UPDATE 12/27/2016: To see 2017 winter events, and find routes up Cadillac in winter, see our December 2016 update.
UPDATE 1/23/2016: To see 2016 winter events, go to our Bangor Daily News blog.
(To plan your trip, see Acadia National Park year-round lodging, restaurants, shopping)
Snow falling on pink granite shores, sea smoke rising from Frenchman Bay, cross-country skiers gliding along freshly groomed trails: It’s winter in Acadia National Park, the quiet season.
You may not be able to drive up Cadillac Mountain or around the entire length of the Park Loop Road this time of year, or enjoy a popover on the lawn of the Jordan Pond House.
But the rewards for the hardy and adventurous soul are plenty: Solitude, winter’s beauty and such activities as cross-country skiing, winter hiking or watching for Snowy Owls and other migratory birds.
Winter is a secret wonderland in Acadia National Park, and it’s not a time to hibernate.
While many of the places to visit, stay and eat in area communities are closed, dozens of local businesses and cultural institutions are open for all or some of the winter.
There’s even a first-ever winter festival at Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park, from Feb. 19-22, featuring science, art and fun outdoor activities for kids and adults, and a talk by noted biologist and author, Bernd Heinrich.
This week, for the first time this winter, conditions have been right for volunteers with the Acadia Winter Trails Association to groom and track some of the carriage roads for cross-country skiing.
And so far this month, serious birders have reported 5 sightings of Snowy Owls on top of Sargent Mountain to eBird.org, which offers an online bird checklist.
Here are some ideas and resources to plan your trip to Acadia in winter. The winter visitor center at park headquarters on ME 233 is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during January and February, and the same hours 7 days a week from March through April 14. No park entrance fee applies this time of year.
Winter in Acadia National Park a time to get outdoors
Take a scenic drive – Though much of the Park Loop Road and the road to Cadillac are closed to cars, a couple of sections of the loop road are open: Ocean Drive accessible off Schooner Head Road, to Otter Cliff, and off Jordan Pond Road in Seal Harbor, to Jordan Pond House. Other picturesque routes: Sargeant Drive along Somes Sound with a view to Acadia Mountain, and ME 102A to Bass Harbor Head Light, where the grounds are open to visitors year-round.
Cross-country ski – When the conditions are right, as over the last several days, volunteers with the Acadia Winter Trails Association groom and track some of the carriage roads for classic and skate-style cross-country skiing. The Acadia Winter Trails Association, partly funded by the Elizabeth R. Bright Endowment, works in partnership with the Friends of Acadia and the park. To check on conditions, bookmark this page, or check the park Twitter feed @AcadiaNPS or the park’s winter activities Web page. If you’re new to cross-country skiing in Acadia, the Friends of Acadia just posted this helpful article on elevation gain and views at different spots along the carriage roads. Cadillac Mountain Sports in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth rents cross-country skis and offers other winter gear. You can also buy gear at the L.L. Bean Outlet in Ellsworth.
Take a winter hike – If there’s not too much snow or any ice, flat easy hikes such as Ocean Path, Compass Harbor Trail, Wonderland Trail, Ship Harbor Trail or the low-tide walk to Bar Island may be done without special gear. (Check out our book “Best Easy Day Hikes, Acadia National Park,” see sidebar, for other easy trail ideas.) Other easy walks can be taken along the carriage roads, but please avoid the groomed and tracked cross-country ski trails. If you’re tackling a summit, such as Cadillac to catch the first US sunrise as about 100 people did on New Year’s Day 2015, you may want to invest in something like Kahtoola MICROspikes(R), Hillsound Trail Crampons, or snowshoes, depending upon conditions. (See note in sidebar about Amazon.com links in this blog.) Or sign up with a guided snowshoeing or ice climbing course through the Atlantic Climbing School. The park offers winter hiking tips here.
Go snowmobiling – No snowmobile rentals are available locally, but the park allows snowmobiling on the Park Loop Road, most fire roads and up the Cadillac Summit Road. The park lists snowmobile routes and rules and regulations here.
Go birdwatching – Once a month on Tuesday morning through March, there’s an organized birding trip on Schoodic Peninsula, led by the Schoodic Institute Bird Ecology Program. You can also check local nature tour companies, such as Down East Nature Tours and The Natural History Center, to see what trips they’re doing this time of year. Michael J. Good, a Registered Maine Guide and owner of Down East Nature Tours, was responsible for 4 of the 5 Snowy Owl sightings on Sargent Mountain reported on eBird.org so far this month, as of the writing of this blog post. Rich MacDonald, naturalist and field biologist of The Natural History Center, said the center’s retail store off the Bar Harbor Village Green is open by appointment this time of year, while the center leads birding and nature tours year-round and around the world (next one is to Antarctica).
Take a boat trip to see seal pupping – On Jan. 25, Isle au Haut Boat Services – familiar to those who’ve taken the mail boat to the most remote part of Acadia National Park – is providing a winter excursion to Seal Island, the 2nd largest pupping colony in the US. The tour will also offer the chance to see Snowy Owls, eagles and other birds that winter in the waters off Isle au Haut and nearby islands. The company’s Facebook page has more details. (UPDATE 1/29/15: Trip, cancelled because of storm, to be rescheduled for 2016.)
Where to find out more about places to stay, eat and recreate
– Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park offers a full calendar of activities this time of year, including its first-ever Winter Festival
– The Bar Harbor Merchants Association is made up of businesses and cultural institutions that are open four seasons, and features a handy calendar of current events on its home page. It also has a page featuring member lodging establishments that are open year round.
– Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce lists more than a dozen businesses in the search results for the phrase “open year round”
– Bar Harbor Bed and Breakfast Association lists member B&Bs that are open year round.
– Southwest Harbor and Tremont Chamber of Commerce offers a handy “Who’s Open?” on its Web site
For your convenience, we’ve compiled the above year-round business listings from Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Tremont in a series of evolving pages on this blog.
Other local chambers of commerce may not be open full-time during the winter, but you may still be able to leave a message, request information or check out their Web sites for winter events. And we’ll be incorporating businesses from these other chambers in the evolving year-round listings.
The secret is out: Acadia is a winter wonderland, and there are plenty of activities, indoors and out, to keep you busy, and enough businesses and cultural institutions open to cater to your needs.
But don’t worry. There will still be far fewer crowds than in the traditional peak month of August, or the record-setting leaf-peeping month of October 2014.