Monday, June 11, 2018

Hiking The Beehive in Acadia National Park

Called by some as the "crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast," Acadia National Park in Maine is the only national park that can be found in New England. It's a relatively small park by national park standardscoming in at "only" 49,000 acres—but it protects much of Mount Desert Island, the 6th largest island in the lower 48 states. Back in May, a few of the educators from The Ecology School—myself includeddrove the 3.5 hours from Saco, Maine, to Acadia National Park for a weekend filled with hiking and exploring. While there, one of the other educators and I decided to climb the  famous Beehive.

The Beehive Acadia National Park
The Beehive is a granite knob that rises 520 feet above the Atlantic Ocean on the southeastern corner of Mount Desert Island. You can access the summit via The Beehive Trail, whose trailhead is found just near the Sand Beach parking lot. This trail is challenging and offers beautiful views, but it also comes with a much higher risk factor than your average trail. To give you an idea of just what you're climbing up when you hike this trail, take a look at the photo above. The knob pictured is The Beehive. If you look at the zoomed in portion (remember you can always click on a photo to enlarge it), you'll notice a red circle. In that circle is a person, and that person is on The Beehive Trail.

Original figure made by Martin D. Adamiker [CC BY-SA 3.0 (link) or GFDL (link)], via Wikimedia Commons. Figure modified (addition of arrows and text) by Kyle Brooks.
Before we get to what the actual hike is like, I want to spend some time talking about the geology of Mount Desert Island, and especially The Beehive itself. As with many places in the northern portions of the United States, Mount Desert Island was heavily shaped and modified by various glacial periods during the last Ice Age. The last glacial periodthe Wisconsin Glacial Episode—began around 70,000 years ago and finished up around 12,000 years ago. At its greatest extent, this giant sheet of ice completely covered Maine, including Mount Desert Island. In this part of the world, the glacier moved from the northwest toward the southeast. As it moved over Mount Desert Island, it eroded the mountains that were present on the island into long, yet narrow, formations that were separated by U-shaped valleys. 

The Beehive Geology Plucking and Abrasion
Left: A smooth granite face resulting from glacial abrasion.
Right: A jagged, steep granite face resulting from glacial plucking.
As the glacier eroded the mountains on the island, it did so in two different ways, all dependent on which direction the side of the mountain was facing. Take, for example, The Beehive. Parts of The Beehive experienced glacial abrasion, while other parts experienced glacial plucking. Glacial abrasion and plucking are both examples of how a glacier can erode bedrock, but these two types of erosion are a result of different factors and forces. Subsequently, they end up leaving behind different geological features after the glacier retreats. The northwest side of The Beehive was eroded by glacial abrasion. In this case, the glacier smashed directly into the northwest side of the knob. This force of pressure, coupled with the rocks embedded in the bottom of the glacier, smoothed and polished the bedrock like sandpaper on a piece of rough wood. This left behind a large face of smooth, rounded granite.

The southeastern side of The Beehive, however, experienced erosion via glacial plucking. As the glacier polished the northwest side of the knob, it moved over the knob and slid down the southeastern side. As the ice slid down this side, frictional forces caused some of the ice at the very bottom to melt. This liquid water then entered into cracks and joints that were already present in the bedrock, were the water consequently refroze. Since water expands when it freezes, this resulted in large boulders cracking and breaking free of the knob. These boulders were then "plucked" up by the bottom of the glacier, where they were transported and dropped into the ocean or elsewhere. The resulting rock face was not highly smooth and polished, but was instead a steep cliff side with a jagged face. It's on this plucked side of The Beehive that the trail ascends.

Photos of The Beehive Trail Maine
The trail up to the summit starts out easy enough. The trailhead is at the bottom of a gully lined with granite boulders of various sizes—many of which were dropped there after being plucked off the knob by the glacier. This part is straightforward; one just has to watch their footing as they walk from rock to rock and keep an eye out for the blue blazes marking the trail.

The Beehive Trail Mount Desert Island Maine
The boulder field eventually ends at the base of the plucked side of the knob. This is where the scrambling begins. Scrambling is the type of hiking that is in between walking and technical rock climbing. Basically, it's walking up or down a rocky area that requires you to use your hands relatively often, but it still doesn't require technical gear like rope and carabiners.

Metal Rungs The Beehive Trail
This is also the first part of the trail in which you encounter the metal rungs, which you will soon come to rely on. As with many of the steep, rocky trails in the national park system, metal rungs were added at some point along the trail for hikers to more safely navigate. In the case above, metal rungs were added so hikers could safely cross a gap in the rock face.

Sand Beach Acadia National Park
Rather quickly, you are rewarded with grand views of the southeastern side of Acadia National Park. Features like the Sand Beach come into view. Although sandy beaches are not rare in the world by any means, the Sand Beach in Acadia National Park is significant. Maine is not known for sandy beaches; in fact, of the 3,478 miles of shoreline found in Maine, there's only about 40 miles of sand-based shorelines (~1.15% of the total). The Sand Beach in Acadia National Park represents about 290 yards of that 40 or so miles, and the only sand-based beach you'll find on Mount Desert Island.

Climbing The Beehive Trail
While the trail gets higher and higher, and the views get better and better, the trail also becomes increasingly more climbing-based. The trail also becomes smaller, and gaps become more prevalent. At one point a short wooden bridge is required to cross a gap.

Views from The Beehive Trail
Your blogger embracing his inner mountain goat.
Some sections of the trail are very narrow, like the one pictured above. Sure-footing, grippy shoes, and patience are a must.

The Beehive Trail Maine
About halfway up the trail, you reach an "Oh boy" section—at least it was for me. There is a relatively long, and steep, section of the trail that requires lots of climbing up metal rung after metal rung. And to make things more interesting, decades of use by hikers have worn smooth the parts of the granite along the trail, making them slippery. This last half of the trail is extremely reminiscent of the Angels Landing Trail in Utah's Zion National Park. I hiked up Angels Landing in the summer of 2016, and that trail is another example of scrambling up a steep rock face with the use of metal rungs and chains. (Check out my "Hiking Angels Landing" post to see just what I'm talking about.)

Hiking The Beehive Acadia National Park
Leah ascends part of the more steep sections of The Beehive Trail.
Is the trail dangerous and hard to do? Yes and no. All hiking comes with risks. Although The Beehive Trail does have more risks involved than your average stroll through a city metro park, deaths and serious injuries are rare (but they do happen.) The trail itself isn't that strenuous for an average hiker that is at least somewhat in shape and has full control over their extremities. Hiking up the trail and returning via the Bowl Trail (it is not recommended that you descend the way you came up) is only 2 miles, and there's only about a 450 foot elevation gain in total. That's not much at all in the hiking world. The biggest challenge hikers face is the fear factor. Afraid of heights? Well, this trail might not be for you. I've heard stories about hikers getting halfway up the trail, only to become frozen in fear. The only way out is up, though.

The Beehive Summit Marker
If you don't mind heights and cliff sides, and you're willing to do a bit of non-technical climbing and scrambling, then you'll love this trail. It's absolutely beautiful, and it's been one of my favorite hikes that I've done east of the Mississippi River.

Kyle Brooks Nature Writer
Even though the summit is only at 520 feet above sea level, The Beehive sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, so the views are fantastic. You can see miles and miles of the ocean, Mount Desert Island, and the mainland. If you ever find yourself in Downeast Maine, head over to Acadia National Park and hike The Beehive; you won't regret it!

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