Of all the secrets that locals would rather not like tourists to know, the magic and mystique of winter in Acadia tops the list. By November, locals are exhausted of playing host, and they will admit to yearning to have the island to themselves again. Yet, snowy owls, frozen waterfalls, unobscured ocean views on empty trails: the beauty of Acadia National Park does not become muted when the weather turns cold and uncertain. Winter adventures have more caveats–invest in micro spikes for potentially icy trails, call ahead to restaurants to confirm they are indeed open, when in doubt stick to the roads most travelled at the times most travelled. However, a savvy, off-the-beaten-path traveler will find a close-knit community and wild desolation that is lost in the shuffle of July and August.
In the summer, the Park Loop Road is the place to orient oneself to the popular destinations of Acadia National Park. Starting December 1st, the bulk of the Park Loop Road is closed to vehicular traffic and only accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers. You can still drive to Sand Beach via the Schooner Head Road and cruise a small section of the Park Loop Road past Thunderhole until the Otter Cliffs Road. You can also reach a small section of the Park Loop Road around the Jordan Pond House via the Jordan Pond Road in Seal Harbor.
Although the car remains an option of exploration, you have the opportunity of walking along roads congested with traffic during peak season, most notably the auto road up Cadillac. Sunrise seekers still attempt to catch the first sunrise on the east coast in winter at Cadillac; it simply involves more planning, physical effort, and winter layers. Just east of the stone bridge that goes over the Eagle Lake Road is a short access road to the Park Loop Road. This will be gated off between December 1-April 15, and you will see other cars parked off to the shoulder directly before the gate (do not block in case of emergency). At all times of day, Cadillac Access Road is the safest way to venture up the mountain and see the views overlooking Frenchman’s Bay. Even more thrilling, you may be rewarded with a snowy owl sighting at the top. The birds have been known to winter on the highest island summits, such as Cadillac and Sargent, in the last five years. Prepared for the likelihood of ice, experienced hikers may venture up the North Ridge Trail. When conditions permit, cross-country skiers and snowshoers enjoy the challenge of the auto road.
Interested in an easier, lots-of-bang-for-the-buck spot to view sunrise or sunset? Drive into Bar Harbor, and park near the intersection of West Street and Bridge Street. Head north down Bridge Street to what is called the Bar Island Trail in low tide. You can either consult google to time it for low tide, or just head down there at dawn or dusk for a spectacular view of the horizon.
Often in winter, visitors are in search of shorter hikes with an awe factor. The Jordan Pond House is a year-round epicenter for trails on the island. Even if you just make it to the pond in front of the seasonally-closed restaurant, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Bubbles. Although you cannot drive to the Bubbles in the winter, you can walk along the east side of the Jordan Pond Path to a trail that will connect you to the Bubbles Divide and you can proceed to the erratic boulder on South Bubble from there.
While driving Sargeant Drive or walking up the Cadillac auto road, you may notice walls of frozen waterfalls from the water descending from the higher elevations. Larger frozen waterfalls may be seen adjacent to the famous stone bridges. Winter is one of the most desirable times to walk, ski, or snowshoe in search of the stone bridges constructed as part of the Park Loop Road and carriage roads and sometimes spot adjacent waterfalls. The Eagle Lake Road parking lot was constructed next to such a bridge, and from there, you can walk along the carriage roads or take a short drive to the Duck Brook Bridge. From the Parkman Mountain parking lot, you may follow the carriage roads to reach several stone bridges and waterfalls, most notably the Hemlock Bridge and the Waterfall Bridge.
In the event of a storm, it is the best viewing time for Thunder Hole, a blowhole along an open section of the Park Loop Road. From a safe distance, never from the gated-off area, it can be enjoyable to watch the fury of the ocean at its height.
Unquestionably, even in the off-season, the natural wonders of the Park continue to elicit awes from visitors and locals alike. Yet in the early-setting darkness, visitors also have the comfort of civilization in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth.
Do not be discouraged by all the closed shops and restaurants of Bar Harbor. Bar Harbor leads two different lives, with the bustle of a more cosmopolitan destination in the summer and the intimacy of a Greek fishing village only accessible by boat in the winter. If you know where to look, you can still find vivacity in the stillness of the empty streets.
The Bar Harbor Merchants Association maintains and updates a year-round directory of which stores and restaurants are open, and all visitors are strongly encouraged to explore that online resource. I find a few stores in-town indispensable in the winter: Cadillac Mountain Sports for gear rentals and clothing, Sherman’s Bookstore for literary browsing and indulgence, Peekytoe Provisions for lobster and fresh fish.
Winter is the season when locals become the most adventurous in their culinary endeavors in their kitchens, and often the kitchen is the best place to be on a Maine night. If you choose to eat out, be sure to call ahead to avoid disappointment. For a no-frills simple Maine supper, try the fish sandwich at the Thirsty Whale or the lobster roll at the Dog and Pony. In search of more of a foodie, farm-to-table experience? Try McKay’s Public House. After a Christmas break, Reel Pizza reopens its two movie screens and serves pizza and beer that can be enjoyed watching the big screens from couches or traditional movie seats.
Locals tend to venture farther afield for shopping and dining satisfaction in winter, often to the neon lights of Ellsworth. Ellsworth is the bargain-shopping Mecca of Downeast Maine, a place for those who appreciate discontinued styles and thrift store finds. For a unique shopping experience, seek out Marden’s, Reny’s, the Chicken Barn Antiques, and Clothes Encounter thrift store. Stick around for dinner at Shinbashi or Finns’ Irish Pub.
Indeed, winter can stretch on so long in coastal Maine that we beg for its abrupt end, but no need. Mother Nature has given us a revamped playground for the season, and it is up to us to rediscover it.