Where to Photograph Landscapes in Acadia National Park, USA
The crown jewel of the North Atlantic. A stunning national treasure. After visiting Acadia National Park in Maine, you’ll know why phrases like that begin every description of the park. Despite being one of the smaller parks in the United States National Parks system, Acadia National Park is one of the top 10 most-visited parks, and for good reason.
The park is home to some of the most dramatic and rugged coastline on the East Coast of the United States, and has over 150 miles of hiking trails that can take hikers on a casual stroll along the shoreline or on a strenuous climb up iron rungs pounded into an 800-foot high cliff face.
Photographers are drawn to Acadia from all over the world in hopes of capturing the raw power of the ocean or the wonders of the night sky. Photographing Acadia can be a little more challenging than many of the dramatic national parks of the American West, but with some preparation it can be just as rewarding.
When to visit
Acadia is open all year round, and every season has its perks. Temperatures usually range from highs of 80°F (27°C) in the summer to lows of around 10°F (-12°C) in the winter.
Summer is by far the busiest, but the vegetation is lush and green and the days and nights are warm. Fall is arguably the best time to visit the park, as the crowds have died down somewhat, the bugs are gone, and the forests are a blaze of yellows, reds, and oranges. These colours are visible throughout the month of October, and peak around the middle of the month.
Winter is cold and harsh, but offers the opportunity to photograph Acadia covered in a fresh blanket of snow. Spring is when the park starts to come back to life, and is a good time to visit before the summer crowds return.
Fog can occur in any season, but is more common in the spring and fall. Offshore storms that produce big waves tend to be more common in the fall, winter, and early spring.
What gear to bring with you to Acadia
While it is true that the best camera is the one you have with you, there is some gear in particular that will maximise your chances of coming home from Acadia with images that you are happy with.
- A sturdy tripod. Not only does it drastically increase sharpness, it allows for long exposures that would be impossible while hand-holding.
- A polariser filter is great for cutting glare and reflections on water and slightly increasing saturation in wet vegetation.
- Neutral density (ND) filters allow for long exposures during the day, and graduated neutral density (GND) filters help darken the sky in high contrast scenes while keeping the ground properly exposed.
- Ultra-wide and wide-angle lenses are great at capturing the grand vistas of the coast and mountains, while telephoto lenses isolate certain elements of a scene.
- Macro lenses are useful for photographing small features on the forest floor or rocks along the coast.
- For astrophotography, cameras with good high ISO performance are recommended, in addition to lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster.
- A rain cover and plenty of lens cloths are essential for shooting in bad weather and protecting your camera from corrosive salt spray and keeping your lens free of water spots.
Landscapes to photograph in Acadia National Park, USA
1. The coast
Acadia’s coast is the most photographed (and easiest to access) part of the park. A stretch of the Park Loop Road, known as Ocean Drive, winds along the coast for nearly 5 miles from Sand Beach to Hunter’s Head. Many of Acadia’s most well-known and photogenic locations are along this section.
Make sure you stop at Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Monument Cove, Boulder Beach, Otter Cliffs, Little Hunter’s Beach, and Hunter’s Beach as you make your way down Ocean Drive.
The Ocean Path walking trail follows the road from Sand Beach to Otter Point, and offers a more leisurely way to take in the sights and scout for compositions. There are many side trails that branch off of the main path and lead to cliff-top viewpoints or areas where you can wander around on the rocks.
As you’re exploring the coast, please remain on established trails and refrain from walking on sensitive vegetation and areas that the Park Service has designated “Restoration Areas”. The vegetation here can be easily damaged by foot traffic, and herd paths can appear very quickly.
Ocean Drive is best photographed at sunrise, when the first rays of sunlight shine across the ocean and illuminate the granite cliffs with a warm, pink glow. The direction the sun rises from varies greatly from season to season, and some features such as Monument Cove’s rock tower are better photographed in the winter when the sun rises far enough south to bathe the tower in direct light.
For those who struggle with early morning alarms, Ocean Drive is still photogenic during sunsets with a lot of colour to the east, or during foggy or stormy conditions.
