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Picnic in a Great Park

Martha Stewart Living, July 2011

In 1925, Edsel Ford followed some of his friends to Mount Desert Island, Maine, and started construction on a hilltop vacation estate he named Skylands. In those days, horses and carriages were used by many for pleasure and transportation, and within Acadia, the great national park, there were extensive horse and carriage roads for the inhabitants' use.

Ford also built a beautiful stable and carriage house where he kept horses and ponies with names including Leglock, Please Me, Nadina, Cheerful, and Chestnut Hal. Those nameplates are still affixed over the iron and brass stalls in the cypress-wood-lined stable. Since I bought Skylands many years ago, one of my greatest pleasures has been bringing two or three of my Friesians up to Maine in the summer and then exploring the verdant, pine-scented, pink-granite parkland that is one of America's greatest treasures.

Access to Acadia is simple: a short drive or ride through the woods, across Route 3, and right into the park. The biggest challenge when planning a picnic ride in the park is choosing just one of the many incredible options available. There are 45 miles of carriage roads and many miles of trails, which are detailed on the Carriage Road User's Map issued by the National Park Service.

On this excursion, my friends Muffin and Jim Dowdle brought two horses from Bedford, and several other Maine friends joined with their mounts for a long ride on a quintessential Maine day of blue skies, billowy clouds, and cool breezes. We rode around Little Long Pond, through grassy fields, over stone-faced bridges (there are 17 throughout the park), across mountaintops with extensive views of ocean, ponds, and mountains, and through dark, shady forests of towering spruce and fir trees.

We stopped along the way for a delightful picnic of homemade foods, and the horses, too, had a great time grazing on new and different hay in unfamiliar but friendly fields.

We stayed in the park for hours that day and saw but a fraction of the numerous sights Acadia has to offer in more than 47,000 acres of parkland. For the dedicated horse rider, there are overnight facilities for owners and horses alike in and near the park. And many people trailer their horses to one of the parking lots that adjoin the carriage roads, saddle up, and ride just as we did, through the glorious landscape.

The carriage roads offer the best example of broken-stone roads from the turn of the 20th century in existence: They are 16 feet wide and were constructed to contend with Maine's rains, mud, and snow. The roads are perfectly drained and contoured to the landscape, and they make the most of the spectacular views in every direction.

While we were on our ride, the conversation turned to the great visionaries who had the foresight to preserve, care for, and plan extraordinary places such as Acadia. Our thanks were expressed out loud to "rusticators and preservationists" Charles W. Eliot, John D. Rockefeller Jr., George B. Dorr, and others who persisted in the acquisition of the lands that ultimately became some of America's most beautiful parks. We can all enjoy the parkland in many ways -- on foot, by bicycle, by car, by snowmobile, or even on horseback!

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