Watch Where You Step!

Hiking inherently has hazards, and Acadia National Park has conditions that can surprise even the most experienced hikers. Check out these hiking safety tips from three local experts who are often on the front lines when injuries do occur.


After walking along the base of Norumbega Mountain to Lower Hadlock Pond, we stopped to enjoy the waterfalls at an arched footbridge. Though it was a sunny day, a stunning halfmoon caught the attention of my hiking companion.

As he positioned me to see it, he stepped back and fell six feet into a crevice. Fortunately, his backpack cushioned the blow and, shaken up but with nothing broken, he was able to walk away and finish the loop. It could have been a lot worse!

And that’s why hiking safety lists always remind us to look where we step and not to back up blindly to take a photo-or point to interesting things in the sky. Hiking inherently has hazards, and Acadia National Park has conditions that can surprise even the most experienced hikers. Sadly, injuries and even fatalities do occur. Cases in Mount Desert Island Hospital’s emergency room range from frost bite to trauma, including head injuries.

According to Physician Assistant Gordon Murphy, most are sprains with some broken bones, usually ankles and wrists. “It’s heartbreaking sometimes because people have been looking forward to their vacations all year… But I try to buoy their spirits.’

Local experts who know Acadia well-and who often find themselves on the front lines when injuries occur-have formulated simple tips that will help people safely enjoy Acadia’s unique blend of ocean, rocky coastline, and mountains.

A mass casualty drill was conducted by Acadia National Park and emergency responders from Mount Desert Island and beyond on the Otter Cove Causeway in 2019 to practice multi-agency collaboration. Photo by Julia Walker Thomas/Friends of Acadia

Acadia’s Safety Resources

Acadia National Park’s Visitor and Resource Protection division provides emergency services in the park, including law enforcement, emergency medical services, and search and rescue. ”And if we need additional resources, we will get them;’ says Seamus Russet, a law enforcement ranger who also serves as Acadia’s search-and-rescue (SAR) coordinator.

One such group is Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue (MDISAR), a Bar Harbor nonprofit that is skilled in wilderness search and rescue, technical rope rescue, and medical aid.

SAR volunteers train more than 20 hours every month so that they can successfully conduct operations such as using rope belays for a rescue on a cliff side and carrying a litter down a trail from a rocky outcropping. Acadia National Park calls MDISAR into service about 40 times a year, according to SAR team member and Friends of Acadia board member Lili Pew.

Left: Members of MDI Search and Rescue conduct a simulated rescue as part of a training with Acadia National Park staff. Photo Courtesy MDI SAR Right: MDI Search and Rescue Volunteers, including Lili Pew, perform a simulated rescue in the park near Little Hunters Beach. – Photo Courtesy MDI SAR

Back-up can also come from Maine Warden Service, town police and fire departments, Maine State Police, Maine Forest Service, LifeFlight of Maine, U.S. Coast Guard, and Friends of Acadia. “It’s really an incredible feat of teamwork and communication” when individuals from these organizations work together, putting themselves at risk when they do, says Russet.

In addition, Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor provides 24- hour emergency care, but those who are seriously hurt must be flown by helicopter to Bangor’s Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, a Level II trauma center.

A Lot of Trails, A Lot of People

Acadia’s trails are well maintained and marked, so it’s hard to get “truly lost;’ says Russet. Calls to 911 work on any tower. “The 911 coverage is better than if you are trying to get on Face book at Jordan Pond;’ he notes.

With almost four million visits to the park in recent years, the sheer number of emergencies can challenge resources. During a recent Fourth of July holiday, four serious events occurred in less than four hours, including a woman losing consciousness from heat stroke and a man sliding down a 40-foot slope and then falling off a 20-foot cliff. Later in the afternoon, a young child was locked in a hot car.

Most incidents are not so dramatic; in fact, many people rescue themselves. Someone with a sprained ankle who has a first aid kit can wrap the ankle with strapping tape and walk out.

A “full-blown carry-out;’ however, will require equipment, people, and time-which vary depending on location, weather, and available resources. Last summer, for example, shortly after rescue experts had been called to the top of Cadillac for an injury, another emergency occurred on the Cadillac’s West Face trail.

Although personnel were already nearby, the operation lasted five hours, with 13 park rangers and 15 MDISAR members.

Acadia National Park Staff, Friends of Acadia Summit Stewards, and MDI Search and Rescue Volunteers, including Lili Pew, perform a rescue in the park. Photo Courtesy MDI Search and Rescue)

Rock ‘n’ Roots

“The vast majority of our rescues are lower leg injuries-ankles, knees, legs-that result from simple slips, trips, and falls;’ says Russet.

“Think about where your feet are going;’ advises Pew, because surfaces are often uneven and debris may hide mini potholes.

“Read about a trail before you go;’ adds Murphy, who is an avid hiker himself. Trail descriptions online and in guidebooks specify challenge level, distance, and-importantly-terrain. For example, Great Head is less than two miles but has some intimidating steep sections during the descent.

“Starting slow helps you understand what our trails are like;’ say Russet. He encourages first-time visitors to hike around Jordan Pond, Ocean Path, or Great Head, which is a great example of rocks and roots without the vertical of Sargent or Cadillac Mountains.

Some of Acadia’s more challenging trails feature rungs and ladders to aid hikers-but not all. To navigate these, Murphy advises having three good holds between your hands and feet before you move the fourth extremity.

Not Only Hiking

Hurtling down a hill on a bike and hitting some debris caused one accident Murphy recalls. Hairpin turns can also be hazardous. “The importance of wearing a helmet goes without saying, but try not to be taking a picture when you ride;’ Murphy adds.

Speaking of which, the first time I met Murphy was actually in the emergency room at MDI Hospital-an experience that made me want to write this story. Learning the hard way, I had a new ocean kayak that proved tippier than I anticipated. As I stepped into it, it rolled, gashing my leg. Eight stitches later, I was happy that Murphy’s mother had always made him sew on his own Boy Scout badges.

Left to Right: Acadia National Park Search and Rescue Coordinator Seamus Russet. Friends of Acadia Board Member and MDI Search and Rescue Volunteer Lili Pew. MDI Hospital Physician Assistant Gordon Murphy.

Recreate Safely by Following Our Local Experts’ Safety Tips

  • Prepare for the terrain and don’t underestimate Acadia’s trails. They may not be as tall as mountains in the West, but ascents can be straight up. Wet granite is very slippery.
  • Bring a good topographic map so that you can identify valleys, peaks, and ridges, which are plentiful. Stay on the marked trail.
  • Agree where to meet if family members or friends are separated. You do it at the mall, so why not on a mountain?
  • If you hike alone, let someone know where you are going and estimate when you’ll finish. Text a photo along the way to share the fun.
  • Pick the proper footwear to avoid turning an ankle or slipping. Many emergency room visits result from wearing flip-flops.
  • Choose polypropylene instead of cotton to keep dry and warm.
  • Pack a first aid kit that includes tape to wrap a sprained ankle plus essentials like antiseptic wipes and bandages.
  • Anticipate darkness and bring a headlamp for afternoon hikes. If you are injured, alert rangers to avoid a rescue in the dark.
  • Consider bringing a sports drink that can help replace water and electrolytes that your body loses through sweating.
  • And remember you’ll need energyto descend!