Hiking the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park: Everything You Need to Know
By Kay Rodriguez
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Updated November 1, 2020
If you’re planning to go hiking in Acadia National Park, you’ve probably stumbled upon numerous sources citing the Precipice Trail as one of the park’s most challenging and thrilling hikes. With an ascent that gains around 1,000 feet of elevation in half a mile, this strenuous trail requires climbing ladders and metal rungs over completely exposed cliff faces that overlook the sea. Needless to say, hiking the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park is a challenging and adrenaline-inducing adventure that will certainly be one to remember!
There’s a lot you should know to prepare yourself for this short but intense and strenuous hike. Based on my experience hiking the Precipice trail, I’ve created this guide so you know what to expect and can plan accordingly for your own adventure.
The Precipice Trail: An Overview
If you’re ready to tackle the challenge of climbing a cliff face to one of the most stunning views of Acadia National Park, then the Precipice Trail is a challenging and rewarding hike that you’ll never forget. As you scale the cliff face on metal rungs that cling to the rocks, you’ll be treated to spellbinding views of the sea and the islands that surround Bar Harbor. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but it’s a fun challenge for experienced hikers looking to summit one of the most unique and exciting trails in the Northeast USA.
With all of that said, don’t take the Precipice trail lightly.There have been numerous deaths from falls on the Precipice trail, and it requires some degree of physical and mental stamina that isn’t suitable for beginners or children. When I hiked it, there were many people along the way who were struggling with the scrambling, fear of heights, and a lack of experience hiking on strenuous terrain.
Estimated Completion Time: 1.5 to 3 hours (It took me 1.5 hours to complete the full loop!)
Difficulty: Difficult and Includes Scrambling/Climbing
Parking: There’s a designated parking lot for the Precipice trail on Park Loop Road before you reach Sand Beach Entrance. It’s small, but parking on the right hand side of the road is permitted should the lot be full when you arrive.
Things to Know Before Hiking the Precipice Trail
This trail is well-marked and easy to follow, but there are a few things I wish I knew before embarking on the Precipice Trail:
DO NOT HIKE the Precipice Trail when it’s foggy or rainy. Wet rocks and metal rungs make this trail extremely slippery and dangerous. I’d avoid this trail in inclement weather and also after rainfall. Watch the weather and hit the trail when it’s clear and dry so you can stay safe and ensure the best experience for yourself and other fellow hikers.
The best time of year to hike the Precipice Trail is in the fall. During the spring and early summer, the trail is home to nesting Peregrine falcons and is often closed to hikers. The trail is off limits once the air starts to freeze, so the best time to hike the Precipice trail is late summer to fall. I went in October and the weather was fantastic – dry, cool, breezy, and mostly clear for the safest and most pleasant conditions.
Young children and dogs should not do this trail. Dogs actually aren’t allowed on this trail, and I understand why: the cliffs and scrambles are not feasible for them. Young children should also not do this trail because of its technical difficulty and the danger of falling. The Precipice trail requires a lot of scrambling and climbing with your hands and feet, and many parts of the trail require crossing narrow pathways with open drops of hundreds of feet, so it’s also probably not a great hike for those with a strong fear of heights.
The trail gets extremely crowded during high season, on weekends, and on holidays. We’d recommend a sunrise start for the best views and the smallest crowds. When the trail is crowded, there are bottlenecks that can cause backups on the narrow rock cliffs, meaning you’ll be waiting around a while for people ahead of you.
The Precipice trail connects to many other trails around the park. Because of this network of trails, there are several variations of the Beehive Trail that you can do depending on your timing and hiking preferences. We’ll get into a few of the common variations later in this guide.
How to Hike the Precipice Trail: Our Review
Beginning the Precipice Trail
Once you arrive at the trail head, the Precipice Trail begins to ascend. You’ll be climbing ~1,000 feet in half a mile, so the ascent begins fairly quickly. There are tons of signs at the entrance, including a map of the trail system and a big, yellow warning sign that basically warns hikers of the dangers of the climbing involved:
The start of the trail begins on a rocky pathway that quickly turns into a boulder field which requires some scrambling. Follow the blue blazes to stay on the trail – there are several blazes in sequence, making the trail very easy to follow. It was here where I started to see some fellow hikers begin to struggle with the climb, so again, if you don’t think you’re ready for a strenuous climb but still want some climbing, the Beehive Trail is a lighter version of the Precipice that’s a fantastic alternative.
After some scrambling, you’ll come to a section where the trail seems to disappear. In fact, you’ll have to climb through a crevasse in the boulders to your left. There are two of these holes in a row to climb through (which I found really fun!) and you’ll find yourself continuing onward.
The trail becomes a little more flat at this point, and there’s a short section that’s actually downhill here.
After the downhill section, you’ll reach a fork. Continue left to stay on the Precipice Trail. Note that the right hand path (the Orange and Black trail) will take you back down toward the main road if you’ve decided this hike isn’t for you.
