[Leslie Griffin is an editor living in New York City, where nature is hard to come by. She travels to national parks and other hiking destinations whenever the opportunity arises.]
When my boyfriend and I set off for Acadia National Park in Maine during the government shutdown, we had no way of knowing that such a disruptive event could make for such an amazing vacation, but that’s exactly what happened.
We had read some articles that made it sound like people were hiking in the park despite the shutdown, but we were still skeptical and were fully prepared to come up with a plan B if push came to shove. Much to our delight, upon checking in at Aysgarth Station, our lovely B&B in Bar Harbor, the host informed us that not only were people hiking in the park, the rangers were truly looking the other way—as long as you weren’t committing any flagrant violations. With this assurance and some excellent trail recommendations from the host, we set off to break into Acadia.
”Breaking in” might be a bit of an exaggeration. We parked on the side of the road outside one of the many entrances along with about 20 other cars and then proceeded to simply walk around the sawhorse barriers. Voila! We were in. There were no cars inside the park since the normally clogged Park Loop Road was off limits. This meant that hikers and bicyclists had the run of the place—truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We hiked the breathtaking Ocean Path first, which hugs the coastline along the Loop Road and opens up to numerous stunning views. There were a fair number of people here, which made us think the park would have been packed under normal circumstances. At one point, however, we were by ourselves on a side road, and a ranger suddenly appeared out of nowhere in an SUV. I thought, “This is it. We’re going to jail.” My boyfriend thought, “Maybe this ranger can help me open this dumb wrapper on my Clif bar.” Nothing. He drove by without so much as a glance in our direction.
Eventually we split off onto the Gorham Mountain trail and left most of the people behind. The trail wended its way up the mountain across flat boulders dotted with dwarf conifers and bushes. We opted to take a detour through the Cadillac Cliffs, which our guidebook described as a moderate hike. We quickly discovered that “hike” was a misnomer and “scramble” was more accurate. There was no trail to speak of, just giant rocks we had to climb over in a generally upward direction. We saw no one here or on the rest of the Gorham trail as we ascended the mountain and only encountered a few people at the top. The view of neighboring mountains, fall foliage, and the ocean was stunning enough to make anyone want to linger.
Late in the afternoon, we drove to a different section of the park to get to Jordan Pond, one of the most picturesque trails there. The trailhead would normally have been accessible by car, but because of the shutdown, we had to park about a mile away in a quaint neighborhood and then walk in to access the trail. A small price to pay given that we basically had the place to ourselves. There were a few people near the start, but most of them didn’t continue onto the trail itself. By the time we started hiking around the 3.3 mile loop, we were alone. The sun was going down, so the trees on the opposite shore were ablaze with color. The water was absolutely still, providing a perfect reflection of the trees, and later, the rising moon. We stopped at one point so my boyfriend could set up a shot with his tripod, and it occurred to me that I had never experienced that kind of silence in my life. There wasn’t a single sound: no water lapping, no birds chirping, no leaves rustling, nothing. Just absolute and unforgettable stillness.
The following day we decided to hike up Cadillac Mountain via the south face—one of the most popular trails in the park. We passed some slow-moving German hikers at the beginning but saw no one else for the first couple of hours. Eventually, an older couple from Boston caught up to us. The wife commented that this trail is usually like “Grand Central Station,” so it was a great one to be doing during the shutdown. The reason for the trail’s popularity is clear: amazing unencumbered views once the trail leaves the woods and continues onto flat boulders that make the area seem a bit otherworldly.
At the summit, there’s a large parking lot that’s normally filled to capacity with cars and tour buses that access the top via the Loop Road. That day it was completely empty. Rather than the usual hundreds, there were maybe 20 people at the top. We saw more people on the descent and ran into the couple from Boston again near the end of the trail. The wife seemed to be lingering as her husband continued on ahead. As we passed, she said, “I’m trying to make this last as long as possible, because once we get in the car we have to drive home.” We knew exactly how she felt.