ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine - After less than an hour of climbing though a forest of birch and pine, each step offering a more spectacular vista than the last, we reached the summit of Acadia Mountain. We planted ourselves on the rocky perch, giddy at our good fortune of being alone atop a mountain in Acadia National Park, surrounded by water.
As we scanned the Atlantic, the Cranberry Islands looked like peas in a pod, while closer to shore, numerous yachts were safely anchored in Southwest Harbor. To our left, the sheer cliffs of Norumbega Mountain plummeted into Somes Sound, creating the only fiord on the Eastern Seaboard.
My wife, Lisa, took the sandwiches from the backpack and we began to eat in our solitude. Startled, she jumped up, pointing to a very large bird circling the hillside. At first, I thought it was a red-tailed hawk, but its wingspan was too long and its head was white. As it flew directly overhead, it dawned on me that I was watching a bald eagle.
Getting up close and personal with nature is the primary reason we visit national parks. Yet, so many of us venture to Acadia, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, and Yosemite in summer that the only intimacy we find is on a road crowded with other humans. The country's most scenic spots relax after their July and August inundations, seeming to return to their original wild state. This is especially true of Acadia, where thickets of maples on Mount Desert Island turn crimson to add to the already spectacular show of dark blue ocean and evergreen forest. A bonus is that black flies and mosquitoes are a distant memory.
''The weather also tends to be quite nice in September and October," said Cynthia Ocel, a park ranger at Acadia. Ocel said much of the deciduous forest burned down in a fire in 1947, but several pockets of maples remain. She steered us to North and South Bubble, just off the Park Loop, and the Amphitheater Loop, a carriage path trail close to the town of Northeast Harbor.
Leaving our car in the Bubble Rock parking lot, we started the half-mile ascent of North Bubble. A rocky staircase led through a leaf-strewn path of red maples. We reached the flat boulder atop the summit, hoping to catch a view of Jordan Pond to the south. One of the finest aspects of hiking in Acadia is that the ascents are manageable, in this case only 872 feet, yet reward with wonderful scenes of mountains, lakes, and sea.
Unfortunately, we found ourselves socked in by fog.
We had better luck biking the Amphitheater Loop. In 1919, when Acadia became the first national park east of the Mississippi, wealthy patrons like John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated land. He also bequeathed some 43 miles of bridle paths, now called the carriage paths. These finely packed gravel roads, off-limits to motorized vehicles, form a web of trails that crisscross the entire eastern half of Mount Desert Island.
They include the popular biking loop around Eagle Lake, Acadia's second-largest body of water. The Amphitheater Loop is far more remote, used primarily by local dog walkers, not bikers. We parked our car at the Brown Mountain Gate House off Route 198 and began to pedal uphill, quickly getting glimpses of the ever-present Atlantic. The 4.4-mile loop became an exhilarating up-and-down run through the dense woods. A highlight was the chance to ride across the Amphitheater Bridge, the longest of Rockefeller's original crossings.
After climbing mountains and biking in the woods all day, we like to pamper ourselves amid civilization at night. Bar Harbor's Balance Rock Inn does its best to make guests feel like lords of the manor. With a sloping lawn and gardens dipping down to the shore, Balance Rock's backyard is similar to the grounds of a Newport, R.I., mansion. Instead of the Cliff Walk, Bar Harbor has the Shore Path, with large Bald Porcupine Island looming in the background. The inn helps alleviate sore muscles with saunas in several rooms, and the continental breakfast with heaping portions of fresh fruit will get you going in the morning.
Some would say the best part of Balance Rock is the easy walk to the restaurants and shops of Bar Harbor. We had dinner at Caf This Way. With an eclectic mix of overstuffed sofas and chairs, every table at this restaurant is different, but the food is consistently good. Entrees include Portuguese mussels in a tomato saffron sauce with chorizo sausage and coconut-crusted tofu over basmati rice with Swiss chard and broccoli.
Adjacent to Caf This Way is another unusual dining spot, Reel Pizza. It seemed only fitting that at a movie theater near Acadia National Park, Lisa and I watched a documentary on birds, ''Winged Migration."
As our feathered friends made their screen debuts, numbered lights flickered on the side of the movie theater to indicate that our pizza was ready. Pick it up in the hallway and bring it back to your seats, and the old ''dinner and a movie" date is condensed to two hours.
After being teased by the sight of the Atlantic on every one of our adventures, we immersed ourselves in the ocean on our last day. One of the finest ways to see Acadia's mountains is from a distance, with your head and feet only inches from the waterline in a sea kayak. Coastal Kayaking Tours offers daily four-hour guided excursions around the phalanx of small islands that line Frenchman Bay. They fitted us for life jackets, sea skirts, and booties at their store and then drove to the bar of Bar Harbor, a sand spit that juts out of town at low tide.
Our guide, Sarah Geline, 28, unloaded the kayaks and passed out paddles, teaching us some basic strokes. We got acclimated to our cubbyholes, threw on our gear, and set off for the wild blue yonder.
In a double kayak, Lisa and I found our rhythm as we made our way around the northern shores of Bar Island. Sarah showed us places where bright pink starfish lay on rocks. As we continued around Sheep Porcupine Island, a young seal pup played with a buoy and loons lounged in the unusually calm waters of the bay. We stopped for a 15-minute break to stretch our legs at The Hop, a small protected island at the northernmost tip of Long Porcupine, before making our return trip to Bar Harbor.
On the west side of Long Porcupine, the water started to get choppy, but soon flattened out. Black guillemots, a cross between a puffin and a duck, were dive-bombing their plump bodies into the waters around us.
After several autumn days in Acadia, it's easy to get comfortable in its natural setting and be thankful New England's lone national park is open year-round.
Stephen Jermanok's latest book is ''New England Seacoast Adventures" (Countryman Press, 2002).