Metal Ladders and Scrambling to the Summit
At this point, the real climb begins. A series of steep rock stairs take you up the cliffside to the start of the infamous part of this trail – the metal ladders bolted into the rocks. In between the ladders, there are a few narrow flat sections where you can catch your breath and admire the views. Just don’t look down…
The metal handholds are slender but sturdy, and they felt firm when I held onto them. This gave me a bit of reassurance as I began to ascend above the trees to a purely cliffside pathway. While you’re up here, be cognizant of other hikers by giving those in front of you plenty of space.
Continue following the metal rungs until you reach the summit, which offers really beautiful views out to the shoreline, the town of Bar Harbor, and the islands. You’ll probably see many other hikers resting up here on this (finally) flat stretch of rock, so you’ll know you’ve made it. This is a fantastic spot to have a snack, grab some water, and admire the beauty of Acadia National Park.
I loved sitting up here and enjoying watching the waves crashing onto the shore, cars whizzing by on Park Loop Road and boats floating merrily along in the water. While the climb was tough, it was short and the rewards were well worth the effort!
Continuing to the Champlain Mountain Summit & Descent
Once you’ve gotten enough rest, head away from the shoreline and follow the blue blazes. An easy, gradual uphill will bring you the rest of the way to the summit of Champlain Mountain, which offers even more views (although they’re slightly more obscured by trees). There are a few climbs and scrambles with metal rungs on the way up, but they should feel a bit less intimidating compared to the cliff you’ve just climbed.
At the summit, you’ll see a sign at a fork in the trail that denotes the split to the south vs. north trails. If you want to continue toward Sand Beach, head south. I wanted to get back to the Precipice trail parking lot, so I took a right and continued north.
The descent mostly traverses open, flat boulders across the ridgeline at first, where you can see really nice views of the town of Bar Harbor. It’s a gradual downhill, but be sure to watch your footing as there are a few tricky spots where it would be easy to twist an ankle.
After reaching the tree line and walking through the forest a bit, I came across a sign to turn toward Park Loop Road/the Orange and Black trail, which I took. A few minutes later, I arrived at the main road and walked the half mile or so back to my car.
The whole trail took me 1.5 hours, including a 15-minute stop at the summit. I’d imagine during peak hours it would take much longer, as there are several bottlenecks in the trail where waiting for hikers ahead would be necessary.
Other Variations of the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park
Because there are so many interconnected trails in Acadia National Park, there are a few other variations you can do on the Precipice trail to make your hike longer and see different viewpoints in the park. The first option below is the one that I personally did and wrote about in this article, but you can view some of the other popular options below as well:
Precipice to Champlain Mountain to Orange & Black Trail Loop: This is the loop that I took to hike the Precipice trail, and is the most popular route. After reaching the Precipice summit, you’ll continue on to the Champlain Mountain summit, then head down the north ridge to the Orange and Black Trail.
Precipice to Champlain Mountain South Ridge Loop: If you want to head toward the Sand Beach area of the park, turn left at the summit of Champlain Mountain and take the south ridge toward the Beehive and Bowl Trails. From there, you can make your way down the Bowl Trail to the Sand Beach parking lot.
Precipice Out-and-Back: This is strongly discouraged, but we did see a few people heading down the Precipice trail as we were hiking upward. Do not do this.It’s dangerous to have two-way traffic on the metal rungs and scrambles, and it’s not very fun to descend the cliff face anyway.
Additional Resources for Hiking in Acadia
What to Bring
Breathable hiking clothes – For warmer hikes, you’ll want to wear a sweat-wicking shirt and breathable pants, like these Patagonia hiking shorts for men and women. For cold-weather hikes, we recommend dressing in layers, including merino wool baselayers for men and women, a down puffer jacket for men and women, and a Northface waterproof outer shell for men and women (a must for hiking in Seattle). And don’t forget a pair of the best women’s and men’s hiking socks!
Trekking poles – You won’t need these for every single hike, but we suggest throwing them in your car just in case. We recommend the Black Diamond Trail Ergo cork trekking poles, which are lightweight, easy to transport, and durable.
Water bottle – Having water available at all times is a huge must. To limit disposable plastic, we recommend bringing your own refillable water bottle. We’re obsessed with Hydro Flask water bottles because they keep water cold for hours.
Sunscreen and bug spray – Sweatproof sunscreen and DEET bug spray can help you avoid sunburn and bug bites, two of hiking’s most annoying after-effects. Our favorite kind of sunscreen is Sun Bum, as it is free of harsh chemicals and safe for marine life, including coral reefs.
A brimmed hat or cap – The sun can be brutal in open hikes, so always pack a brimmed hat or capfor day hikes in the sunshine.
Emergency blanket and first aid kit – We’d strongly recommend bringing a first aid kit and a lightweight emergency blanket on every hike. Why? Because the unfathomable can happen, and it’s always best to play it safe.
Durable day pack – A durable day pack is the perfect spot to stash all your hiking gear. While any backpack will do, we recommend the Osprey Tempest 20 or the Talon 22 day packs because they’re comfortable and breathable for long hikes. For more information, check out our best day packs for any terrain guide.
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