During snowy conditions, try to photograph coastal scenes at high tide so the water reaches right up to the snow covered rocks and doesn’t leave a distracting strip of dark, algae-covered rocks in between the ocean and the snow.
The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Tremont is one of the most iconic landmarks of Acadia, and is located on the western side (known as the “quiet side”) of Mount Desert Island. The most popular viewpoint is accessed from a short trail through the woods to the left of the parking lot, and brings you to a staircase that leads down to the viewing area on the rocks.
During peak season, this area can be filled with tourists and photographers, especially at sunset, and it can be frustrating to find a clear angle to shoot from. But if you go in the off-season, you will have the place practically to yourself. Off-season visits have the added bonus of direct light on the lighthouse, which only happens in the late fall through early spring when the sun sets far to the south.
For those willing to drive away from Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Peninsula to the east is less crowded and has some equally stunning coastline. Stop at any of the pullouts along the one way road, or check out the short trails at the Schoodic Education and Research Center near Schoodic Point. Schoodic Point offers a large expanse of rocky coastline to explore, with a great view of the Atlantic Ocean and Mount Desert Island across Frenchman’s Bay.
Tips for photographing Acadia’s coast
- Experiment with different shutter speeds. Use fast shutter speeds to freeze waves; shutter speeds from 1/10th to 1 second to show a little bit of motion in the waves; 30 seconds or more to smooth out the ocean completely.
- Go out in bad weather (but be safe). Some of the most dramatic images of Acadia’s coast come when a storm is rolling through and churning up big surf.
- Check tide charts when planning your shoots. Some locations photograph better at certain tide heights than others.
- Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills are very useful when it comes to planning shoots. You can see the direction of the sun at any given time, and use it in conjunction with weather apps to determine the best direction to be facing to take advantage of the sunrise or sunset.
2. Lakes, ponds, and waterfalls
In addition to Acadia’s saltwater attractions, there are a number of freshwater lakes and ponds that offer a multitude of year-round photographic opportunities. Most of the lakes and ponds on the eastern side of the island are surrounded by trails or carriage roads, so access is very easy.
While spring and summer are good times to visit and photograph the lakes with flowers and fresh green vegetation, they are at their most dramatic in the fall when fall foliage on the surrounding hillsides reflects in the water.
In the winter, cracks and bubbles in the ice and patterns in the windblown snow make for unique compositions.
The most popular lakes for photography are Jordan Pond, Eagle Lake, and The Tarn – all are on the eastern side of Mount Desert Island. Jordan Pond features a nice northwards view looking towards The Bubbles, and has a trail that goes around the entire perimeter of the pond which includes some nice boardwalks through some areas of sensitive vegetation.
Eagle Lake has a great view of The Bubbles, Pemetic Mountain, and Sargent Mountain to the south, and is a popular access point to many of the park’s carriage roads. The shores of Eagle Lake can be explored using the carriage roads or trails that circle the lake. The Tarn sits along Route 3 driving south past Sieur de Monts, and is often visited by photographers looking to photograph the reeds and grasses that grow out of the water. In the fall, visit the Tarn at sunrise to get reflections of the vibrant foliage on Dorr Mountain amongst the reeds.
Acadia’s waterfalls can be very majestic when they’re flowing, but they are fleeting in nature and generally only have enough water to be photogenic during spring snowmelt or after large rainstorms. The most well known waterfall is Hadlock Falls, found along Hadlock Brook. Hadlock Falls happens to be just upstream from one of Acadia’s famous carriage road bridges – Waterfall Bridge – which can be included in your composition and used to frame the falls.
Other notable mentions are Chasm Brook Falls, near the Chasm Brook Bridge on the carriage roads, and Man O’ War Falls, which empties into Somes Sound on the southern side of Acadia Mountain. Many other small cascades can be found during or just after heavy rains by driving along the Park Loop Road and looking into the woods for rushing water.
Tips for photographing lakes, ponds, and waterfalls
A polariser filter is great for revealing underwater plants or rocks and eliminating reflections from wet surfaces, especially around waterfalls.
