By Andrew Vietze
Photographed by Patryce Bąk
From our February 2015 issue
A few people are strolling right down the middle of the park’s famous Loop Road, staring out at the breakers. The sun is brilliant, and Sand Beach is deserted. Thunder Hole is booming so hard the ground is shaking — and hardly anyone is around to see it.
Welcome to Acadia in winter.
More than 2 million people visit Maine’s only national park every year — and there are days when it seems like they’re all there at the same time. But only a small fraction — fewer than 5 percent — visit when the snow flies. Of those who do come from December to March, the vast majority — 85 percent — are Mainers, mostly residents of Bar Harbor and surrounding towns, who actively avoid the park in summer.
And what a wonderland they find: Some of the nation’s finest cross-country skiing on the park’s fabled carriage roads. Superb snowshoeing. Scenic drives. Unusual birds. Serenity supreme.
“I found more than I could have hoped for,” says Sara Hester, a rare out-of-state visitor from Phoenix, who spent several days in December looking for birds. “No one around to bother me, beautiful wintry sights everywhere.”
Whatever you’re hoping for, let this be your guide to Acadia, off-season and all yours.
Sneak in the Back
There are no big brown signs flagging the gates to the park in winter. You could easily drive by the two major entrances without noticing them, and there are no crowds to follow, so pay attention. The most popular way to access the Park Loop Road is via Schooner Head Road, a left off Route 3 just south of the village of Bar Harbor. This takes you through a residential area to the section of the Loop Road that’s open, with some fine vistas of the Precipice on the east face of Champlain Mountain and glimpses of beaver dams and Schooner Head itself along the way. The other route begins in Seal Harbor. Take a hard right before you reach the tiny one-block downtown and drive through a quiet residential area to meet the Loop Road just below Jordan Pond. You can pick up a winter-use guide that includes a map at Park Headquarters or visit the park’s website (nps.gov/acad).
The views of mountains and sea that made Mount Desert famous don’t disappear with the tourists. The same spectacular scenery that attracts millions to Mount Desert every summer is still there in the quieter months — and is often prettier for it. Plus, you can enjoy it all with the heater running, if you’re so inclined.
The most popular stretch of Acadia’s Loop Road is open from Schooner Head to Otter Cliff. Taking in marquee sites like the Schooner Head Overlook, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and the famous cliffs, it’s all plowed and ready. Check out the Beehive draped in snow, the beach deserted, and Thunder Hole when it’s really booming. “Almost any winter storm can pick up some big surf,” says Charlie Jacobi, Acadia’s visitor use specialist. Traffic is one lane only — the other lane is for snowmobilers — and drivers should keep an eye out for pedestrians.
Jordan Pond Road
The Stanley Brook Entrance to Jordan Pond is gated, but drivers can access this mountain-ringed lake — one of Maine’s most photographed — through the neat neighborhoods of Seal Harbor.
This back way into Northeast Harbor hugs Somes Sound, two lanes winding just feet from the briny, and it’s a treat any time of year. There are turnouts from which to admire the fjard (an inlet that’s shorter and shallower than a true fjord), and the huge rock walls beside the road are draped with extraordinary ice formations, sparkling white and vivid blue.
Northeast, Southwest, and Bass Harbors
Contrary to popular belief, the communities of Mount Desert do not shut down in winter — which means you can still visit Bass Harbor with its lighthouse, Southwest Harbor with its natural rocky seawall, Somesville with its much photographed arched wooden footbridge, Pretty Marsh with its, um, pretty marsh, and all of the other postcard-perfect sites tourists flock to in summer.
Acadia’s campgrounds have an unmatched quietude. Only Blackwoods Campground is open in winter, when the camping is free. Blackwoods is an excellent jumping-off point for climbing Cadillac or skiing the Around the Mountain loop. It’s also a great location for the first-time winter camper. “It’s only about a half mile in,” says visitor use specialist Jacobi. “So you can walk out, get in your car, and go to a B&B in town if you decide it’s not for you.” Pick up a free permit at Park Headquarters and rent gear at Acadia Mountain Guides in Bar Harbor. Then enjoy the hush.
About 30 years ago, a Bar Harbor dentist recognized that Acadia’s wide, crushed-gravel carriage roads were ideal for cross-country skiing, so he started grooming them by dragging a box spring behind a snowmobile. That labor of love has evolved into a large volunteer organization using state-of-the-art grooming equipment. More than 30 miles of carriage roads are now tracked for skiing, complete with skating lanes. After a good snowfall (the park averages a little over 60 inches a year), you’d be hard-pressed to find better skiing anywhere. You can find a map of the groomed trails at the Friends of Acadia website (friendsofacadia.org) and check out current snow and grooming conditions at its Facebook page.
One of the hubs of winter activity at Acadia, 436-acre Eagle Lake is ringed by carriage roads, and the 3.7-mile route along the lake’s west side is groomed. The relatively flat trail has few ups and downs and pretty views of mountains, lake, and woods. When the lake is solidly frozen, you can even ski on the ice itself for an even flatter route. A number of side trails meet up with this 6-mile out-and-back route.
With the Bubbles at one end and Penobscot and Sargent mountains on either side, Acadia’s most famous freshwater pond is spectacularly scenic any time of year — but during winter, you have it all to yourself. The back road through Seal Harbor is plowed to the parking area, with access to groomed carriage roads on the pond’s west side. Follow the trail north up a gradual incline to meet the Eagle Lake Trail after 2 miles. To the south, the trail meets a loop through the forested valley called the Amphitheater.
Aunt Betty Pond/Seven Bridges
John D. Rockefeller Jr. made sure this carriage road crossed the area’s babbling brooks as many times as possible — Mrs. Rockefeller liked the sound of the horses’ hooves on the wooden bridges. The pond itself is a shallow and marshy 38-acre wildlife hotspot. Beginning at the parking lot at Eagle Lake, this route takes you roughly 6 miles up some steep hills, past the pond’s east side, and returns along the west shore of Eagle.
Upper Hadlock Pond
Just off Route 198 beneath Norumbega Mountain, Upper Hadlock is a tranquil frozen oasis when seen from the carriage road that follows its eastern shore. A fine 4.2-mile loop begins at the Brown Mountain Gatehouse on Route 198 and heads north along groomed trails. The trail skirts Parkman and Penobscot mountains, lifting you up just high enough to look out past the pond to the sea. The backside of the loop is very serene as you pass the frozen 40-foot Hadlock Falls and the dramatic arch of Waterfall Bridge. The going has a few ups and downs, but won’t pose a challenge to moderately experienced skiers.
Starting at Brown Mountain Gatehouse, the 4.4-mile Amphitheater Loop takes you into some of the most remote-feeling terrain in the park. The trail, a favorite of locals, circuits the Amphitheater, a deep valley beneath Penobscot Mountain, and crosses Amphitheater Bridge, the longest of the park’s famous historic bridges. The undulating terrain will give you a workout.
Around the Mountain
This is the big one. The most ambitious of all of Acadia’s carriage road loops, the Around the Mountain circuit, true to its name, encircles Parkman, Sargent, and Penobscot mountains and Gilmore and Bald peaks, and it climbs to 700 feet, the highest point of any carriage road (with some of the best views). At 11 miles, rising and falling along the ridges (including one stretch that’s about 2 miles of climbing), it’s a long day of skiing — or a super fun descent, depending which direction you go. The rewards, however, are many: you’ll see seven of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s venerable bridges, countless snow-covered peaks, and spectacular vistas out to Somes Sound and Jordan Pond. The trail starts at the Parkman Mountain parking area on Route 198.
If you’d feel more comfortable exploring Acadia’s winter woods with a Registered Maine Guide — or you simply want to learn something new — you’ll find options even this time of year.
