Difficulty: Very challenging. The Precipice Trail requires fairly technical, hand-over-foot hiking. Metal rungs, rails and ladders aid hikers in the steepest sections. This trail is for experienced hikers who are not afraid of heights.
How to get there: Drive onto Mount Desert Island on Route 3 and veer left at the fork after the causeway, remaining on Route 3. Drive about 13 miles, through the town of Bar Harbor, to the Sieur de Monts Entrance on your right. At the entrance, take a left onto Park Loop Road and drive about 2.2 miles to the parking area of Precipice Trail, which will be on your right.
Information: Zigzagging up the cliffs of Champlain Mountain, Precipice Trail is known as the most challenging and dangerous trail in Acadia National Park. In less than a mile, the it ascends nearly 1,000 feet. Several sections of the trail are so steep that hikers must be aided with metal rungs, rails and ladders bolted into the granite cliffs. And in many places, the trail is narrow with a vertical rock wall to one side and a sheer drop to the other.
That being said, this trail is for experienced hikers and requires extra care. The hike isn’t for those who are afraid of heights or those who are unsteady on their feet. It’s also off limits to dogs and small children.
Because most of the trail travels along the edge of cliffs, it’s exposed to the sun and wind. The lack of vegetation means open views of surrounding mountains, the ocean and nearby islands.
It’s especially important to note that Precipice Trail is usually closed from late spring through mid-August to protect the peregrine falcons that nest on the cliffs. During this time, there often is a park naturalist teaching about the endangered birds at the parking area at the base of the cliffs, and there’s a telescope for viewing the birds from a safe distance.
Because of the limited time the trail is available to hikers, it’s especially busy when it’s open during the spring and fall, and not everyone who starts the trail is prepared
for the challenging terrain. Luckily (or perhaps by design), a particularly tricky spot is located near the beginning of the trail that tends to deter hikers who aren’t prepared for the hand-over-foot climbing.
Starting at the Precipice Trail parking area, wide stone steps lead to the kiosk at the trailhead, which displays a handy trail map. Beyond that, the Precipice Trail offers its first challenges: a steep rock slope and an impressive boulder field, which requires a great deal of attention to footing.
The trail quickly reaches the base of the cliffs and you’ll use metal rungs to clamber over a large boulder (the tricky section that tests hikers before they try the whole trail). From that point on, you’ll rely on this metal hardware to stay safely on trail and moving upward.
Also in the first 0.4 mile of the trail is a whimsical wooden footbridge followed by a series of metal railings that help hikers navigate along a narrow shelf in the cliffs.
Throughout the trail, you’ll need to pay attention to not slip on the rocks. Water trickles down the cliffs, making the granite extremely slippery in some areas.
At 0.4 mile, the Precipice Trail intersects with the Black and Orange Trail (formerly East Face Trail). A sign marks this intersection. You’ll veer left to remain on Precipice Trail.
The second half of the Precipice Trail is even steeper and includes several series of metal rungs and ladders. The view becomes even more spectacular as you climb.
Near the top of Champlain Mountain, the terrain evens out. You’ll travel over exposed granite and be surrounded by stunted pines and low-lying plants. Cairns (rock piles) and blue blazes mark the trail to the sign at the summit.
It’s recommended that hikers do not descend the Precipice Trail. Climbing down metal rungs and ladders is more difficult than climbing up. There’s a better option. Hike down the Champlain North Ridge Trail (formerly known as the Bear Brook Trail). A sign at the summit of Champlain Mountain will point you in the right direction. (You should also be hiking with a trail map.)
About halfway down the Champlain North Ridge Trail, you’ll reach an intersection with the Black and Orange Trail. Turn right onto the Black and Orange Trail and you’ll
soon reach a long series of granite steps. At the bottom of the steps, you’ll reach another intersection. Turn right and hike 0.5 mile on the Black and Orange Trail to the Precipice Trail.
(Another option is to turn left and hike 0.2 mile to the Park Loop Road, then turn right and walk along the side of the road to the Precipice Trail. This is a great option for people who are tired at this point and don’t want to deal with any more boulders, rungs and granite steps.)
The Black and Orange Trail is almost as arduous as the Precipice Trail and includes a number of narrow granite steps that bring the hiker up and down, up and down. In some places, the trail is close to steep drops. Pay attention to your footing.
When you reach Precipice Trail, you should remember the trail intersection from earlier. At the intersection, turn left and descend Precipice Trail 0.4 mile to the parking area. The loop’s total distance is 2.6 miles.
To use any of the trails in Acadia National Park from May through October, you must pay for a park pass to display on your vehicle. To learn more about park passes, places to purchase them and other Acadia visitor guidelines, visit www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit.
Personal note: I first hiked Precipice Trail in October a few years ago with Derek — my boyfriend and hiking buddy (then and now) — and we had a blast. But those were the days before I started my blog and “1-minute hike” column. And I’ve been meaning to get back to the trail ever since.
In 2012, I was planning to hike the trail, but a tragic accident made me think the better of it. In July of that year, a 22-year-old University of Maine student fell from the Precipice Trail and died. With the shocking event fresh in everyone’s memory, I doubt many wanted to hear about how fun the trail can be.
Derek and I returned to the Precipice Trail on Oct. 18, a cloudy Saturday, to give it a second try. The rock was slick with water, which was running down some of the cracks in the cliffs, so we paid extra attention to our footing. When we reached especially dangerous spots, I used what I refer to as the “rule of two” — having at least two points of contact to the trail at all times. For example, one hand on a metal rung and one foot on solid rock.
I don’t mean to scare anyone from the trail. I thoroughly enjoy Precipice Trail. But I can’t stress enough, while the trail looks a bit like a jungle gym in some places, with all the rungs and ladders, it’s not for horsing around.
… Though on the way down the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, Derek and took a break from worrying about our footing to spend time with a bold red squirrel that was chattering at us as it harvested pine cones. The critter was a great subject for photos and video.