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Chase Nilson

Chase Nilson is a freelance travel writer and barista who lives in Chicago and summers Down East.

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Posted: August 29, 2018

All you need to know about Isle Au Haut

Written by: Chase Nilson

The view from the ferry on a foggy ride. Photos by Chase Nilson

Rugged. Raw. Revealing.

Such is the “high island” that emerges from the often fog-shrouded bay several miles south of Deer Isle.

Where fishing houses, bird cacophonies and rocky shorelines meet, rustic Isle au Haut is a perfect place to experience Acadia National Park away from the crowds. With water, snacks, and bug spray in tow, you’re ready to let go and enjoy.

The journey to this piece of tranquil heaven begins in the small community of Stonington, about an hour southwest of Ellsworth. Taking a turn off the main road onto Seabreeze Avenue, grab a round-trip ferry ticket for $40 and supplement your day trip with a $25 mountain bike rental. Make your way down to the dock to board the passenger-only ferry boat to Isle au Haut.

A lighthouse on Isle Au Haut.

In rain, shine, or fog, the 40-minute voyage to Isle au Haut is picturesque. If it’s foggy, the ride feels like an expedition into an unknown planet. As the ride comes to an end, another land emerges – one that is all Maine. Pine trees of varying heights and myriad shades of green crowd the rocky coastline as royal-blue waves lap against the shore. The ferry docks at the town landing where you disembark, wait for your bike, then pedal off to explore.

Unlike other Maine islands – Mount Desert, for example – Isle au Haut has few public services available. Look at this not as a drawback but as an opportunity to get closer to your surroundings. A stop at the Isle au Haut General Store is a must for any supplies you may have left behind on the mainland. It is wise to stock up on more water than you anticipate, especially if you are riding a bike around the island.

With about 12 miles of road for biking and 18 miles of trails for hiking, Isle au Haut has no shortage of expeditions. If you’re on a day trip, it is best to choose one or two trails, making sure to use the informational pamphlet available on the ferry to coordinate your exploration with the ferry schedule.

One route you can take goes from the General Store to the Duck Harbor campground, a round-trip journey of about four hours, leisurely stops included. Doubling back toward the town landing, take the main road south where you pass the tiny post office (make sure to take a photo) and the souvenir store.

Continue south on the main paved road to the ranger station, which is your last chance for information and restrooms before you’re off on your adventure. After passing the ranger station, the road becomes unpaved and hilly. For a quick scenic detour, take the first right after the road turns to gravel. After passing an octagonal building, you will soon arrive at a small lighthouse overlooking the waters below. Take a relaxing pause on one of the lawn chairs provided near the lighthouse, where you can close your eyes and breathe in the briny sea air.

Some of the rougher road for bikers.

After observing the lighthouse, go back to the main road and turn right. The track becomes arduous to bike on as loose dirt and rocks make for a turbulent ride. But if you remove yourself from any expectation of a flat, easy ride, the journey becomes ruggedly beautiful. Immerse yourself in the solitude of the ride, imagining you are an explorer discovering this land for the first time.

The 11/2 hour journey down the main road takes you through pristine forest and shallow bogs, then meanders past meadows of chartreuse hues. Feel the warmth of the sun developing through the breaking of fog and sea mist. After spending time traversing thick forest, you’ll come upon a stunning marine clearing known as Sharks Point Beach. This is the perfect spot to take a well-deserved break. While taking a bite of a granola bar and a big sip of water, sit back and bask in the beach’s serenity. Lie among the smooth beach stones or wade into the chilly waters to be refreshed by Isle au Haut’s ocean magic. Take a moment to remember this small cove is actually a part of Acadia National Park – albeit a much more relaxed Acadia than one may expect.

After a sufficient break, hop back on your bike and continue south on the road. Follow signs for Duck Harbor as you bump over the rough track. After making a turn toward Duck Harbor, you’ll see a water pump on the left side of the road, to fill up your water bottle if needed. This pump is a sign that Duck Harbor is close by.

Ahead, come to a small clearing where the road turns to the southeast and a park map stands to the right. Here you can park your bike and follow signs for the campground and the Duck Harbor ferry landing. Walk the long pier to enjoy spectacular views of Eben’s Head straight ahead and Duck Harbor to the right. The rocky shoreline, calm waters and boats at their moorings offer yet another great photo opportunity.

After a rewarding bike ride to Duck Harbor, it’s time to grab lunch before heading back to the ferry to Stonington. The Maine Lobster Lady, a seasonal food stall to the left of the General Store, offers fine eats, from fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwiches to seafood rolls.

Enjoy your lunch with equally fine views of nearby Kimball Island and the Isle au Haut Thorofare before hopping back on the ferry.

The post office is picturesque.

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