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Acadia National Park Rock Climbing

Climbing Area Description

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Liz Dunn-Tierney climbs Rock Lobster at Otter Cliffs.

Otter Cliffs is the best sea cliff climbing area in the United States.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Acadia National Park is a 46,856-acre national parkland that covers most of Mount Desert Island on the central Maine coast, a ragged 2,500-mile-long coastline that fronts the Atlantic Ocean. The park, with over four million visitors annually and within a day’s drive of major East Coast metropolitan areas like Boston and New York City, is the second-most-visited national park in the United States. Acadia offers a dramatic interface between the forested mountains and the restless ocean.

Acadia’s Rock Climbing

Besides scenic beauty, lots of hiking trails, and great views, Acadia National Park also offers some of the best rock climbing adventures in the Northeastern United States as well as some of the nation’s only sea cliff climbing. Mount Desert Island is composed of ancient granite, which forms rounded mountains like 1,530-foot-high Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the Atlantic coast. Along the steep edges of Acadia’s mountains are sharp cliffs like The Precipice on Champlain Mountain as well as sea cliffs, including Otter Cliffs, Acadia’s most popular climbing spot. Nearby is Great Head, called by Rock and Ice Magazine “the biggest, baddest sea cliff in America.” The Bubbles on the north side of Jordan Pond offer lots of fun routes in a gorgeous setting.

Granite Forms Acadia’s Cliffs

Acadia National Park's rock for climbing is an erosion-resistant granite with a fine texture. The granite cleaves along vertical planes, forming vertical cliffs, steep corners and dihedrals, arêtes and prows, and vertical crack systems that are perfect for jamming. Acadia’s angular cliffs were excavated and sculpted by relentless glaciers that pushed down across the northern United States during successive ice ages, with the last withdrawing and melting only 15,000 years ago. The ice sheets, as thick as 9,000 feet, compressed the land, while scouring and smoothing the rock. When the ice retreated, a today’s landscape of big rounded mountains and sharp cliffs was revealed. Now the ever-present ocean continues to gnaw at the coastal sea cliffs, continuing to shape them.

Otter Cliffs: Maine’s Most Popular Cliff

Otter Cliffs, on the southeast side of Mount Desert Island, is the most popular climbing cliff in the national park as well as Maine and is the most famous sea cliff climbing area in the United States. The 500-foot-long sea cliff rises 50 to 60 feet above a wide rock bench alongside the surf. The cliff face is broken into vertical angular faces by crack systems and arêtes. The climbing is fun with great jamming up cracks, easier routes with square-cut holds and edges, and harder climbs with thin crimps, edges, and roofs. Otter Cliffs is easily accessed from the one-way park scenic road, although the cliff base can only be accessed at low tide or by rappelling from the top.

Climbing at Otter Cliffs

Liz Dunn-Tierney top-ropes at Otter Cliffs.

"A Dare by the Sea" is one of the best climbs at Otter Cliffs.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

While many or the 40 or so climbs at Otter Cliffs can be led, most climbers top-rope routes to maximize climbing time and because protection on many routes is difficult to find. Look for stainless steel bars and eyebolts on the cliff-top to use for top-rope anchors. These were placed by the Park Service so that climbers do not use and damage trees for anchors. Other parts of the cliff-top require you to create your own anchors, using cams, nuts, and tied-off boulders. Do not use trees for anchors.

The Precipice: Great Acadia Granite

The South Wall of Champlain Mountain, also call The Precipice, is an excellent southeast-facing cliff that rises above the park road north of Otter Cliffs. The popular cliff, with over 80 routes ranging from 5.4 to 5.12 in difficulty, offers lots of great moderate climbs that are one- to two-pitches long. The cliff’s granite is compact and hard, and characterized by clean faces, perfect cracks and corners, and sharp-cut dihedrals and arêtes.

Other Acadia Climbing Areas

Acadia National Park's other climbing venues are South Otter Cliffs, a friendly top-rope area for beginners farther south from Otter Cliffs; South Bubble with slabs overlooking Jordan Pond; and Great Head, a serious sea cliff north of Otter Cliffs. South Bubble’s lower slab is a superb beginner climbing area, with diverse climbing terrain and bolt anchors that are easily accessed for top-roping. Great Head has a couple dozen bolted routes (most also require gear) as well as some runout trad climbs and a few aid routes. Most of the routes are harder than 5.10.

Acadia Climbing Equipment

A standard Acadia rack includes a set of Stoppers or other wired nuts; a set of TCUs; and one or two sets of cams like Friends or Camalots. A #4 or #5 Camalot is useful on some climbs. Bring 10 or so quickdraws, free carabiners, and a half-dozen two-foot slings. A 165-foot (50-meter) rope is adequate to climb and rappel most routes. If you are top-roping at Otter Cliffs, bring additional rope or sling to extend the anchor to the master point over the cliff edge. Also bring a sheath to protect the rope where it drapes across sharp cliff edges. Many climbers also fix a rappel rope to access Otter’s cliff base since lowering abrades the rope. Wearing a helmet is essential to protect your head from falling rocks.

Location

Central Maine Coast. Acadia National Park is 50 miles southeast of Bangor and Interstate 95.
Distances to Acadia from major cities:

  • Portland ME: 174 miles.
  • Boston ME: 264 miles.
  • Hartford CT: 383 miles.
  • New York City NY: 506 miles.
  • Washington DC: 731miles.
  • Montreal QUE: 356 miles.

Management Agency

National Park Service.

Acadia Restrictions and Access Issues

Eric Morin belays Martha Morris at Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park, Maine.

Otter Cliff, Maine's most popular climbing venue, offers lots of great top-rope climbing on perfect granite.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green
  • Climbers must fill out a registration card, good for a year, and sign in and out at registration boxes at South Wall, Canada Cliff, and Otter Cliffs. The card is obtained at the visitor center, the boxes, or at local climbing stores. You must have the registration card with you when climbing.
  • Do not use trees for anchors, especially at Otter Cliffs. Use gear or existing park bolt anchors for top-roping.
  • Parts of The Precipice are closed seasonally for guillemot nesting. Ask at the visitor center for closure dates.
  • Climbing groups are limited to a maximum of 12 people, including trip leaders.
  • Dogs are prohibited at all climbing areas.
  • Climbing and bouldering is prohibited on all park bridges.
  • Park only in designated pullouts or on the right shoulder of the one-way park road.
  • Reservations required for all groups at Otter Cliffs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend.

Climbing Seasons

April through October. September and October are the best months. Weather and temperatures can be variable. Rain and fog can occur on any day. Always pack a raincoat.

Guidebooks and Websites

Rock Climbing New England by Stewart M. Green, FalconGuides 2001, details the best routes at Acadia National Park.

Camping

Best camping for climbers is Blackwoods Campground, five miles south of Bar Harbor on route 3. It’s a fee area and open year-round. Reservations required in summer; for reservations, call 877-444-6777 or reserve on-line at recreation.gov. There are other park campgrounds as well as many private campgrounds and motels.

Services

All services in Bar Harbor, Ellsworth, and Bangor.

For More Information

Acadia National Park, P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, ME 04609. Telephone: 207-288-3338

Climbing Shops and Guide Services

Guide Services: Acadia Mountain Guides, Atlantic Climbing School. Shops: Cadillac Mountain Sports.

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