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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Precipice Trail - Acadia National Park's Terrifying Trail

This is probably "post number 243" where I tell you how much I hate heights and then I go on some insane hike that tests my limits and my fears. People are often confused about my fear of heights as they see me standing on top of a mountain summit all the time. You see, I can deal with one edge, but I need one side of safety to feel well, safe. Steep cliffy trails - I can manage. A trail like Angel's Landing where there are steep drops on both side? I am happy to wait back at the quitter's corner. But more often than not, I try to push myself and my fear of heights when traveling somewhere new. This hike in this part was no exception. 

The Precipice Trail is one of Acadia National Park's most famous trails. After we had a taste of the Beehive Trail, we were so excited to travel among the parks rung and ladder trails. We hiked the Beehive Trail for our wedding photos and we were blown away by the amazing views and technical aspects of the trail. We hiked the Beech Cliffs trail to get on another iron rung trail while we waited for the Precipice Trail to open "some time" that day.

I knew the trail had a reputation of being a mix of stunning views, challenging terrain and dangerous heights. The Precipice Trail offers some amazing views, even making its way onto Fodor's list of the Top 10 Most Beautiful Hikes in the United States. However, steep drops, narrow traverses, and slippery rungs and ladders are some of the reasons this trail makes it onto lists like "one of the most dangerous hikes in a National Park" and "Top 17 Most Dangerous Hiking Trails and Bridges". Let's just say the Precipice Trail has a reputation for being breathtaking and challenging with its own set of dangers and precautions. A college student in 2012 was the first person to fall to her death since 1985, but others have fallen 60 feet in a near-death experience. 

What you need to know is this is not really a hike, but a vertical hike, a series of climbs with a few flat sections along a cliff edge sprinkled in. The trail climbs 1,000 feet up on the east face of Champlain Mountain in 0.7 miles. We did a bit of quick research, we were in shape and had the right gear, we were excited to tackle the Precipice Trail. 

Day 3, the orange tape was removed and the trail was open. We excitedly threw some water in a pack and hoped the morning fog and clouds would dissipate before we started climbing our way up the trail. The trail starts with a set of stone steps that takes you into the woods along a well-marked trail. Your first obstacle is a boulder field, picking your way up and across large boulders and through narrow caves and gaps in the rocks. 

 Shortly after, you start to reach the wooden bridge which is a little taste of what is to come. Pretty soon you will be climbing a series of intricate ladders and rungs as you make your way up the side of the mountain. The trail starts with a few "this isn't so bad" sections before you get to a few parts climbing straight up ladders or grabbing onto rungs as you slowly travel across the narrow cliff edge. I left my phone in my pocket for most of the hike, focusing on keeping two hands on the rungs at all times. Of course, you have to be careful and aware but you can see just how easy it is to lose your footing or lose contact with a slipper rung as you make your way to the top. I can't stress enough how important it is to be aware, keep both hands free, and make smart and conscious decisions as you make your way up the trail. 

While we didn't get much for views as the clouds wrapped around the mountain, I was insanely thankful that the lack of views also meant a lack of just how steep and cliffy this trail was. There were sections where I was nervous and shaky, reminding myself to keep moving along the trail one foot and one hand in front of the other, making my way across the dangerous sections in search of more solid and safe ground. I remember Adam calling at me to slow down at one point along a treacherous section where I answered back with a "moving forward is my coping mechanism" and that it was. If I stopped for long enough to take in my surroundings, I may have stayed paralyzed on that cliff edge for longer than I remember. This is a rare instance where I was thankful the clouds were blocking my view and I was more than eager to reach the safer terrain of the summit.

We reached the summit and celebrated our safe arrival while laughing at the lack of views from the top of Champlain Mountain. From the summit, we followed Champlain North Ridge across the mountain and down the trail which would eventually lead us back to the orange and black trail and the intersection of the Precipice Trail before the rungs. You can also follow the orange and black trail back to the park road and walk the road back which in hindsight, we wish we did. The loop we followed back took us up and down and around the mountain, adding an extra workout as we made our way back to the car. 

Trail Stats

Trail: There are options to hike this trail - you can complete it in a clockwise (shorter) or counterclockwise (longer) direction after reaching the top of the Precipice Trail (do not go back down the Precipice Trail). We chose the shorter route following the Precipice Trail to the Champlain North Ridge Trail to the Orange and Black Path - from here you can go down to Park Loop Road and walk back to the parking lot or head back to the start of the Precipice Trail which will return you to the trailhead. 

Trailhead/Parking: The trailhead is located on Park Loop Road (this is a one-way loop road through the park and the trailhead is on the right, don't miss it!) There is a parking lot that holds roughly 20 cars and it fills up fast - get here early in order to get a parking spot. We were the first car at the trailhead at 6 am. 

Elevation: 1,190' elevation gain. The bulk of the gain is 1,000 feet up the east face of the mountain along the Precipice Trail over 0.7 miles. 

Distance: According to the map at the trailhead, following the Orange Black trail is an additional 1.3 miles past the end of the Precipice Trail (which is 0.8 miles). We clocked this loop in at 2.43-miles completed in 1.5 hours. 

Dogs and Kids: No and No. Dogs are not allowed on this trail due to the iron rungs, narrow trail, and ladders. I would never bring a kid on this hike - period. 

Red Tape: This hike is not for the faint of heart - there are steep ledges, slippery rungs, and ladders to climbs. From late March into the summer months, the Precipice Trail can close during peregrine falcon nesting- it had just opened back up the day we were visiting in mid-August. Because of some of the climbs, ladders, and rungs, this hike is not recommended for anyone under 5'2". Because of the technical climb, it is best to keep this as a one-way trail. It is strongly discouraged to go back down the Precipice Trail - make it a look and continue on the orange and black trail. No dogs, no kids, and proper footwear is required. Avoid this hike in wet and slippery conditions. 

(Non) Pro Tip: Leave some wipes in your car to wipe the rust and grit off your hands from holding onto the ladders and rungs for dear life. 

The Precipice Trail was thrilling and terrifying, leaving me a little shaky after some of those cliff edges, but with a greater sense of accomplishment.  We took a lot of breaks as we scaled our way up the cliffside and I was thankful that the lack of views made the climb (mentally) a bit easier.  A part of me would love to climb it again when the clouds aren't there, while a bigger part of me is going to be happy that I accomplished it, and will likely leave it on the one-and-done type of hike.  Acadia is beautiful and there are so many ways to experience the park.  If you are a thrill-seeker, this is a great way to finish a short but technical hike that offers some amazing views of Acadia National Park. 

Other Acadia Hikes

Bee Hive Trail (ladders, rungs, exposed edges, adults only)
Jordan Pond Loop (family and dog friendly) 
Beech Cliff Trail Loop (ladders, older kid-friendly, not great for dogs )

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