Local runner Gary Allen is almost 60 years old, but he feels like a kid again when he runs on the gravel carriage trails of Acadia National Park.
“With all the serious stuff in the world, this is like Peter Pan,” said the lifelong marathoner and founder of the annual Mount Desert Island Marathon. “I don’t want to grow up, I want to stay here.”
You can’t blame him; the 52 miles of carriage roads in Acadia run through vibrant green forests, along calm bubbling brooks, and over picturesque stone-cut bridges.
“It’s literally like running through a postcard,” said Allen, before dashing over a stream on a wooden walkway. “It’s so beautiful you can’t stand it.”
The carriage trails were funded by the late New York philanthropist and Mount Desert summer resident John D. Rockefeller Jr., who grew up riding a horse and buggy down his family’s carriage trails in Ohio and New York in the late 1800s. The crude noise of the recently invented automobiles couldn’t bother Rockefeller there, and he wanted to build a similar serene experience near his family’s retreat on Mount Desert Island.
Starting in 1913, Rockefeller oversaw the construction of the trails, with an emphasis on preserving the pristine Acadia landscape. The stone on the trail and in the bridges was quarried locally, the side of the trail was covered in native vegetation and blueberries, and its wide ditches and thick layers of gravel helped rainwater drain through.
All those features helped the carriage trails blend into Acadia, and though the network of carriage roads wouldn’t be completed until 1940, it was definitely worth the wait.
“When I first discovered the carriage paths in high school, I felt like Alice in Wonderland,” said Allen, who grew up running up and down the two-mile road stretching the length of Great Cranberry Island, where the year-round population hovers around 40. “You could just keep exploring the intersections. Now I know it like my heart.”
Few people know their hearts as well as Allen does.
“A lot of tourists go to Cadillac Mountain or Thunder Hole,” he said. “But there are hundreds of little magical places you can go.”
One of them is called the Compass Harbor Trail, and it starts off Route 3, about a mile south of Bar Harbor. The trail winds through a forest overlooking Frenchman Bay, then leads up a stone staircase to the foundation of a house once lived in by George Dorr. A wealthy scholar and nature lover, Dorr devoted to his life to preserving Acadia. He succeeded in 1916, though his stately mansion fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1950. Perhaps it’s fitting that pines and firs grew out of the stone and herringbone brick foundation where Dorr once slept.
“I can just see George Dorr sitting there, probably with a pipe, saying ‘We need to protect Acadia,” said Allen, standing in what he guessed was once the Dorr’s kitchen. “This is where the decisions were made. It’s like going to Gettysburg.”
After over 40 years of running through the park, Allen knows every inch of the carriage road system. But that doesn’t mean new runners can’t find their own hidden magical corner of the park.
“There’s no better way to see it than to explore,” said Allen, at the start of a trail near Jordan Pond House. Wooden signposts guide visitors at every intersection, and each trailhead has at least one box filled with maps. “Get a trail map and make it an enjoyable experience.”
To learn more about Acadia National Park’s carriage road system, call 288-3338 and visit www.nps.gov/acad/index.htm. When visiting Acadia, practice Leave-No-Trace; only take pictures, only leave footprints.