The colors of vegetation pop under a cloudy sky on Dec. 29, in Acadia National Park's mainland section on Schoodic Peninsula. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Bundled in a winter coat and hat, I sat on an algae-covered rock and watched the ocean swirl at my feet. The tide was rising, the current building. A loon rode past, understated in its gray winter plumage. A pile of ocean ice, dusted with snow, marked where the water would eventually climb.

At the time, I was the sole visitor at Tidal Falls Preserve in Hancock, the first stop on my day trip along the coast. My goal was simple: enjoy the ocean, plus find a few waterbirds. This may come as a shock to regular readers of my column, but I wasn’t interested in hiking any trails that day.

Sometimes, I just want to slow down and bask in the sun. Enjoying the outdoors doesn’t always have to involve a long trek through the woods. For those of you interested in this sort of leisurely trip, here’s what I came up with.

Ocean ice is piled in slabs along the high tide mark at Tidal Falls Preserve on Dec. 29, 2022, in Hancock. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

I’ve long been a fan of Tidal Falls Preserve. Owned and managed by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the 8-acre property overlooks the reversing falls in the Taunton River, which is a narrow stretch of saltwater leading into Taunton Bay. I’ve never failed to spot wildlife, and signs of wildlife, there — whether it’s a massive raft of eider ducks on the water or white-tailed deer tracks stamped in the snow all over the sloping lawn.

From the paved parking lot, all you need to do is walk down a short drive and across some grass to reach the shore.

Reversing falls occur in a few places along the Maine coast, where rivers and bays flow through narrow passages to meet the ocean. In these locations, rapids and swirling currents form as the tide rises and falls. I’ve visited another reversing falls in Pembroke, and there are at least eight more documented in the state.

Loons can be found all along the Maine coast in the winter. They spend the summer in lakes and ponds, but when those freeze over, they head to saltwater. So I wasn’t surprised to see at least four loons fishing at Tidal Falls Preserve, as well as a couple of red-breasted mergansers, a type of duck. And just as I was leaving, a bald eagle soared above the water and disappeared over the treetops.

A loon swims near the Hancock-Sullivan Bridge on Dec. 29, 2022, in the Taunton River. In the winter, loons aren’t nearly as flashy as they are in the summer. Their feathers are gray and white. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

From there, I drove east, across the Hancock-Sullivan Bridge, which is another great place to park and look for seabirds. But I kept going, uphill, to a gem of a place called The Dunbar Store. Located in Sullivan, the small grocery store offers lunch and dinner specials and a full deli, where I ordered a turkey sub.

Sandwich in hand, I then headed to the mainland section of Acadia National Park on the Schoodic Peninsula in Winter Harbor. With an annual park pass hanging from my rearview mirror, I drove the park’s 6-mile loop road to picnic areas and pull-offs along the rocky coastline.

By then thick, gray clouds had crowded in, blocking out much of the sunshine. But somehow, the gloomy atmosphere made colors pop. Crimson moss, rosy granite, pale green algae, golden sedges and deep green spruce trees. In the distance, the mountains of Mount Desert Island appeared cornflower blue, and a thin yellow-orange line glowed along the horizon.

A black guillemot in winter plumage stretches it wings while swimming along the shore of Schoodic Point on Dec. 29, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

For birds, I spotted buffleheads and long-tailed ducks, as well as red-breasted mergansers and eiders. Several loons appeared to be busy fishing. And I was stumped by one particular waterbird that was mostly white and light gray, with a pointy, dark bill. Using a bird guidebook and examining photos I took, I narrowed it down to some sort of small gull — which was incorrect. Fortunately, I thought to consult expert birder and Bangor Daily News columnist Bob Duchesne, who identified the bird as a black guillemot.

“They’re common all along the coast,” he wrote. “It’s the only member of the puffin family (alcids) that is routinely close to the mainland. They’re black in summer, but this color gray in winter, with white wing patches.”

My (composed and professional) email response: “Whaaaaa! I would never have guessed that, Bob. LOL Thank you so much.”

I also took some time trying to get a decent photo of Winter Harbor Light, a small lighthouse located on Mark Island. It lies just offshore of Schoodic Point, and you can see it from a few different viewpoints along the park road. The lighthouse served as a guide to navigation for 76 years, from 1857 to 1933. During that time, nine keepers and their families lived on the small island, according to lighthousefriends.com, a wonderful online resource.

The mountains of Mount Desert Island rise up behind Winter Harbor Light on Dec. 29, 2022, as seen from Schoodic Peninsula. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Since its retirement, Winter Harbor Light has been owned by a number of private owners. Last summer, William Sofield, an architect and interior designer from New York City, placed the island and lighthouse on the market for $2.3 million.

As I drove along the loop road, I noted just how quiet the park was in comparison to the summertime. However, I did meet up with a few other sightseers at the picnic area on Schoodic Point. I watched one particularly enthusiastic visitor slide on her butt across a slab of ice on the granite headland. It made me smile to see an adult playing with such childlike enthusiasm.

Farther along the loop road, I stopped to walk across a cobble beach and listen to the unique sound that the smooth, round stones make as they’re tossed by the waves. While trying to record it on my phone, an especially large wave swept up the beach and splashed me in the face. Sometimes I think Mother Nature has a sense of humor.

If you’re looking to hike in that section of Acadia, Schoodic Head is the most popular destination, with multiple trails leading to stunning views of the area. In addition, the 1.1-mile Lower Harbor Trail is a nice easy walk that leads to the shore. And there are more than 8 miles of wide bike paths.

Granite bedrock slopes to a cobblestone beach in Acadia National Park’s mainland section on Schoodic Peninsula. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

But the most activity I did that day was hop around on granite ledges. Mostly, I sat and watched birds. Because I wasn’t moving much, I made sure to dress extra warm with a winter hat and gloves. Even though the weather was fairly mild for December, the breeze off the ocean can cut right through you if you aren’t wearing enough layers of clothing.

I hope this little excursion inspires you to take your own mini road trip. There’s something I love about exploring Maine’s outdoor destinations in the winter, outside of the busy tourist season. And while I always expect to find beauty and joy in nature, it somehow manages to surprise me.

This time, the surprises were a yellow band along the horizon, a salty wave splashing me in the face, and the pale little bird that turned out to be a black guillemot.

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...