My dog, Juno, pranced excitedly around the parking lot, straining at the end of her leash. Perhaps she could smell the salt in the air. Or maybe she recognized the boom of waves striking the rocky coastline.
We couldn’t yet see it, but the sprawling sand beach was just there, through the snowy woods and down a flight of granite steps.
One of the most popular destinations in Acadia National Park, Sand Beach is swarming with visitors in the summer. Its two parking lots fill up rapidly every day. But during the winter, even on a bluebird day, you might share the beach with a handful of locals and off-season tourists. Or you might have it entirely to yourself.
Another perk? Dogs are permitted on the beach in the winter — but they’re not during the summer — if you keep them on leash and pick up after them.
Dog waste bags were among the many items that I crammed into my backpack on Dec. 21, before walking the short path to the beach. Other contents of my pack included water and snacks, a camera lens for wildlife photography, gloves, a detailed trail map, survival gear (such as a fire starter) and ice cleats.
Ice cleats are crucial for staying safe during the winter in Acadia, especially if you plan to hike any trails. While Mount Desert Island is sometimes free of snow during Maine’s coldest months, plenty of ice is guaranteed.
In fact, packed snow and ice coated the steps down to Sand Beach. I gripped the handrail of the stairs tightly, wishing I’d thought to put my ice cleats on my boots rather than carry them in my pack for later.
My plan for the day was ambitious but changeable. Crossing the beach — with a few pauses to dig in the sand — we hopped over a small channel of water that feeds into the ocean. Then we headed into the woods and uphill to hike the Great Head Trail, which forms a 1-mile loop that traces the rocky coast to the ruins of an old teahouse.
While the hike wasn’t particularly long, it was especially rocky, and ice and snow coated much of the trail. I was reassured by the fact that I’d hiked the Great Head Trail in the winter before, back in January 2014 with my previous dog, Oreo. Still, I kept a close eye on Juno. If she appeared to be struggling, we’d turn around.
Fearless, Juno scrambled up icy rock slopes and sniffed at boot tracks left in the snow. We passed a few fellow hikers, several of whom weren’t wearing ice cleats. I couldn’t imagine trying to navigate the trail without the traction of metal spikes. I hope they took it slow and managed to return to the beach without falling.
Weaving around spruce trees and pitch pines, the trail led up over hills of fractured rock to reach the top of Great Head at 145 feet above sea level. Along the way, it kissed the rocky shoreline, with side trails leading to outcroppings and clifftops. Bufflehead ducks bobbed in the waves.
What was left of Satterlee’s Tea House, built circa 1920, was just a jumble of stone and mortar, dusted with snow.
Over the years, I’ve spent more and more time exploring Acadia during the winter, and I’ve learned that it’s much more accessible than I initially thought.
Clockwise from left: A snowman with seaweed hair and a carrot nose stands guard at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park; the tide recedes from Sand Beach; and the ruins of an old teahouse can be seen behind a sign that marks the summit of Great Head. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
The majority of Acadia’s Park Loop Road is closed to vehicles during the winter, yet many of the park’s trails and landmarks are still reachable. And major parking lots and visitor centers such as Hulls Cove, Sieur de Monts and Sand Beach remain at least partially open year round.
One thing I love most about winter in Acadia is the absence of overflowing parking lots.
There’s nothing quite so frustrating as driving around a full trailhead parking lot, hoping for a spot to open up so you can go on your adventure. I suspect that exact scenario is included in one of the Nine Circles of Hell.
The National Park Service website offers plenty of information about visiting Acadia in the winter, including road maps that show the winter road closures and cross-country ski routes. But here are just a few extra tips.
Many park facilities, such as restrooms and gift shops, are closed in the winter. Trail markers may be covered with snow, making navigating tricky. Plus, ice makes some trails especially challenging and dangerous. (For example, I don’t think I would ever hike the Precipice Trail or Beehive Trail during ice season. Both feature metal rungs and ladders embedded into cliffs.)
The Beehive (left) is seen from the Great Head Trail. The Great Head Trail traces the rocky shore of Mount Desert Island in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
All visitors are required to display a park pass in their vehicles year round. Passes can be purchased online or in person at Acadia’s Sand Beach Entrance Station or the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center in downtown Bar Harbor.
Juno and I finished our adventure by returning to the beach, where we watched a group of hikers add seaweed hair to a lopsided snowman. Sitting in a dry patch of sand, we shared snacks as the tide receded.
On the opposite side of the beach, the movement of two people sprinting toward the water caught my eye. It took me a moment to register that they were wearing swimsuits. I smiled as I watched them leap into the freezing waves, then dart back across the sand to wrap up in towels.
Winter fun in Acadia comes in many forms.