Ice-encrusted spruce trees dot the South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain on March 5, in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Along the long ridge of the mountain, wind had swept snow into sinuous piles and left patches of the lichen-speckled granite bare to the sun. Ice frosted the tips of spruce trees. And overhead, the barest layer of thin, wispy clouds textured the bright blue sky.

Cadillac Mountain, a place swarming with hikers and sightseers in the summer, was silent and seemingly barren. Yet snowshoe tracks marked the trail ahead. I wasn’t entirely alone.

It had stormed the day before, dumping several inches of fresh snow on the region. My goal was to see Acadia National Park in a fresh blanket of white, and what better way than to hike to the park’s tallest peak?

The Cadillac South Ridge Trail travels through a snowy pitch pine forest on March 5, in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Rising 1,530 feet above sea level, Cadillac Mountain is one of the most visited destinations within Acadia. For much of the year, visitors can make a reservation to drive to the top of the mountain on a paved road. But in the winter, the road is closed so the only way to reach the summit is by hiking one of the trails or driving a snowmobile up the unplowed summit road.

A number of trails scale the mountain. Of them, I chose to snowshoe up the South Ridge Trail because it’s easily accessible in winter, gradual (which is great for Juno) and traces a long, open ridge that provides amazing views for much of the hike. It’s a favorite of mine. However, it’s quite long. Out and back, the hike was just more than 7 miles.

When we arrived at the trailhead, I was pleased to discover that hikers from earlier that morning had packed down the trail with their snowshoes. It meant that I wouldn’t have to wade through snow to break trail, which takes a lot of energy.

About a mile up the trail, we came to a 0.3-mile side trail that leads to an outlook on Eagles Crag, then loops back around to the main trail. The snow was track free, telling us that no one had ventured in that direction all morning. So, following the blue blazes painted on tree trunks, I broke trail to the overlook. Juno insisted on walking ahead of me much of the way, which had her wading through snow up to her whiskery chin.

Back on the well-trodden South Ridge Trail, we continued onward and gradually upward, through a stand of pitch pines. With twisting branches, long, stiff needles and spiky cones, the squat trees always strike me as whimsical, no matter the time of year.

A clear day on March 5 means open views from the top of Cadillac Mountain of the Porcupine Islands beyond. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

The next waypoint was a small pond called “The Featherbed.” There the trail intersects with the Canon Brook Trail and Jordan Ponds Path. Stomping around in my snowshoes, I packed the snow down around the sign, then sat down to snack on a granola bar in the sun.

During the break, two women snowshoed past us. Surprised by their appearance, Juno acted shy and decided to sit on my snowshoes rather than approach them for a pet.

Climbing up out of the dip that holds The Featherbed, we followed cairns (rock piles) along the exposed south ridge of the mountain. Though temperatures were supposed to rise into the 40s that day, a frigid wind swept over the mountain, shifting the snow into drifts and leaving stretches of bedrock bare. The metal crampons of my snowshoes click-clacked across the granite.

Then came an unforgettable moment. As I looked up at the snowy peak, a large white bird rose from the ridge and soared in our direction. It took me about a second to process what I was seeing: a snowy owl.

During the winter, a handful of snowy owls fly down from their home in the Arctic to hunt in select areas of Maine. The open alpine areas in Acadia National Park often attract a few, but I’d yet to see one in the mountains. Needless to say, it put a big smile on my face.

I watched as the owl silently soared through the bright blue sky, destined for some nearby peak. Or maybe it was on its way back to the Arctic. It’s about the time they return to feast on lemmings.

The Cadillac South Ridge Trail travels through a snowy pitch pine forest on March 5, in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

The last leg of the hike was through a dense spruce forest near the summit, where Juno and I waded through snow that reached well above my knees. The two hikers from earlier broke trail in front of us, which helped a lot. I made sure to thank them.

On the summit of Cadillac, I felt slightly giddy as Juno and I crossed through a snowy, empty parking lot. It’s a place that I usually see packed with vehicles. But in the winter, it’s not uncommon to have the summit entirely to yourself. Such was the case for Juno and me.

The two snowshoers from earlier had wandered off to some other viewpoint, and another couple remained by the trees for shelter as they ate lunch. That left Juno and I to wander the winding trails at the summit without another soul in sight. But we didn’t linger long. The wind was biting, and we had a long descent ahead of us.

Still, I made sure to pause and appreciate the snow-covered landscape, as that was my original mission. To the north sat the distinctive Porcupine Islands. Beyond it, mountains of the mainland such as Schoodic and Tunk rose out of a dark sea of trees. Close at hand, to the east, neighboring Dorr and Champlain mountains were a mixture of white ledges and dark evergreens. And to the south, the Cranberries Isles sat in an ocean that shone silver in the afternoon sun.

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...