Arriving at Duck Harbor is an experience – you see the dock as you come around Eben’s Head, see the park ranger waiting for you, and all the people getting ready to board the boat to return to Stonington. But most of all, the view of endless rocky Maine coastline, with mountains in the distance. And it’s all another adventure waiting to happen.
“Kill Nothing but Time…
Take Nothing but Pictures…
Leave Nothing but Tracks…”
– Anonymous (Posted on Duck Harbor Campground Shelters)
Exploring Duck Harbor Campground
Duck Harbor Campground sits within Acadia National Park, on an island called Isle au Haut. To get there, you must take a small mail boat from the mainland. In return, you get a secluded campground, great hiking, and an amazing experience. Isle au Haut is not a place most visitors to Acadia go to. Our boat trip to the island was uneventful, but exhilarating at the same time. We disembarked from the boat with all our gear in tow. We had thought about using our backpacking gear, but decided against it to give ourselves more flexibility. Most of the departing campers we saw had backpacking backpacks, but our daypacks, duffels, and small cooler met our needs.
Our small, hard-sided cooler (which we purchased at Walmart) held some ice and fresh foods like veggies, hotdogs, and hummus. Just in case, we brought a dehydrated meal too, but didn’t end up using it. There’s no camp store here, so you have to pack everything in that you’d need (unless you want to hike 4 miles to the nearest general store). Lastly, we brought minimal water, relying on the water pump near camp.
One of the park rangers, Allison, greeted us on the dock. She explained the rules and proceeded to show us the campground. There is always a ranger to greet visitors at the campground, rain or shine, at both the morning and afternoon boat drop-offs. Allison and the other rangers were friendly and helpful, which was great since we ran into them often during our stay!
Duck Harbor Campground has 5 shelter sites, and two shared compostable pit toilets. There was even hand sanitizer inside the bathrooms. For day-visitors to Duck Harbor, there’s a third compostable bathroom near the trailhead to Duck Harbor Mountain. Each campsite is equipped with a shelter, fire ring, and picnic table. Each site also has a food storage box, since rodents have been known to get into food that’s not properly secured. In addition, there is firewood available for campers, though you can also collect downed branches for tinder or get some pre-chopped wood at the wood chopping machine. When we arrived, there was already firewood under our shelter for us.
There’s also an old hand water pump for getting potable water. It’s about a ⅓ mile hike from the campground. It looks ancient, like it won’t work or that the water would be nasty, but it’s fine. The rangers told us that the water quality is checked every year to make sure it’s potable, though it does have a distinct taste of iron. Iron Water would make a great new name for a brand of bottled water. Or maybe not.
To improve your experience at the water pump, we recommend straining water through a bandanna and into your water bottle / jug / hand / mouth. We found that worked to reduce sediment in the water, though it’ll still taste like iron and have a cloudy yellowish haze. There are also many places the water can come out of – it’s kind of intriguingly confusing. In the end, we pulled up on a knob, which filled a tank that released water out the bottom – your mileage may vary as to the best method to use the pump. But that’s part of the fun 🙂
When it comes to the shelters, each one has a variety of shelving and hooks for storage, and a broom to sweep off the wooden floor. Every shelter is different: some have better views, some have more privacy, some have more seating, etc. On another blog, we had read that sites 4 or 5 had the best views, which we agree with, but each site has its charms.
Luckily, only one site was taken when arrived and we were the only ones on the mail boat… so we got our pick of sites 2 through 5! The rest of the campers came on a later boat, which we attribute to a mail boat schedule change. Allison, the park ranger, said we were also lucky to have gotten 3 nights since the campground was completely booked for the season. By the way, reserving a campsite is a bit of a process.
How to Reserve a Camp Site
[04/05/18 Update: The National Park Service has changed how you reserve a campsite. Out with mailing a letter, and in with online reservations through recreation.gov. I actually got an email from the park about the reservation change since I had previously made reservations. So this section is out-of-date, but I’m leaving it here for reference. Online reservations began on April 1, 2018 @ 10am. This is a good change – mailing the reservation was a pain. Also, you can now choose your campsite before you even get there! Good luck!]
First, you must send a letter to the park service – no email, fax, or calling. Old fashioned snail mail. When you send in the reservation form, you’ll specify three possible date ranges and the number of nights. You can stay a maximum of three nights, which is what we recommend and did. On the form, we did add a note that we were okay with fewer nights if we couldn’t get three. The letter must be postmarked April 1 or later, otherwise the NPS will ignore your letter. We sent in our letter on April 1 with a $25 check, which is the amount no matter how long you stay.
The days ticked by, and we were nervously awaiting the return letter. Would we get our requested dates? Did the park service even receive our letter? Maybe the USPS lost it? Thankfully, we got a letter from the park service on April 14 – two weeks after we had sent ours. Excitedly, we opened the letter to find out that we had gotten our first choice of dates, with three nights. Unless you’re very flexible with the dates, I HIGHLY recommend sending in your request on April 1. Most campers we talked to were not able to get their exact choice of dates or even three nights.
Now, that’s how to reserve a campsite. But you also have to get to the campground, and unless you have your own boat, you’ll be taking a ferry. Specifically, the Isle Au Haut mailboat that travels from Stonington, ME to Duck Harbor. Check out our Stonington post for more info on the mail boat.
So, which campsite did we choose? Well, which site looks best to you?
We chose site 4 – great location, great views. Site 5 was also excellent, but a bit further from the bathroom. Site 1 was taken. Sites 2 and 3 were nice, but proximity to the ocean won out. The only negative was that previous campers had carved out a path to our site in the grass, and a few visitors mistakenly ended up in our site. We warmly welcomed them… then mentioned it to the rangers, who were already fixing some signage to mediate the problem.
Site 1 – Most inland, less breeze, close to bathroom, fairly private
Site 2 – More inland, less breeze, close to bathroom
Site 3 – Close to bathroom, close to other campsites
Site 4 – Great views, good location, close to bathroom, close to other campsites, access to coastline
Site 5 – Most remote and private, bit farther from bathroom, great views, access to coastline
So, we settled in and made our shelter a home. We thought we would just relax – we even told the Park Rangers that was our plan for the day. And we did, for an hour or so. But we only had a few days here and wanted to make the most of it, so it was time for another adventure. Duck Harbor Mountain loomed behind us…
We loved Duck Harbor Campground. It was probably our favorite adventure in Acadia, and that’s saying a lot, with so many awesome attractions in the park. The campground was very clean, mostly private, and had amazing views. We enjoyed just resting in our hammock and watching the sun set, or reading a book with the sea breeze blowing gently around us. Often, we’d go down to the coastline and eat our breakfast or dinner on a rock. And there are a lot of great trails to explore just minutes away! And if you were wondering, we did indeed see actual ducks at Duck Harbor! So the harbor is aptly named. Quack. Quack.
Duck Harbor Campground | 5 shelter sites
Location: Isle au Haut (Google Maps Directions)
Amenities: Potable water available via an old hand pump located ⅓ mile from the campground| Fire ring | Picnic Table | Composting Toilet | Food Storage Box
Dates Open: May 15 to October 15
Prices: $25 / stay | Maximum stay: 3 nights
Highlights: Right next to the coast, solitude, hiking trails nearby
Notes: Check-out: 11am | Advance Reservations Required – reservation requests must be mailed on or after April 1