Maine’s busiest hiking trails during the summer are usually quiet in the winter, when many people store their backpacks and take a break, uninterested in slogging through the snow in freezing temperatures.
But some hikers consider winter to be the best season to be on the trails. After all, during the winter, there are no mosquitoes, blackflies or ticks. The mountaintops aren’t crowded. In fact, you often have a hiking trail entirely to yourself. And then there’s the landscape, which coated with snow and ice, takes on an entirely different type of beauty in the winter.
Hiking in the winter does take a bit more gear and caution. In Maine, you typically will need snowshoes to tackle deep snow and ice cleats to navigate icy rocks safely. You’ll need warm layers of clothing and extra batteries, handwarmers and snacks that don’t freeze rock solid. But many who give it a try find that winter hiking (or snowshoeing) is well worth a little extra preparation.
When I first got into snowshoeing, I learned a lot of lessons the hard way. I think the first lesson I learned was that snowshoeing a lot easier with poles. I also learned that snowshoes don’t allow you to actually walk on top of the snow most of the time. If the snow is deep and fluffy, you still sink and have to lift your knees high with each step. It’s hard work. A mile snowshoeing takes much more time and effort than hiking that same mile in the summertime. Just like a mile on a hiking trail takes much more time and effort than walking a mile along the side of the road.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that not every summer hiking trail makes a good snowshoeing trail.
First, you have to be able to reach the trailhead in the winter. This may seem like a silly qualifier, but many trails in Maine are located on roads that aren’t plowed. For example, many logging roads remain unplowed. Also, many park roads are closed in the winter.
Second, it’s important that the trail travels through forest rather than open bedrock. Usually when a trail travels over bedrock, it’s marked with stone piles called cairns or painted blazes on the bedrock. Snow covers those markers up, making the trail difficult to follow. When a trail is mostly in the forest, it is typically marked with blazes on tree trunks, which are usually high enough to see year round. The forest also provides shelter from the biting winter wind.
And third, trails are simply more of a challenge in the winter. People are usually slower on snowshoes than they are walking over snow-free ground. And since the daylight is shortest in the winter, it’s easier to get stuck in the woods when it gets dark. Therefore, always bring a flashlight, extra batteries and plenty of supplies for being comfortable in the outdoors. And before you even start your snowshoe, pick a turnaround time (not location), and stick to it.
If looking for a place to get started, here are a few Maine places I’ve enjoyed snowshoeing at over the past couple of years:
1. Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland is the ideal spot for recreationists year round, with wide trails that can accommodate both snowshoers and cross-country skiers. If looking for a pretty, hill snowshoe through the woods and along an icy river, check out the 2.5-mile Dead River Trail. If looking for something a bit more challenging, try hiking to the top of Great Pond Mountain, which rises 1020 feet above sea level and offers great views of the area. Depending on the trailhead you start at, the hike is either 3.8 miles or 7 miles in the winter. If you’d rather explore the Wildlands with a group, check the schedule of winter events organized by the Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust. Upcoming events include a full moon hike
on Jan. 31 and the Wild Winter Fun Day and Snowshoe Race on Feb. 14. For information and a map of the Wildlands, visit greatpondtrust.org or call 468-6829. Pets are permitted if leashed.
2. Hidden Valley Nature Center on Egypt Road in Jefferson is home to a 25-mile trail system that has become a destination for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. HVNC caters winter recreationists by providing a warming hut and organizing winter programs and events. Upcoming is a full moon hike and owl prowl on Feb. 2 and a presentation on the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail on Feb. 6. This year’s Liberal Cup Biathlon is postponed until Feb. 8 due, according to the center’s website HVNC.org. For information, visit the website or call 200-8840. Pets are permitted.
3. Acadia National Park’s carriage roads lead to stunning views of the park and are popular for snowshoers and cross-country skiers during the winter. These wide roads, surfaced with crushed rock, are marked with signs and easy to follow. One of the well-traveled carriage road routes in the winter is the 3.3-mile Witch Hole Loop, which leads to Witch Hole Pond, Halfmoon Pond and a large stone bridge built in 1929 over Duck Brook. A map and brochure of the carriage roads are available online at www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/upload/CRUMmap.pdf. For information, call the park at 288-3338. Pets are permitted if leashed.
4. Camden Hills State Park is bustling with activity during the winter, and for good reason. There are many trails to explore and sights to see in the well-maintained park. If looking for a challenging snowshoe, try taking the trail to the ledges of Megunticook Mountain. The total hike is about 3.5 miles. If looking for a shorter, more gradual hike, take the park road to the historic stone tower atop Mount Battie. Park admission ranges in price, topping off at $4.50 for adult nonresidents. For information, including an online brochure and a trail map, visit Maine.gov and search “Camden Hills State Park” or call 236-3109. Pets are permitted if leashed.
5. Little Moose Mountain in Greenville rises about 1,800 feet above sea level near Moosehead Lake and is a part of a mountain range that includes Big Moose Mountain, which is considerably taller at 3,196 feet in elevation. A 9-mile trail network travels up Little Moose Mountain and back down the other side to visit Little Moose and Big Moose ponds. This trail is easy to access in the winter compared to most other hiking trails in the area, many of which are reached by logging roads (which may or may not be plowed in the winter.) The Little Moose Mountain Trail starts at the parking lot of Moose Mountain Inn on Rockwood Road. Early on, the trail leads to a picnic table at a viewpoint. This is the perfect destination for families looking to complete a short snowshoe. From there, the trail continues to climb and near the summit of the mountain before descending to loop around Big Moose and Little Moose ponds. This trail system is seemingly endless, so pick a turnaround time and stick to it. For information, search for it at maine.gov/dacf/parksearch/ or call 778-8231. Pets are permitted.
6. Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal is one of Maine’s five original state parks and is home to two extensive trail networks that are great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In fact, the park is known for its winter snowshoe race series. The trails range in difficulty. On the East Side of the park, about 12.5 miles of trails are open to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On the West Side, about 5 miles of trails are open to snowshoeing, and 3.7 of those miles are open to skiers. On the West Side, the 0.3-mile Summit Trail (which is for snowshoeing only) leads from the parking area to the viewpoint on the summit of Bradbury Mountain. This short snowshoe offers a big reward for just a little effort. For information, including two detailed trail maps, visit www.bradburymountain.com or call 688-4712. Pets are permitted if leashed.
7. Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Alton is a quiet 2,469-acre nature preserve spanning Pushaw and Dead Streams about 10 minutes from the University of Maine in Orono. Home to a variety of habitats, the preserve is a great spot to pair wildlife watching with snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. The refuge has seven miles of hiking trails, including three interpretive trails with self-guided tour brochures. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. For information, visit www.hirundomaine.org or call 394-2171. Pets are not permitted.