Today’s adventure actually originated two years ago, when a man we met at Jordan Pond House vaguely mentioned “spiral steps” that were supposedly located somewhere behind Wildwood Stables. The man hadn’t seen the steps himself but had heard about them from a friend. We were skeptical but certainly intrigued enough to do our research, which led us to suspect that any steps in that area would have been part of the old Van Santvoord Trail.
Dedicated in 1916 to memorialize Path Committee chairman and prolific trail-builder John Van Santvoord, the trail originally made a circuit of the East, Middle and West Triads. Some sections of the original trail are still maintained as the modern Hunters Brook Trail and the Pemetic Mountain Trail. We were primarily interested in finding the main abandoned section with the fabled steps.
With available information about the Van Santvoord Trail being sparse and somewhat confusing, we didn’t start out feeling very confident. The most useful resources for actually locating the path were, as usual, the old path maps and topo maps. But the maps are quite puzzling in this area, showing trails crossing all over Triad peaks, and are inconsistent between different versions of the maps. I did my best to pull some coordinates from the 1942 topo map, cross-referencing it with the tracklog displayed in an image on Don Lenahan’s blog (credited below).
Further historical information was discovered in Pathmakers: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Mount Desert Island; the 1915 A Path Guide of Mount Desert Island Maine, by Bates, Rand, and Jacques; and a post on Don Lenahan’s blog The Memorials of Acadia National Park.
From the Seal Harbor section of the 1915 Path Guide (p. 17):
The Van Santvoord trail is a circuit over the East, Middle, and West Triads, beginning and ending at the south end of Triad Pass trail, with fine sea views to the south and mountain views to the north.
and later, in a walk description (p. 21):
32 The Triads—To Wildwood Farm Road, as in No. 31; by Pass trail to Van Santvoord trail; and back to Pass and Wildwood Farm Road.
Or—up East Triad from Wildwood Farm Road by a second trail (east of Wildwood Farm) along surveyor’s line; then joining the main trail over the top. Continue north over the East Triad to the Bubble Pond trail, turn west, and return by Triad Pass trail to Wildwood Farm trail; or continue west to Jordan Pond and the Seaside Path.
Maps that we found helpful are:
- Topographic Map, Acadia National Park and vicinity, Hancock County, Maine 
- 1917 Map of Mount Desert Island Maine
- 1930 Path Map of the Eastern Part of Mount Desert Island, Maine
- 1971 Appalachian Mountain Club Map of Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park, Maine
- Pathmakers map, back cover
Finding the Van Santvoord trail was one of my major goals for this year’s trip, and I was thrilled that Rich was intrigued enough by the abandoned section of the trail to attempt a search for it today. But first, we needed to fuel up with a big breakfast. (Having no idea just how big it would be!)
One of our favorite places for breakfast the last few years has been the Black Friar Inn. Tom has moved out of town and now the inn is under new ownership. Reviews have been mostly positive, but we were eager to check out the situation for ourselves. We were hoping it had retained its charm—and its reputation for excellent breakfasts!
Our first impression was that although the inn looks similar inside and out, the atmosphere is noticeably different. There are fewer tables in the cozy back dining room, while the breakfast room adjacent to the bar looks pretty much the same as it did. Some “friar”-themed collectibles still decorate the shelves and niches, but the inn has lost a bit of its creepiness factor, which was something I actually enjoyed about it.
The new owner, Steve, came to greet us, offering coffee and tea to start. Hot beverages are no longer self-serve as they were when Tom was the owner. We chose the Scotch eggs with a side of bacon and the granola bowl. The meals came out pretty quickly and WOW, they were immense! Two eggs with homefries and toast, plus the bacon, and the granola bowl had to contain two cups of granola with about ten ounces of yogurt on top, plus lots of grapes and apple slices, and a large blueberry muffin. Everything was delicious … it was just so much! If we get the Scotch eggs again (and they’re worth getting again!) we’ll split one order.
After a quick stop at Hannaford for our usual supplies, we began the day’s adventure. Our plan was to begin our hike from Wildwood Stables. Whenever possible, we prefer to walk to the Village Green and catch a bus there, but reaching the stables would require taking the Park Loop Road bus, which doesn’t stop at the Village Green. Rather than further complicating the plan with transfers between buses, we decided to drive to the visitors center and take the Park Loop Road bus from there.
We had about twenty minutes to wait at the visitors center, so we climbed the 52 steps to the center itself to grab a new bus schedule. Strangely enough and disturbing to us was the presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses complete with pamphlets soliciting at the top of the steps. The park service had even posted a sign indicating that they were expressing their First Amendment rights and were not affiliated with or endorsed by the park in any way. So, so strange and unexpected.