Try longer shutter speeds to smooth out water in waterfalls. Start around 1/10th of a second and try shorter or longer exposures to find the best balance between silky smooth water and detail in the falls.
Use ND filters if the ambient light is too bright for longer shutter speeds.
3. The mountains of Acadia
Acadia has 26 peaks within the park’s boundaries, and all but two of them have trails to the summits. Most of them have rocky summits with great views of the coast or inland landscapes of the park.
Cadillac Mountain, at 1,530 feet, is the tallest and also the most popular, thanks to the road that brings visitors to the top. Flying Mountain, at 284 feet, is smallest, and is a great summit to hike if you’re limited on time.
In late summer and fall, being up high at sunrise can reward photographers with an aerial view of fog shrouding the lower elevations if conditions are right. The mountains are also a great place to photograph the colours of fall foliage spread out across the landscape.
Just like the coast, the mountains are home to sensitive plant communities, so avoid wandering off the trail and trampling the mountaintop vegetation.
Cadillac Mountain is the easiest way to get mountaintop views in Acadia, thanks to the road that winds up the western slopes. Numerous pullouts allow photographers a variety of spectacular views in almost any direction. The Bubbles, at 872 feet (North Bubble) and 766 feet (South Bubble), are relatively short hikes with great views as a reward. Both North and South Bubble offer spectacular views of Jordan Pond to the south. North Bubble also has a few vantage points of Eagle Lake and Cadillac Mountain on its northern ridge.
Pemetic Mountain, at 1,248 feet, is one of the most spectacular summits in the park. There are four separate trails to the top from each cardinal direction, and once you reach the summit, you’re rewarded with uninterrupted views in every direction.
Sargent Mountain and Penobscot Mountain also offer stunning panoramic views, as well as a network of trails that lead to four other summits and a number of waterfalls, including the impressive (when it’s flowing) Hadlock Falls.
Tips for photographing the mountains
- Don’t forget to switch to your telephoto lens and zoom in for little vignettes of the landscape.
- The trails tend to have a lot of exposed roots and rocks, so good footwear is a must.
- In the winter, bring micro spikes or other rugged traction devices designed for hiking, as ice is very common and some trail sections are impassible without extra grip.
4. The night sky
Acadia is one of the best places in the eastern United States to photograph the night sky. There is no light pollution over the Atlantic to the east or south, and very little to the southwest, so astrophotographers can capture incredible amounts of detail in the night sky.
Acadia is far enough north that the northern lights are visible during stronger storms (Kp=6 and above), although light pollution from the nearby towns of Bar Harbor and Ellsworth does start to show up in northwards facing images.
Ocean Drive is one of the best places in the park for astrophotography. All of the iconic locations that work well for sunrise also work well during Milky Way season (from February through October), especially early in the season when the Milky Way can be photographed as it rises above the horizon.
Being able to park close by to your camera is another perk, especially on colder nights in winter and spring when you can return to your car to warm up while your camera is taking pictures.
Cadillac Mountain is another great location for astrophotography, and even hosts a night sky festival in the fall. The ability to drive right up to your shooting location is always welcome (as long as the road is open), and you have the option to shoot in any direction, not just east and south like with Ocean Drive.
The Schoodic Peninsula offers great astrophotography as well. Like Mount Desert Island, the best views are over the Atlantic Ocean, which Schoodic has to the east, south, and west. Any of the coastal pullouts, or Schoodic Point, are good options depending on what you want to shoot and the time of year.
Tips for star photography in Acadia
- Scout your compositions during the daylight using an app like Photo Pills and its augmented reality feature.
- Make sure you have a headlamp and spare batteries. Walking around on the coast is dangerous enough during the daylight when you can see.
- Keep an eye on the ocean for bioluminescent plankton. They occasionally will occur in great enough numbers to add an electric blue glow along the coastline where the waves are crashing against the rocks.
Acadia National Park has much more to offer photographers than its small size would suggest. People come from far and wide to capture stunning coastal scenery, panoramic mountain vistas, and the innumerable stars strewn across the night sky.
After experiencing the sights and sounds of Acadia, it’s easy to see why it’s known as “The Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic.”