Alpine skiing at Bigrock Mountain and cross-country trails in the state park make The County a cold-weather destination.
That’s likely to change, once word gets out about the region’s many pleasures – think cheaper and less crowded – both on and off its snowy trails.
Aroostook State Park is not only Maine’s oldest state park, but also the site of the largest special event ever held by the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands at any of its 48 parks.
That was Winter Family Fun Day a few years ago, when some 1,000 showed up to the Presque Isle park, founded in 1939. This year, the event held annually on the Saturday of school break lands on Feb. 25.
But that’s not the only time worth visiting the county known as “The Crown of Maine” in winter. With a ski area in proximity to the park and lodging and restaurant choices bolstered by the presence of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Aroostook is a great option for winter recreations buffs and budget-minded skiers looking for something different from Maine’s ski country in the western part of the state. Plus, with gas prices low, it’s a great time to head here from the state’s southerly realms, especially if you’ve never been to The County but have always wanted to visit.
Open year-round, the approximately 800-acre Aroostook County park has been a haven for winter outdoor enthusiasts from the start. In the early years, visitors ascended twin-peaked Quaggy Jo Mountain in a church pew bolted to a double-runner tote sled pulled by a rope tow, then descended on ski trails or the 1,000-foot-long toboggan run (a wooden chute most of the way) that exited onto Echo Lake. Soon after the park opened, construction started on a 70-meter ski jump atop Quaggy Jo’s North Peak. It was to be the larger of two jumps, and though never completed, it remains an intriguing chapter of park history.
Today family-friendly, affordable downhill skiing is found 10 miles south of here at Bigrock Mountain (bigrockmaine.com) in Mars Hill, which has 35 trails, tubing and a terrain park. Its 1,000-foot vertical is the highest at any ski area in northern Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Most trails are intermediate, but there are several black diamond and beginner trails, plus a “magic carpet.” Weekend/vacation week lift tickets range from $17 for children to $38 for adults. Open Wednesday through Sunday and daily during the winter school break, Bigrock has a café, lessons and rentals but no babysitting.
Relatively cheap lift tickets aren’t the only lure, since Aroostook County is cold and snowy even for Maine, and temperatures don’t fluctuate as much compared to downstate. That means lots of natural snow for skiers on Bigrock’s uncrowded trails. “From a consumer standpoint, the value is unbelievable,” said general manager Travis Kearney, who grew up at the ski area that his grandparents operated from the 1960s until 2000.
Not down with downhill skiing? Aroostook State Park is known for topnotch cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The park sports 15 miles of wide, groomed, double-track cross-country ski trails and 61/2 miles of snowshoe-only trails. The ITS-83 snowmobile trail traverses the park, which had its own snowmobile trails in the 1970s when sleds were slower. There’s also a groomed sliding hill.
Aroostook began developing its cross-country ski network in the 1980s. There’s a warming hut and a mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced trails, with those in the first two categories considered some of the best in the state. A hit with skate skiers because of their width, the trails pass through woods and a tree plantation, cross fields and a cedar swamp and skirt an old sheep farm. You can see Quaggy Jo from the end of the short “novice” Red Pine Trail.
Three of the park’s five snowshoe trails are advanced, including the steep path up Quaggy Jo. The novice trail has a spur to the warming hut and the intermediate trail wends around the base of the mountain.
For a map and descriptions of both sets of trails click on the newly updated, pocket-friendly park brochure under “Maps” on Aroostook’s web page. There’s also a link to a cross-country skiing/snowshoeing pamphlet. Trail condition reports are posted at the top of the “Trail Activities & Conditions” page. There’s a link to get alerts by text.
The website also has information on Family Fun Day, a tradition at several state parks that was started here (though canceled last year for lack of snow). The $1.50 fee (ages 12 to 64, others free) includes a hot dog lunch, cocoa and coffee, which you can sip by the bonfire. It’s a bargain even without the lunch, since the park entrance fee ($3 ages 12 to 64, $1 ages 5 to 11, others free) is waived.
Family Fun Day visitors can get loaner equipment from the Ski & Snowshoe Trailer, take a guided nature walk, and ride a tote sled onto the lake to soak up views of Quaggy Jo. Inflatable tubes will be available at the sliding hill along with the usual plastic sleds. Smokey Bear plans to attend.
A tip for families who need to occupy the kids during winter school break: Presque Isle Inn & Convention Center and the city’s Hampton Inn have indoor pools. For information on lodging, dining and other things to do in the area visit Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce’s website, pichamber.com, and check out goaroostookoutdoors.com. For the hardy, winter camping is allowed at Aroostook. Bigrock lists lodging options on its website, including cabin rentals near the mountain.