Every year on Dec. 1, gates are closed in Acadia National Park. Visitor centers and restrooms are locked up tight, seasonal rangers depart and the park’s off-season officially begins.

“A lot of people think the park is closed, but it’s not,” Acadia National Park Ranger Chris Wiebusch, one of the many rangers who work at park year-round, said.

While most of Acadia’s roads are closed to vehicle traffic during the off-season, the trails, lakes and ponds remain open to the public for a wide variety of activities. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, fat-tire biking, ice fishing, horseback riding and dog walking are all permitted in the park during the winter, though some activities are limited to certain trails and roads.

“I find snowshoe tracks on all the trails of this park,” Wiebusch said. “A lot of people like to snowshoe up the Cadillac Mountain Road to the top of Cadillac Mountain.”

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Acadia has long been one of Maine’s top recreation destinations, and the park’s popularity only seems to be growing. In 2015, Acadia had an estimated 2.81 million visits, the highest visitation in 20 years. During the summer and fall, visitors often have difficulty finding parking spots, and the park’s biggest attractions typically are crowded.

During the winter, it’s a different story. Park visitation drops dramatically, Wiebusch said, making it the ideal time to explore the park’s most popular trails and biggest attractions without having to deal with crowds. Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, Cadillac Mountain, Eagle Lake, Jordan Pond — these scenic locations within Acadia are all accessible during the winter.

Planning your visit

The Acadia Winter Festival, running Feb. 26 to March 6, is one opportunity to get to know Acadia in the winter while in the company of others. The multiday celebration will include many outdoor events hosted at Acadia on Mount Desert Island, as well as the park’s mainland division on Schoodic Peninsula in Winter Harbor.

The schedule of events, available at acadiawinterfestival.org, includes a guided nighttime owl prowl, guided sunrise walk, birding walk, guided snowshoe and guided cross-country ski trip. Some of these programs require pre-registration and a small fee, while others are free to the public.

However, if you’d prefer to explore the park on your own, there are many options, Wiebusch said, and park admission is free all winter. In fact, park passes aren’t required from Nov. 1 through April 30, according to the National Park Service website.

“There are plenty of places to go snowshoeing with great views and not get lost,” Wiebusch said.

If you’re planning to visit Acadia on MDI, the park offers winter-specific information and maps online and at park headquarters, which is open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily on Route 233 (Eagle Lake Road), about 3 miles west of Bar Harbor.

If you’re planning to visit Acadia on Schoodic Peninsula, information and maps are available at the Schoodic Institute’s Welcome Center, which is open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily and is located at the tip of the Peninsula, off the Park Loop Road. You can also call ahead of time at 288-1310.

Winter access can be tricky

Though most of Acadia’s park roads are closed to vehicle traffic in the winter, many of the park’s trails are still easy to access — if you know where you’re going. Purchasing a detailed Acadia trail map from park headquarters is the first step to a successful winter excursion in the park.

Many of the mountains, ponds and lakes in the park are accessible from trailheads on public roads, such as Route 3, Schooner Head Road and Route 198. In addition, Acadia strategically keeps two sections of park road open on MDI during winter to help the public access more trails.

One section of park road that remains open during the winter spans from Route 3 in Seal Harbor to the south end of Jordan Pond. The other section is a stretch of the scenic Park Loop Road, from Egg Rock Overlook to Otter Cliff Road in Bar Harbor, which gives people access to Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Ocean Path, Gorham Mountain Trailhead, Great Head Trail and Fabbri Monument and picnic area.

The entire Park Loop Road remains open in Acadia’s mainland portion on the Schoodic Peninsula.

Lastly, while most of the buildings in Acadia are closed up for the winter, the park keeps outhouses open at Eagle Lake, Sand Beach, the Fabbri Monument, Jordan Pond and the trailhead for Brown and Parkman mountains. And at Blackwoods Campground, walk-in winter camping is free. The campground features a frost-free hand pump and an outhouse. Park rangers simply ask that campers sign in at park headquarters before pitching a tent.

What to do

When there’s enough snow on the ground, one of the most popular activities in Acadia during the winter is cross-country skiing. Of the 47 miles of historic carriage roads in the park on Mount Desert Island, about 27 miles are groomed for cross-country skiing by Friends of Acadia.

And on Schoodic Peninsula, roughly 8 miles of new bike trails opened last summer that also are suitable for cross-country skiing.

Snowshoeing and dog walking is also popular during the winter. But if you do decide to include your dog in the winter fun, be sure to clean up after it and keep it on a leash not exceeding 6 feet in length. This rule is strictly enforced in the park.

“Many people snowshoe up Cadillac, Penobscot and Sargent [mountains] to see the snowy owls,” Wiebusch said.

In recent years, snowy owls have been seen on all three mountains during the winter, hunting for rodents in broad daylight.

Day Mountain is another great spot for snowshoeing on MDI, Wiebusch said, especially for beginner snowshoers and people who are new to the park. The small mountain is home to easy hiking trails and scenic carriage roads that are relatively easy to navigate and lead to open views of the ocean.

Other activities that take place in Acadia during the winter are ice fishing, snowmobiling, fat-tire biking and, on occasion, horseback riding. Snowmobilers, horses and fat-tire bicyclists are permitted on all park roads that are closed to vehicle traffic and are encouraged to start their winter excursions at the large parking area at Hulls Cove Visitor Center.

Stay safe

Because of the danger of low temperatures and the fact that fewer people are wandering the park during the off-season, it’s crucial that winter visitors to Acadia dress, pack and prepare for the conditions, Wiebusch said. A flashlight, plenty of food and water, extra clothing and a detailed trail map are among the items visitors should consider carrying with them as they explore the park.

The Appalachian Mountain Club provides a multitude of books and online information about hiking in the winter, including a list of suggested gear and clothes.

“It also doesn’t hurt to leave a note on the dashboard telling where you’re going and when you expect to be back,” Wiebusch said.

Though winter injuries and emergencies in the park are infrequent, they do occur. Earlier this winter, on Jan. 13, the car of a 50-year-old Ellsworth man was found near an Acadia trailhead. Park rangers searched for the man in the park for several days. He has yet to be found.

For more information about Acadia in the winter, visit nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/winteractivities.htm or call 288-3338.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...