The land that we know as Acadia began as mud, sand, and volcanic ash, deposited in an early ocean then buried and pressurized into rock. Rising mountains were later shaved down by ice sheets called glaciers that covered the north. Glacial activity eroded the mountains and cut out the distinct U-shaped valleys between them. Materials carried by these glaciers polished the mountains, leaving behind a geologic story in the striations and gouges seen today. The long and gradual northern slopes and steep, choppy southern and western faces of Acadia's mountains are a direct result of this glacial shaping. Rocky granite outcrops in various shades, dotted with subalpine plants blossoming through the joints and sides, are a distinct feature of Acadia's mountains.
Life At The Top
Life at the top of these summits at the edge of the sea is harsh. Wind and weather batter plant and animal life so that only the most resilient survive. Lichen grip the barren rock, coloring the granite. Hawks, peregrine falcons, owls, eagles and other birds soar at the summits and along rocky cliffs. Further down the mountains, spruce and pitch pine forests densely cover landscape. In the U-shaped valleys deciduous tress become more numerous in places, particularly where the great fire of 1947 burned and wildlife becomes more numerous.
Common Summit Plants
Fragile plant communities exist on mountain summits and rocky outcrops across Acadia. Spruce-fir forests are patchy and stunted in areas, while shrubs like mountain cranberries, blueberries, mountain holly, rhodora dominate the scene. Herbs like three-toothed cinquefoil is commonly seen, as are the bryoid layer of lichens and mosses on rocky outcrops.
Protection of these plant species can be challenging, especially in areas of the park more popular than most. With thousands of visitors throughout the summer months for decades, the summit area of Cadillac Mountain has sustained substantial loss of soil and vegetation. Fragile sub-alpine soils and plants are constantly impacted by social trails and heavy visitation.
The checklist below contains the park's most common plants within this community. The plant’s growth form is indicated by “t” for trees and “s” for shrubs. To identify unfamiliar plants, consult a field guide or visit the Wild Gardens of Acadia at Sieur de Monts Spring, where more than 400 plants are labeled and displayed in their habitats.
All plants within Acadia National Park are protected. Please help protect the park’s fragile beauty by leaving plants in the condition that you find them.
It has long been known that sunrise touches the slopes of Cadillac Mountain before any other place in the United States during certain times of year. Native people who have called this area home since time immemorial are known as the Wabanaki, meaning "People of the Dawnland." For a millennia, indigenous language names identified places including mountain summits in what we now call Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island, and Maine. With the colonization and attempted genocide of native people, all that changed.
Today, there are more than 20 named mountains and summits that rise from the sea and comprise much of Mount Desert Island. These mountains inspired the French colonizer Samuel de Champlain to name the island "Ile des Monts Desert" in 1604, meaning the "Island of Barren Mountains." These mountains are not as barren as denoted by this name.
Since Champlain's first documented naming of this place, the names of the mountains have changed multiple times. The naming was sometimes informal and then later identified on maps. Mountain name origins were typically derived from nearby landowners such as Robinson Mountain (now Acadia Mountain) or are lost to time such as Newport Mountain (now Champlain). As George B. Dorr worked to found Acadia National Park, he also renamed multiple peaks in his attempt to honor indigenous, English, and french heritage.
Protect & Explore
WIth the exception of the Cadillac Summit Road, today's visitors can reach these summits only by hiking. Steep ascents, often assisted with iron rungs and ladders, allow people to scale the sheer granite sections. Some of the park's most exciting climbs are historic trails crafted in the late 1800s and early 1900s by civilc groups who helped found the park to protect it from logging and over-tourism.
But Acadia's Mountains are not inherintly safe for people or from people. Despite their hardened granite, the ecosystems at the summit are incredibly fragile. Trampling by humans has damanged the plant communities at the top of mountains. Together with its partners-in-science, Acadia scientists are strudying the summit plant communities and in some cases actively working to restore them.
You can help protect Acadia's fragile summits by practicing Leave No Trace principles including staying on designated trails and walking only on hardened surfaces. You can also help the park, yourself, and the people and pets you care about by knowing your limits when hiking and paying attention to weather and trail conditions. Hiking safety often comes down to simple, smart choices and being prepared.