When you head to Acadia National Park in Maine, there are several iconic spots and vistas you will want to see and experience. Perhaps the most popular of them all is a hike or drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain to catch a sunrise. Check out our tips below for planning your own trip to watch the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain.
Cadillac Mountain in Acadia
Sitting along the Eastern US seaboard in Maine is Mount Desert Island. An incredibly popular destination for tourists, Mount Desert Island is home to the town of Bar Harbor and also Acadia National Park. Cadillac Mountain is located inside Acadia. It is the highest peak along the US East Coast and between October and March, it is the first place to see the sun rise anywhere in the United States!
Peak season for visitors to Acadia coincides with the summer season and you can expect crowds in the park from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Thanks to New England’s stunning displays of fall foliage, Acadia continues to see an influx of visitors throughout September and October as well.
Cadillac Summit Access
There are two ways to access the summit on Cadillac Mountain. You can drive up Cadillac Summit Road or you can hike on foot. The hike is no joke and can take between 2.5 to 4 hours, depending on your pace and how many breaks you take. The drive will take about 30 minutes from the road entrance to the parking lot.
Tips for Driving to Cadillac Mountain Sunrise
We spent some time camping on Mount Desert Island this summer. We visited Acadia on a few of those days, including catching a sunrise from Cadillac Mountain one morning. It was a wonderful trip and we all agreed that our first visit to Maine will not be our last! Check out these tips that we put together after we experienced the ticketing process and a Cadillac Mountain sunrise. Knowing these tips and making some advanced plans will greatly improve your chances of having a successful trip to the summit for sunrise!
Time Entry Passes are Required
New as of 2021 is a ticket reservation requirement if you want to drive up to the summit at sunrise. This ticketing system hopes to alleviate a major issue with traffic at the summit. Some mornings during peak season it was not uncommon to see 400+ vehicles attempt to drive up the summit for sunrise (parking lot can accomodate 150 cars).
Here are some tips for securing a pass to see the sunrise on the summit:
- Tickets for Cadillac Mountain Sunrise can be purchased on Recreation.gov. Make sure you purchase the pass called Cadillac Summit Road – Sunrise. (The other available pass is for daytime entry – after the sunrise.)
- Cadillac Summit Road Sunrise passes are currently $6 ($4 plus a $2 service charge) per car. They are one-time-use passes and can only be used on the date listed on the pass.
- There are only 150 passes available per calendar day (this corresponds with the number of parking spots at the summit).
- 30% of the passes go on sale 90 days prior to the date of entry. The remaining tickets are released for sale at 10 AM EST 2 days before the date of entry. As you might imagine, they sell out fast.
- You can purchase these passes on the Recreation.gov website or on their app.
- Only one pass can be purchased per every 7 calendar days. This kind of stinks, because you really don’t get the option to choose the better weather day, but it is what it is.
- Don’t think you can arrive without a pass and buy one there. Nope. You can’t. We sat in line and watched at least 3 of the cars that were in line in front of us get turned away because they did not have the Sunrise vehicle pass. Besides wasting your time (and everyone else’s waiting behind you), you won’t be allowed past the entrance and you will have to do the Drive of Shame back down the road.
Acadia National Park Pass is Also Required
In addition to grabbing a vehicle pass for Cadillac Mountain Sunrise, you will also need to buy an entrance pass to Acadia National Park. We paid $30 for a pass and it was valid for 7 days. When we arrived at the entrance to Cadillac Summit Road, the ranger scanned both of our passes – the vehicle pass and the park entrance pass. (Did you know that 4th graders get a free National Parks Pass?!)
These passes are available on Recreation.gov (website or app).
Check the Weather – including the Mountain Forecast
As I mentioned before, if you are lucky enough score a vehicle pass to the summit for sunrise, you are unfortunately restricted to just the date on the pass. Even if the weather forecast isn’t great for your entry date, it will likely be your only chance to try to catch a sunrise.
Keep in mind that weather can be wildly different as you climb in elevation. This actually helped us on our trip. We kept checking the weather for Acadia but only looked at the weather on the ground, not on the mountain. You can actually check mountain weather to get a better idea of what to expect. We woke up to solid clouds and even a little rain on the morning of our sunrise attempt. To be honest, we came really close to bagging the trip entirely. But we figured we were already awake and only had one shot at using the ticket, so we might as well give it a go.
The clouds followed us the entire way to Acadia and it even rained a little bit.
As we climbed higher and higher up Cadillac Summit Road, we drove OUT of those low lying clouds! There was another layer of clouds high above us, but we somehow saw the sun rise above the horizon on a morning that looked like this would be impossible!
Check the Sunrise Time
Make sure you check the actual sunrise time for Cadillac Mountain so that you can plan your travel time. It would be a shame to get to the top of the mountain and find that you missed the sunrise by just a few minutes!
Once you figure out when the sun will cross the horizon, it’s time to plan your travel schedule.
Allow for PLENTY of Time
Not only do you need to plan for travel time to the entrance of the mountain road, you also need to account for enough time to drive up the mountain, park and find a viewing spot.
Here is an example of how to backtrack your schedule so that you arrive on time:
- Locate the sunrise time for Cadillac Mountain on the date you secured a reservation for. (On our date in early August, the sunrise time was 5:21 am.)
- See how far away you are from Cadillac Summit Road. (Our campground was 25 minutes away from the entrance to Cadillac Summit Road. That puts us at a 4:55 am departure.)
- Allow about 10 minutes to sit in line once you get to the entrance. There is a ranger station and there will be a ranger checking that everyone has a valid pass for both Acadia AND for that morning’s sunrise. (Departure now 4:45 am.)
- Cadillac Summit Road is a windy, slow 3 mile road to the top. Give yourself 30 minutes to drive up the road, park, get out of your car, and find a sunrise viewing spot. (Departure time is now 4:15 am.)
We definitely needed about a full hour from the time we left our campground until we sat down on some boulders to watch the sunrise. I know it’s early (OMG SO EARLY) but it’s something you will likely do just once (per trip, anyway). Our fam felt it was worth the effort!
As you drive up the mountain, one thing is almost guaranteed: the top is chillier than the bottom. Factor in that the warm sun has yet to rise and you could find the summit to be rather chilly. (This is especially true outside of summer, but even in August, we felt a chill in the air!)
Most visitors who arrive for the sunrise leave shortly after the sun comes up, but you might want to linger for a bit and enjoy the views. (This also allows the parking lot to clear out a bit, which is always nice!)
Find a Spot Away from the Actual Summit
Not surprisingly, the summit is the most popular spot on Cadillac Mountain. For this reason, it can get pretty crowded at sunrise. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather veer away from the crowds and their noise and find a quiet spot a bit off the beaten path.
As you venture down and out from the summit, you will find plenty of spots to stand or sit and await the sun!
I hope that these tips are helpful to you as you plan your own visit to Cadillac Mountain for sunrise! Definitely let us know how your experience is and if you have any recommendations that aren’t listed above. Happy travels!
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