Acadia Mountain Guides
As the name suggests, these are Mount Desert’s experienced mountaineers, offering guided hiking trips and ice-climbing odysseys in and around the park. They’ll also rent gear and help customize outings. 228 Main St., Bar Harbor. 207-866-7562. acadiamountainguides.com
Down East Nature Tours
Michael Good has been introducing visitors to Acadia’s wildlife — birds, in particular — for more than 20 years. Possible sightings along the rugged coast include harlequin ducks and pelagic birds like puffins, razorbills, dovekies, and murres. 150 Knox Rd., Bar Harbor. 207-288-8128. downeastnaturetours.com
Six for Snowshoes
Thanks to its fabled carriage roads, midsized mountains, 120 miles of hiking trails, and unrivaled surf-and-turf scenery, Acadia is home to some of the finest snowshoeing in the Northeast. Variety is the key word here. If you want to bust lungs and legs up a challenging pitch, there are plenty of options. If you’re testing out a new pair of snowshoes and prefer a gentle walk along the shore, you’ll find that too. These six routes run the gamut. Where routes are shared with skiers, please stay off the ski lanes. The park regularly updates snow conditions on its Facebook page.
At 525 feet, Gorham is known for its long, open slopes and fantastic views of Sand Beach, Great Head, and the bay beyond — the sea is close enough that you can make out birds and breakers. The gradual incline is ideal for snowshoeing. The Gorham Mountain Trail leaves the right side of the Park Loop Road just beyond Thunder Hole and splits after a short walk through the woods. To the right are the Cadillac Cliffs and old sea caves filled with sparkly ice formations. The main trail goes straight for about 2 miles over ledges to the summit. Retrace your steps back to the parking lot or make a loop by picking the Bowl Trail, which connects with the Ocean Path on Park Loop Road. The only caveats are to pick your way carefully — look for cairns as the underfoot trail blazes will be snow covered — and be prepared for ice. It’s about a 4-mile round trip for either route.
Cadillac South Ridge
Climb Cadillac Mountain in the winter and you’ll feel you’ve achieved something. The vast majority of people who summit Cadillac, the highest peak on the eastern seaboard north of Brazil, do so in the fair weather of summer — and in an automobile. Winter is when the mountains that define Mount Desert are truly wild, and the spectacular tableau from the 1,532-foot summit has all the more impact without the crowds. The Cadillac South Ridge Trail may be the longest way up at 3.5 miles, but it’s also the most gradual, a good thing for snowshoers. Beginning across from Blackwoods Campground on Route 3, the trail wanders through a mixed forest before opening onto ledges. About a mile in, you’ll hit Eagle’s Crag, a 695-foot nub, which makes a nice turnaround point if you’re tired.
These two short paths are among the gentlest trails in Acadia, but both provide ample rewards. The pair are about a mile apart in the village of Bass Harbor, not far from the park’s Seawall Campground, and they wend through the woods to the edge of the Atlantic at the southern tip of Mount Desert, rewarding hikers with a fantastic vista of coves, sand, granite, and open ocean. Both are about a 1.5-mile round trip.
Day Mountain Trail
This 533-foot hill is ideal for snowshoeing, not only because its trailhead is accessible by plowed road — which it is — or because it has magnificent views of summits and sea — which it does — but also because it’s the only mountain in Acadia with a carriage road going all the way to the top. Most hikers like to park on Route 3 near Seal Harbor and tromp up from the south, but you can also drive to Jordan Pond and climb from the north. Either route connects with a wide, easy-to-stroll carriage road. One popular trek is to come up from the south and then loop back via the carriage road, a 1.5-mile route.
Eagle Lake Circuit
This 6-miler isn’t short, but the gentle grade of the carriage paths it follows makes for an easy stroll. What’s more, there’s plenty to see. Named by painter Thomas Cole for the raptors he watched while working at his easel, the Eagle Lake basin has hills — Connors Nubble, Cadillac, the Bubbles — and woods all around. You may even spy an eagle, especially if the legions of ice fishermen who angle here are foolish enough to leave their catch on the ice, or perhaps a snowy owl. You can make your way down to the ice and walk out into the middle of the lake for even more views. A spur takes you to Park Headquarters. Leave the car in the lot off Route 233 (check out the venerable bridge along the access path) and expect a full circuit to take about 2.5 hours.