While we waited for the bus to arrive we talked with a pleasant couple from San Antonio who were on their first trip to Acadia. In answer to their questions, we ended up sharing so much about what we know of the area, what we like to do and why we keep coming back every year. The couple sat behind us on the bus and we were able to give them even more information as we passed by various landmarks and regions of the park (four days here isn’t going to be enough, they kept saying. They’re right!). They asked intelligent questions and hopefully were interested in our answers. They got off at Otter Point, planning to walk the Ocean Path back to Sand Beach and then board another bus to complete their sightseeing loop.
Meanwhile Rich and I continued on to Wildwood Stables. From here we headed uphill to join the carriage road and began walking northwest. Soon a high sheer ledge rose above us and we both thought it would be excellent for climbing! We took some photos to send to our climber friend Dave as possible inspiration. Then we strolled just a little further down the road and we were at the coordinates I had pulled from the topo map for the spot where I expected the Van Santvoord trail to cross the carriage road.
It took us about five seconds of looking around in the wooded area just north of the carriage road to notice a cairn a few feet above us that could, we soon realized, actually be seen from the carriage road if you knew where to look! I could hardly believe it. I honestly didn’t think we’d find very much, at least not so early in our search, and with so little to go on. But still, although this was an encouraging find, we couldn’t yet be sure this was related to the abandoned trail.
We ascended to the cairn and then, faced with a ledge rising above us, had to choose either left or right. At first we poked around to the left and found nothing of real interest. Then I headed toward the right and soon spotted another cairn and two or three very obvious steps. We had found it!!!
We climbed up and soon encountered one of the famous “spiral staircases.” Constructed of hewn granite, it was long and winding and in pristine condition—an absolute marvel of trail construction! The trail was easy to follow after we found that first staircase. We wound up and around, moving easily between cairns and following obvious treadways as we went, certain of our path ahead and our footing almost the entire way.
As is typical for this area of MDI, the lower section of the mountain where the trail is made of steps is steep and wooded. The slope gradually eases as the vegetation clears here and there, and smooth ledges begin to dominate the terrain. At one point we paused on a nice “picnic ledge” to eat our snack of the blueberry muffin I had brought from the Black Friar.
One brushy, overgrown section gave us some trouble and I had to bushwhack around a little bit before spotting a cairn—but that cairn put us right back on track. Soon we popped out onto a nice smooth ledge with a line of cairns leading off into the distance along the rock. A robin hopped onto one cairn as if to say, “This is the way!” It wasn’t until we reached the cairn in the middle of the line that we realized we had just made the connection to the current Triad Trail. We had done it! I can’t even explain how thrilling this was!
To conclude our hike, we took the existing Triad Trail to Hunters Brook, down to Triad Pass and then northwest to Jordan-Bubble Ponds Path which we followed down to the loop road, where the Jordan Pond bus came by almost immediately to take us back to the visitors center. What a great day!!! On our next visit to this area, we’ll have to complete the abandoned trail by searching for the short section south of the carriage road, between the carriage road and the old Wildwood Farm Road. I understand that there’s at least one more stone staircase in that section.
We cleaned ourselves up and rested in our room for a while before heading back to the Black Friar for supper. It was kind of a weird situation, for some reason (work being done earlier in the day in the kitchen? That was the explanation we received.) the dinner specials weren’t available until 5:00pm even though the restaurant opened at 4:00pm for dinner. It was only 4:45 so we had a bit of a wait, but when everything finally came out it was fantastic. Rich had the salmon with ginger soy glaze, asparagus and garlic rice pilaf. I had the fish tacos, which were so light and crispy! Our strenuous hike made us very thirsty so the beer went down quickly (wheat beer for Rich and “green warden” made with spruce tips for me). I loved it. We couldn’t resist the blueberry pie for dessert either, and it was a fine specimen! I’m reminded every time how much more flavor the wild blueberries have than the cultivated ones. The crust was superb too; Rich really really liked it! It just had a unique flavor, was nice and thin and not sweet.
We emerged into what had become a very chilly, windy evening. It was already too windy for our traditional stroll along the waterfront, so we walked around town for a bit instead. Stuffed as we were, we still savored the aroma coming from Rosalie’s Pizza. We checked out the Rock and Art shop, full of fossils and other weird curiosities, which has moved down the block a few buildings from the previous building they rented. As usual, we discovered some really cool items in the shop, including some small cactuses.
Strangely enough I was still in the mood for a tiny scoop of ice cream, so we made our way past Morning Glory (now closed Tuesdays) to MDI Ice Cream on Firefly Lane. Rich chose buttermint, one of our favorites from last year, and I had the fresh mint—both baby scoops. We sat in the park to eat, and it didn’t take long before we were fully chilled. We hurried back to our room to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace!