Cadillac Mountain Sunrise Hike

  • Sunrise view of Mount Desert Island from our AirBNB

In October, my boyfriend, Jonathan, and I realized that none of our friends were biting on the “Montreal for New Year’s” idea, so we quickly brainstormed an alternate plan. We had both been eyeing Cadillac Mountain for a few years now, since for about five months out of the year, it greets the first US sunrise. So, when I pitched the idea, he was immediately onboard. What better way to ring in the New Year than by seeing the first sunrise of 2019.

We decided to drive up from New York on the 29th, an eight hour drive, broken up by stops at Shipyard Brewing in Portland, ME and dinner in the adorable coastal town of Belfast, ME. We were lucky to find a relatively last minute Airbnb in Trenton, only a fifteen minute drive from Acadia National Park. The waterside cottage offered stunning views of Mount Desert Island, including Cadillac Mountain in the distance. It was perfect.

The next day we woke up at dawn , went back to sleep, played a few of our favorite board games and drove into Bar Harbor to watch the last regular season Saints game — a complete waste of time since seven starters, including Drew Brees, weren’t playing. They lost to the 7-9 Carolina Panthers. Whatever, it’s fine. I’m fine.

We strolled around Bar Harbor, hopping into the few shops open in the winter season and decided it would be a good idea to stop by the Bar Harbor Information Center for some last minute questions about our planned hike. The man behind the counter let us know that most of the park roads were closed, the trails were very icy, and the forecast for New Year’s Day was 100% chance of rain. That was when we decided to summit Cadillac Mountain a day early. We passed through Acadia for a short coastal sunset hike before heading home to prepare for the next day and get some ret.

On New Year’s Eve, the alarm went off at 4:00 AM. We snoozed twice…we always snooze at least twice. We had set out our clothes and gear out the night before, so we only needed to get dressed, make hot chocolate, and walk the dog before heading out at 4:45 AM. The weather was clear, the roads were empty, and we were parked and on the trail by 5:10 AM. The road closures and pitch black sky made it difficult to find the trail head, so we spent about fifteen minutes bushwhacking with headlamps, climbing a wall, and giggling about how few people would enjoy such an adventure this early in the morning.

I think we were both more relieved than we let on when we found the sign for “North Ridge Trail“, but that didn’t last long. As warned, the trail was almost completely covered in ice, as if a creek had frozen where there should have been a walking path. To make matters worse, before we reached the first blaze, I looked down to see that I had already lost a Yak Track. Jonathan’s Outad crampons were a much better fit for this kind of hike, as they have spikes that really dig into the ice.

For the most part, I worked my way around bushes along the side of the trail, while Jonathan felt sturdy on the ice. When we got to some of the bigger patches, I held onto his arm and slid to the next dry spot. It was a nice look at what old age might look like with him. I, barely able to walk; him, patient and helpful. As we walked, we went through all of the ups and downs we had gone through in 2018, including the death of our ten year old Boston Terrier, Gershwin, and the purchase of our first home in Pennsylvania. We felt confident that such a trying year was an excellent setup for future success.

Ice covered about 65% of the trail, but our spirits were high as we caught glimpses of the night sky lightening up. Though we didn’t see anyone else on the trail, we did get excited by a set of paw prints. “Someone must be up here with a dog!” we thought, until we realized there were no other footprint to indicate a human companion. Not a dog, definitely NOT a sweet, furry little dog. We picked up the pace shortly thereafter.

After two solid hours of ice skating, I mean, hiking, we summited Cadillac Mountain just in time to see the sun overcome the horizon. We had worked up such a sweat on the way up, that we didn’t realize exactly how cold it was until the open air froze our noses and fingertips.

The nearly 360-degree view from the top of Cadillac Mountain was breathtaking. Also, we were still out of breath. The sky was streaked with fluorescent pinks and oranges that lit up the islands surrounding Mount Desert. By the time we made it to the official peak, the handful of other hikers, who had come to witness the sunrise, were packing up to leave. As the mountain cleared out, we were left alone to soak in the last, first sunrise of 2018. We sipped hot chocolate and marveled at what an incredible life we have.

I struggled to adjust the proper settings needed for our relatively new Panasonic Lumix camera to perfectly capture our surroundings and eventually, figured out how to set up the timer so both of us could be in frame. Jonathan sat on a rock, back to the sun, as I started the timer and ran over to perch beside him. I didn’t quite make it on the first try and the camera fell on the second, but as always, third time’s a charm. As the final warning beeps sounded, he held up my Grandmother’s diamond ring and said “Let’s get married.”

Thinking about taking your own trip to Acadia National Park for a Cadillac Mountain Sunrise Hike? Here are a few things we learned that would have been nice to know ahead of time.

  • Check the weather a few days in advance. We planned on a New Year’s day hike, but a forecast of a 100% chance of cold rain made us think twice. I’m so glad we went a day early, because if we had stuck to our original plans, we wouldn’t have even been able to see the sun.
  • The shortest path to the peak of Cadillac Mountain, North Ridge Trail, is only 4.4 miles. It is considered a moderate hike that is suitable for families. However, during the winter, I would consider this a difficult hike that is way too technical for young children.
  • Most of the roads in Acadia National Park are closed in the winter. Stop by an information center ahead of time to make sure you know exactly where you can park and how to get to the trailhead by foot.
  • I think this is pretty obvious, but if you are doing a sunrise hike at any time of year, you’re going to need a headlamp.
  • Aim to summit a half hour to forty-five minutes before sunrise, that time frame is when the colors are best. We noticed quite a few people waited for the sun to rise while cuddled up in sleeping bags.
  • Bring water and a thermos with a hot beverage. Hydrating is important regardless of temperature. If you’re going in the winter, a hot cocoa at the top really hits the spot after a tough hike.
  • If the trail hike sounds too intense, you can walk up the paved road instead. It’s closed to traffic in the winter and a lot less icy.
  • In winter, the North Ridge Trail is nearly impossible to summit without crampons. Make sure you are prepared for icy conditions.
  • If you plan on hiking in the winter, make sure you have the right clothing and equipment. Check out my blog post, “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” for a guide to winter hiking gear and clothing.

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