Historic Places

Historic National Park Service photos of Civilian Conservation Corps workers of the 1940s. (Photos courtesy NPS)


Acadia National Park now has the largest system of trails listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also the first trail system on the register that originated from paths taken by mid-19th century American landscape artists, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who found inspiration on Mount Desert Island and shared it through their works.

This spring, Acadia’s hiking trails were listed in the national register, recognizing their national historic significance and ties to the history of Mount Desert Island (MDI) and the establishment of Acadia National Park. This is an extraordinary feat and certainly one to celebrate! The National Park Service (NPS) has been working on the National Register nomination for several years. Friends of Acadia helped fund the research and writing for the nomination.

The listing includes 109 historic, maintained trails covering 11 7 miles, and 18 memorial plaques or markers, 12 viewpoints, and unique engineering features. Some of those trails are outside the park boundary on Mount Desert Island, which is why the official listing is “The Mount Desert Island Hiking Trail System.”



In making the announcement in April, Park Superinten­dent Kevin Schneider said, “This recognition is a testament to not only the historic significance of these trails, but also the incredible dedication of the National Park Service staff, partners, and volunteers who continue to preserve them today.”

Two National Park Service staff members who were instrumental in the nomination – Acadia’s Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug and Cultural Resources Program Manager Gail Gladstone­ – confirmed that getting the trail system on the National Register helps the park in several ways:


1. National Recognition

Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places confers national historic significance, going far beyond recognizing the trails as locally significant. “This puts the trail system right up there with the carriage roads, the gatehouses, bridges, and lighthouses that were already on the National Register,” said Stellpflug.

2. Funding Opportunities

Getting the trail system listed could also help the pack procure more federal funds. “When requesting money from the National Park Service, we prepare proposals that make the case for why it’s important that Acadia receive funding;’ said Gladstone. “Now, the narrative will include our National Register status, which automatically confers the importance that comes with it.”

3. Trail Management

“It’s another guidance document for the future,” said Stellpflug. “We have a trails plan, two cultural landscape reports, and now we have the National Register. This helps the next generation of stewards caring for our trails to have the same snapshot we have today.”


Acadia’s Trails Evolved Over Centuries

Acadia’s trail system evolved over centuries of human use, settlement, and recreation on Mount Desert Island. The Wabanaki blazed early trails on this land, and Village Improvement Associations and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) members built and maintained many of the trails we enjoy today.

The National Register listing focuses on the period of significance for the trail system starting in 1844, when artist Thomas Cole first documented views of the island landscape that influenced the trail system’s development, and ending in 1942, when the CCC work at Acadia National Park concluded.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and his student Frederic Church (1826-1900) had keen eyes for stunning natural beauty. These great landscape artists traveled to experience Mount Desert Island’s dramatic coastal scenery in the late 1830s and introduced the island to a wider audience through their writings and artwork. The National Register listing focuses on these “artist-explorers” who adapted Native American footpaths, cart paths, and settlement roads for recreational hiking, which grew into a network of trails that continue to guide us to well-known vistas – ­including the views of the Bubbles, Great Head, and Otter Cove-that served as inspiration for their writings and paintings.

The “Rusticators” (artists, authors, and tourists) who followed the earliest painters adapted existing routes and blazed new ones to visit the scenic locations, creating in the process a cohesive system of hiking trails.

In the early 20th century, the trail system was further built and improved by four key Village Improvements Societies in Bar Harbor, Seal Harbor, Northeast Harbor, and Southwest Harbor, adding to the trail system’s historical significance.

Between 1866 and 1890, historic trails were initially documented and/or constructed by early tourists. And from 1933 to 1942, a significant part of the work was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Historic National Park Service photos of Civilian Conservation Corps workers of the 1940s. (Photo courtesy NPS)

Trail Features We Know and Love are Connected to History

The National Register listing notes how Mount Desert ls­land’s earliest trails led directly between ponds, to mountain summits, and to other scenic and recreational points such as overlooks, coastal or mountain ledges, and waterfalls. Trails designed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries tend to be longer and more difficult, providing access to places such as Great Head, Thunder Hole, Cadillac Cliffs, and Bubble Rock.

One of the true hallmarks of Acadia’s trail system are the presence of stone steps and staircases designed to harmonize with the natural surroundings. There are four major types of historic steps in the park, each named for their builders: Bates (for lawyer and path maker Waldron Bates), Dorr (for Acadia’s founder George B. Dorr), Brunnow (for Princeton Professor Rudolph E. Brunnow), and CCC-style (for the Civilian Conservation Corps). Each style is categorized by characteristics such as layout, stone type, and degree of uniformity.

Many early Village Improvement Association trails, particularly cliff trails, use iron pins, rungs, ladders, and bridges extensively. The Precipice and Beehive Trails have some of the best examples of this ironwork.

For the park, this National Register listing will be a resource going forward to ensure continuity in managing the trail system to today’s conditions.

“The Mount Desert Island historic trail system deserves all the recognition it has received,” said Gladstone. “It is a testament to the artistry and talent of the original trail builders, through their thoughtful expression of design and ingenuity, and their desire to create adventure and celebrate the beauty and wonder of a place like Acadia. It’s also recognition of the talent and dedication of many volunteers and park staff over the years who followed in preserving and maintaining the trails. And it is a testament to the generosity of the Friends of Acadia and the many ways this partnership has supported the trail system over the years.”

LORI SCHAEFER is Friends of Acadia’s Communications Director. (This article was compiled from the National Park Service news release, the National Register listing, and interviews with park staff).

Historic National Park Service photos of Civilian Conservation Corps workers of the 1940s. (Photo courtesy NPS)