Witch Hole Pond
Leaving from the Eagle Lake parking lot, this is another longish route at just over 6 miles. Witch Hole Pond has a wild feel, despite being close to Route 3. The area surrounding the 28-acre pond is rich with boggy wetlands — you’ll most certainly see beaver lodges sticking up through the ice and tall grasses making patterns on the lake’s frozen surface. You’ll also cross Duck Brook Bridge, one the beautiful old brick spans built in the pre-Depression era by MDI summer resident John D. Rockefeller Jr. The area’s other great draw is Paradise Hill, a small rise with views of Frenchman Bay, Porcupine Islands and all. Ascending Paradise Hill requires a mile detour at the north end of the Witch Hole Loop. Another alternative, though much steeper in the early going, is to park at Acadia’s closed Hulls Cove Visitor Center and begin the trek there, or you can shave 2 miles off the route by parking at the end of Duck Brook Road, off Route 233.
Eat and Sleep
Among Bar Harbor’s biggest winter attractions are the deals. Prices at inns and hotels are reduced — by as much as half in some cases. The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce keeps a list of year-round establishments (barharborinfo.com), though it reflects only chamber members and isn’t necessarily comprehensive. More can be found at the Bar Harbor Merchants Association website (barharbormerchants.com). The options are plentiful. If you prefer bed-and-breakfasts, you’ll find them. Hotels? Yep. Small inns? Check.
Many of Bar Harbor’s most popular restaurants persevere through the cold-weather months too. Begin the day with a muffin at Morning Glory Bakery. Take lunch at old stalwart Geddy’s or grab a to-go at the Trailhead Cafe. Have dinner at McKay’s Public House or Guinness & Porcelli’s, then grab a nightcap at the Side Street Cafe or Thirsty Whale.
The Great Indoors
If you know where to look in Bar Harbor, you can find all sorts of activities for those days when the temperatures are low and the winds are howling.
The Abbe Museum
A Bar Harbor favorite since 1997, the Abbe showcases Native American arts and culture. In addition to its collection of Wabanaki artifacts, the museum has rotating exhibits, lectures, and other events every month but January. Open Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 26 Mount Desert St., Bar Harbor. 207-288-3519. abbemuseum.org
Mount Desert Island Historical Society
The MDI Historical Society has a lot to work with — the park, the island’s famous artists, world-renowned architecture, Bar Harbor’s golden age as the most fashionable place on the East Coast. The organization’s museum at the Old Schoolhouse is open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., year-round. 373 Sound Dr., Mount Desert. 207-276-9323. mdihistory.org
George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History
Ginormous whale skeletons, cute stuffed puffins, dozens of dioramas, listening booths — this museum housed in Acadia’s original headquarters is one of Bar Harbor’s hidden treasures. An outstanding collection of artifacts explores eons of animal life in Maine, and it’s all curated and run by College of the Atlantic students. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 105 Eden Street, Bar Harbor. 207-288-5395. coa.edu/dorr-museum-microsite.htm
Like your movies in a comfy chair with a beer and a slice of pizza? This is the place for you. Arty flicks and second-run hits served up with a full menu of creative pies. Closed early November through Christmas. 33 Kennebec Pl., Bar Harbor. 207-288-3811. reelpizza.com
Snow-draped mountain summits stretching into the distance. Iced-over trees glistening in the sun. Cliff walls hung with hundred-foot icicles. Mount Desert Island is eye candy from the window of a three-passenger Cessna 172 on a tour with Scenic Flights of Acadia. “You’re seeing places you wouldn’t be able to drive to,” says Vicki Vroom, who’s been running the 50-year-old company with her husband for the past eight years. “It’s such a different perspective.” The aviators offer a variety of tours as well (as custom trips) all year long. The most popular flight is the All Acadia trip, a 35-minute jaunt that takes in the whole of Mount Desert, as well as three lighthouses and the many islands beyond, all in a high-wing plane, so there are no seats with obstructed views. And yes, Vroom reassures, the planes are heated.