The largest island off the coast of Maine, Mount Desert gets its name from its rocky seaside terrain. When French explorer Samuel de Champlain first landed in 1604, he called it "île des Monts Déserts" - the “island of the Bare Mountains.” Today, the Mount Desert Island encompasses four towns - Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, and Tremont - each blending picturesque scenery with a unique coastal culture.
Maine’s four Native American Tribes - known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland” – have made Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park the center of their traditional homelands for thousands of years. Today, they still maintain a close spiritual connection to these lands, and return to enjoy its majestic scenery and pay respect to the landscape.
The island’s earliest European inhabitants were French settlers in the early 1600’s. After English colonists raided the French settlement in 1613, Mount Desert remained in dispute for more than 150 years, used mostly as a landmark for sea travelers. It wasn’t until after the American Revolution that landholders again began to stake claims on the island. By the 1850’s, settlers had built up steady trades in lumber, farming, fishing, and shipbuilding – a seafaring way of life.
After the Civil War, artists, writers, and other “rusticators” slowly revealed Mount Desert Island’s rugged beauty to the rest of the nation. By the 1890’s, the island had become a popular retreat for wealthy summer visitors, including the Rockfellers, Fords, and Vanderbilts. As the area became more developed, local “Village Improvement Societies” began to organize conservation efforts to preserve its unique landscape. Their tireless work brought about the creation of Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916 – later renamed Acadia National Park.
The Great Depression and World War II marked the decline of the island’s extravagant summer lifestyle. The great fire of 1947, which ravaged nearly 18,000 acres, finally brought the boom days of Mount Desert Island’s Cottage Era to an end.
Mount Desert Island Today
Mount Desert Island in the 21st century is home to about 10,000 year-round inhabitants – though more than 2 million tourists from around the world stop in each year. Visitors to the island can view the stately cottages of a bygone era and the area’s most distinguished historical sites, all surrounded by the romance of traditional New England coastal life. Explore museums to learn about Mount Desert’s “Golden Age,” its Native American heritage, and diverse ecosystems. Some of the best restaurants in New England can also be found here, whether you’re craving seafood, Maine breakfasts, or homemade dessert – and don’t forget the award-winning microbreweries! The Island’s unique and colorful shops are sure to offer the perfect memento of your visit, and for a taste of local culture, enjoy the nightclubs, theater, and celebrated summer music festivals. Whether for adults, kids, or the whole family, Mount Desert Island offers a great selection of things to see and do!