This story was originally published in January 2021.
With snow-dusted granite peaks and icicle-adorned sea cliffs, Acadia National Park holds a special beauty in the winter. And while some roads are closed, much of the park remains easily accessible for a variety of outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing.
Acadia was named as one of America’s top 20 prettiest national parks in the winter by The Wilderness Society. And it has made it on several similar lists of destinations to visit in the winter. Yet visitation to Acadia is far lower in the winter than any other time of year. So if you’re looking to avoid crowds, it’s the perfect time to visit.
“Winter in Acadia is magical,” said Lisa Horsch Clark, director of development and donor relations for Friends of Acadia. “It’s nice that people still come here in the winter because they get to see it in a much less congested time, and I feel you get a deeper connection to the park when you don’t have as many people around. It’s just you and the mountains and the trees and the sky.”
To get you started, here are some easy winter adventures in Acadia on Mount Desert Island.
Ski around the ponds
If there’s enough snow and the ground is frozen solid, cross-country skiing is permitted on Acadia’s 45 miles of smooth carriage roads. About 32 miles of those carriage roads are groomed by volunteers of the Acadia Winter Trails Association. For the most up-to-date information about the groomed trails, visit the Friends of Acadia website at friendsofacadia.org.
Some sections of the carriage roads are hillier and more challenging than others. For beginners, the carriage roads that loop around Eagle Lake are a good option, and they’re easily accessible from a parking area at the north end of the lake, off Eagle Lake Road. To loop around the entire lake it’s 3.6 miles.
Another popular loop is the 3.1-mile Witch Hole Pond Loop, however this adventure starts with a sizable hill that may be challenging for beginners. To ski this loop, start at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and ski in on a 0.7-mile access trail. Factoring that distance in, the route is 4.5 miles.
Snowshoeing is also permitted on groomed carriage roads, as long as you avoid stepping on the parallel ski tracks. If you’re walking with a dog, make sure the dog stays off the tracks as well.
Snowmobile the Park Loop Road
When there’s enough snow on the ground, snowmobile travel is permitted on the 27-mile Park Loop Road system, including the road up Cadillac Mountain. Snowmobiling is also allowed on most fire roads. The trick is hitting the park when conditions are right. Keep in mind that Mount Desert Island often receives far less snow than other areas of Maine. If unsure about whether or not the island has snow, check out the Maine snow depth map updated daily by the National Weather Service.
Snowmobilers are encouraged to utilize the Hulls Cove Visitor Center parking lot to access the winter snowmobile routes. Before visiting, be sure to review the park guidelines for snowmobiling at nps.gov/acad. Snowmobiling isn’t permitted on hiking trails or carriage roads (except for the east side of Eagle Lake to make the connection to the Park Loop Road). The Park Loop Road and Cadillac Summit Road features plenty of stunning views of the island and ocean.
Walk along the shore
On the southwest side of the island, both the Wonderland Trail (1.4 miles, out and back) and Ship Harbor Nature Trail (a 1.3-mile trail in the shape of a figure eight) will lead you to ocean views and rocky beaches. Located off Seawall Road, their trailheads are close together, so if you want to extend your outing, you can hike both.
On the east side of the island, the Great Head Trail forms a 1.4-mile loop that traces the rocky shore and is a bit more challenging, with plenty of ups and downs and especially rocky sections. The trail leads to the highest point of Great Head, a cliff that rises 145 feet above sea level, and the ruins of a teahouse that was built around 1920.
This adventure will also give you the option of visiting the famous Sand Beach, which is much less crowded in the winter than it is during warmer months. And nearby, you can walk from Sand Beach to Otter Point on the easy Ocean Path for another fun winter adventure.
Ice skate on ponds and lakes
Skating on wild ice is a popular activity in Acadia, when the conditions are right. It’s extremely important to check the thickness and quality of the ice to ensure it’s safe enough for skating. This can be done by drilling a hole in the ice or consulting local fishermen (you may see some out there when you arrive at a pond or lake).
A helpful resource to stay up to date about ice in Maine is an online map created by Lake Stewards of Maine that shows ice-in and ice-out dates for different lakes and ponds throughout Maine. However this map does not indicate whether or not the ice is safe for ice skating or other activities such as ice fishing.
While people ice skate on many of Acadia’s lakes and ponds, some of the most accessible places to skate in the park are Eagle Lake, Long Pond, Echo Lake and Seal Cove Pond. However, some of the most popular places to ice skate on MDI are just outside the park, at Somes Pond and Little Long Pond (which is in the Land and Garden Preserve).
Keep in mind that larger, deeper bodies of water tend to take longer to form ice that’s safe for recreation. Also, ice usually thins or disappears in inlets, outlets and other areas of running water. Wearing ice safety picks (or awls), carrying a rope and always skating with a friend can also improve your safety while out on the ice.
Hike a small mountain
If looking for an easy mountain hike, try Flying Mountain. At 284 feet above sea level, it’s one of the lowest peaks in Acadia National Park, yet from the exposed bedrock at its top, hikers are rewarded with great views of the ocean. The climb to the top is just 0.3-mile, but you can lengthen the hike by continuing past the summit and descending to the scenic Valley Cove. The loop is 1.4 miles long.
Another relatively easy mountain in Acadia is Day Mountain, which rises 583 feet and features an out-and-back hike of 1.6 miles. The hike leads through a beautiful evergreen forest and becomes more rocky with elevation. Overlooks near the top offer open views of the ocean.
Depending on conditions, snowshoes or ice cleats may be needed to hike these trails safely.
Bike the roads
Wintertime is a great opportunity to bike the majority of Acadia’s scenic Park Loop Road without having to look out for motor vehicles. Depending on snow and ice conditions, you may want to ride a fat-tire bike — which has wide tires that help you stay afloat on snow — or a bike with studded tires.
Keep in mind that two sections of the Park Loop Road remain open to motor vehicles throughout the winter. One short section leads into the south end of Jordan Pond from Jordan Pond Road. And the other open section links Schooner Head Road and Otter Cliff Road, providing vehicle access to Sand Beach and Thunder Hole.
Whatever winter adventure you choose, plan ahead and prepare for cold weather. While Acadia National Park is close to civilization, it’s still a chunk of wilderness where people can become lost or injured. Minimize your risks by packing the necessary gear, including a detailed trail map, and consider adventuring with a companion or two for added safety and fun.
Pack a tasty lunch and some toasty drinks, bundle up and experience the magic of winter in Acadia, whether by foot, bike, ski, snowshoe or skate.