If you only have time for one hike in Acadia, make it the Precipice Trail. This hiking trail is short but challenging and very aptly named. You’ll be walking along the edges of cliffs and sometimes dangling off of them as you climb up vertical sections via iron ladders in the rock. There are also sections of steep rock stairs, uneven dirt sections, and a boulder field to traverse. It’s a true leg-day burner and definitely not for anyone with a fear of heights, but it’s super worth it!
The views along the Precipice Trail are some of the best in Acadia. While scaling this east face of Champlain Mountain, you’ll be treated to sweeping views of rocky coastline, tree-covered islands, and Frenchman Bay beyond. When you reach the top of Champlain Mountian, the views are even better than the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in the park (in my opinion anyway!)
Distance: 3.4 km (2.2 mi)
Time Needed: 2-4 hours
Elevation Gain: 323 m (1060 ft)
Hike Type: Circuit
The Precipice Trail is one of the best and most popular hikes in Acadia National Park, but don’t underestimate it! It’s not for the faint of heart.
This is a non-technical climb, but you still need to be confident in your hiking and scrambling abilities. Because of the exposure on the Precipice Trail, you’ll need a good head for heights, a dry day (wet conditions are an absolute no-go), and sturdy hiking boots. We saw a young guy with his friends hiking this trail in untied Air Force Ones. Do not be that guy! This is no joke, as people have died on this trail. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, be humble and honest with yourself. There’s no judgment or shame in turning back if you need to.
To keep the hike as safe as possible, I recommend hiking up the Precipice and descending via the Orange and Black Path. There are options to add some distance by taking alternative trails from the summit of Champlain Mountain if you want to make this a full-day hike. You can take the Beachcroft Path to the northwest which will lead you to a small pond called The Tam. Alternatively, you can head south on the Champlain South Ridge Trail which will connect up with the famous Beehive Trail. I think doing the Beehive and the Precipice in one day is a bit much, though, since the Beehive hike is also strenuous. If you need to shorten the Precipice hike a bit, there’s also the option to bail early on the Orange and Black Path and walk back to the parking lot via the Park Loop Road.
The trail is located in Acadia National Park on the east side of Mount Desert Island which is the most popular part of the park. The Precipice Trail parking lot is easy to find. It’s located on the Park Loop Road and you can find the exact location here. The lot is small, so getting a parking spot is tricky. However, this part of the Park Loop Road allows parking in the right lane, so that’s what we did when we saw the lot was full.
Be aware that this part of the Park Loop Road is one-way. I accidentally tried to turn left out of the Thunder Hole parking lot a little further down the road and got lots of yells and dirty looks… yikes, sorry. I corrected my mistake quickly enough!
The start of the trail is clearly marked and the signage does a good job of warning people about the dangers of the trail ahead.
The Precipice Hike gets vertical very quickly and gives you a taste of what to expect less than five minutes in. The first bit of climbing up metal rungs at the beginning of the trail is perhaps the hardest individual section of the entire hike. It’s also a small bottleneck that only one person can pass through at a time. We waited here for a few minutes while hikers came down from above until it was our turn.
Shortly after, you’ll arrive at a boulder field and scramble up some massive rocks. Most of them are not wiggly, but I stepped on one or two that were. You’ll also climb underneath one of these massive boulders if you’re following the trail markers. It’s a little unnerving!
After the boulder field, you’ll continue over a wooden bridge and onto a downhill section. At this point, I was thinking “Uh, surely this can’t be the right way?” But we met some friendly hikers along the way who assured us we were going in the correct direction.
You’ll soon arrive at the point where the trail breaks in two: you can head left up the Precipice Trail or right on the Orange and Black Path. If you’re unsteady on your feet or not sure if you can manage the Precipice, taking the Orange and Black Path is a good option for you to still get to the top of Champlain Mountain.
If you do go left like we did, this is where the precipice really begins. There are staircases made out of tall stones, ladders that go straight up, and steep sections on sheer cliffs that offer no support besides iron rungs and bars to grab onto. It gets your heart pumping for more reasons than one.
We had no intention of hiking this quickly (safety first, kids) but we couldn’t have even if we wanted to. We got an amazingly sunny day and kept stopping to take photos and simply gawk at Mother Nature in all Her glory.
Once the trees start thinning, you’ll know you’re close to the summit.
When you reach the Champlain Mountain summit, you’ll have gained over 1,000 feet of elevation in about half a mile. That’s one hella-steep stretch of trail.
The top of Champlain is a great spot to hang out with a snack and some of the best scenic vistas in the national park.
The hike back down to the Park Loop Road is comparatively easy and significantly less steep. Still, there are some sharp descents in some areas where you’ll need to be careful. I brought trekking poles with me to take some pressure off my knees during the descent, but I don’t think they’re entirely necessary.
You’ll start your descent on the Champlain North Ridge Trail where you’ll get a nice birds-eye view over the town of Bar Harbor. You’ll then bang a right and head back in the direction of the parking lot. You’ll reach the trail intersection where the Precipice Trail and the Orange and Black Path originally split, and from there you’ll follow the familiar trail back to your car.
Finding a good time to hike the Precipice Trail can be a bit tricky. As I mentioned before, you need a dry day so you don’t go slipping and falling to your death. Any time between early summer and late fall will offer a chance of good conditions, but visit during late summer / early fall for the chance to see the colorful foliage New England is famous for.
As for the time of day, this hike makes an excellent half-day hike. I’d suggest heading up first thing in the morning if you want to be done before lunch, or go in the afternoon like we did.
You’ll also need to make sure that the trail is actually open when you go to hike it. Acadia is home to a handful of nesting pairs of peregrine falcons, the fastest animal on earth. They’ve been known to nest along the Precipice Trail, so the trail will sometimes be closed during their nesting season (April-June.) If you want to do this hike during those months, make sure to check the current conditions and closures on the Acadia website.
As mentioned, picking a dry day when the trail is open is essential. You’ll also need sturdy hiking boots, sunblock, snacks, and water – all the usuals! I wouldn’t say you must be a super experienced hiker to stay safe and have fun on this trail, but you do need to be relatively fit and be able to keep your head on while navigating narrow ledges and steep cliffs.
When we hiked the Precipice Trail, it wasn’t too crowded since it was late October, but we certainly weren’t alone. I imagine it’s much more full during the summer months. Be extra cautious if the trail is crowded and be patient. Let people pass you if they’re faster than you and vice versa. This is not the kind of trail you can rush on or that can handle big crowds, it’s just too dangerous.
Finally, remember that no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll need a park pass to enter Acadia. You can buy one ahead of time and print it out to leave on your dashboard, or you can buy one at one of the ranger stations in the park. If you plan on visiting more than one national park during the year, the America the Beautiful Pass from the National Park Service is well worth it.
When you’re done with the Precipice Hike, head down to Sand Beach across the street to dip your toes in the (frigid) water or walk the Ocean Path Trail, a super easy stroll along the beautiful Maine coast.
November 14, 2023