Photography / Features

Maine Driving Guide: From Mount Katahdin to Acadia National Park


Numerically speaking, the New England road map is as straightforward as it gets, which makes it a great starting point for a travel excursion. Highway numbers are ordered from East to West, so the lowest numbers—such as historic Route 1—are located farthest east. North/South highways tend to have odd number designations, such as the heavily traveled I-95, whereas East/West routes are assigned even numbers. East/West roads also tend to be numbered from north to south, with the lowest numbers located further north—such as secluded Route 2 from Houlton, Maine, to Everett, Washington.

Above photograph © Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography

“In northern New England, a lot of the roads were built to go through mountain passes,” says Jerry Monkman, author of the recently released Outdoor Adventures: Acadia National Park, among many other New England travel and photography guides. While initially built to forge a pathway through an inhospitable landscape, today these ribbons of asphalt offer travelers breathtaking views of nature in all seasons of the year.

Early morning on Katahdin Lake in Maine's Northern Forest, near Baxter State Park.Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography

Getting There

From the austere peak of Mount Katahdin and the newly designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument to the rocky coast of Acadia National Park, the state of Maine boasts a wide range of natural beauty mixed in with quaint New England charm.

This region is easily accessible via the major north/south Interstate 95, which forms an East coast corridor connecting northern New England to urban centers of Boston, New York, and points farther south. Visitors from greater distances can fly to Portland, Maine, where I-95 turns inland toward the town of Millinocket, gateway to the recently dedicated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Mount Katahdin, the Appalachian Trail, and the New National Monument

Comprising more than 85,000 acres of woods, lakes, and hills, a visit to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument takes a little work, since it is brand new and there is little infrastructure in place. For those seeking a more accessible experience in the Maine wilderness, the nearby Baxter State Park is a more tourist-friendly option. The centerpiece of this park is Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

A hiker walks along the Knife Edge Trail on Mount Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park.Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography

Photo Tip: Summiting Mount Katahdin is a difficult hike, but Sandy Stream Pond is an easy 15-minute walk from the Roaring Brook campground, accessible by car. “It has a panoramic view of Katahdin, which is really pretty in the fall and is also known for moose,” says Monkman. This location requires a $5 parking permit, even for daytime use. Permits can sell out, but are available for advance purchase, which Monkman recommends to avoid a wait.

The Scenic Route 1 to Acadia National Park

Getting to Acadia takes approximately three hours from Portland, following the coast along U.S. Route 1. Alternatively, one can take I-95 northward toward Bangor, and then pick up Route 1A or one of the other small tributary roads that connect to Route 1. For those traveling south from Baxter or Katahdin Woods and Waters, take I-95 south to Bangor, and then take the same route to the coast.

“While it’s faster to take the highway inland from Portland, I like to take Route 1 along the coast,” says Chris Nicholson, author of the book, Photographing National Parks. There are a ton of stopping-off points, starting with the neighboring border towns—historic Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and quaint Kittery, Maine.

Marshall Point Lighthouse in Port Clyde, Maine, just before sunset on a frigid winter day. Located off Route 1, south of Thomaston, Maine, this is a great spot to photograph in any season. Chris Nicholson

Photo/Gear Tip: Kittery’s Cape Neddick Lighthouse (also known as Nubble Point Light) sits on a small island right off the point. “You’re facing due east, so you can get the sun rising right behind the island for much the year,” Nicholson says. “It’s a beautiful spot to shoot, because you can do a wide shot with the whole island or use a telephoto and isolate the light. But, if you really want to time it right, use an app such as Photo Ephemeris or Photo Pills to get the sun rising directly behind the lighthouse,” he adds.

Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island

Just as 2016 marked the centennial of the National Park Service, Acadia National Park celebrated its 100th anniversary as the oldest American National Park east of the Mississippi River. It was created as the Sieur de Monts National Monument, in 1916, and renamed Lafayette National Park, in 1919, before receiving its current name, in 1929.

Located southeast of Ellsworth, Maine, Acadia consists primarily of Mount Desert Island, and associated smaller islands off the Atlantic coast. While lacking the tremendous acreage of National Parks in other areas of the US, Acadia offers visitors a variety of ways to commune with water and woodlands on a more human scale.

Located along the path to Hadlock Falls, Hemlock Bridge is one of the 17 carriage road bridges in Acadia, all of which have unique stonework designs.Chris Nicholson

One of its distinguishing features is an extensive network of carriage roads that wind through the park in a network of nearly 50 miles. Originally built by the Rockefeller family to explore the area without cars, these roads now serve as paths for walking, biking, and horses. The carriage roads are easy to walk on, which is part of what Nicholson likes about them. “It makes the park more accessible to reach the quiet spots,” he says. One of his favorite aspects of this network are 17 stone bridges, each with a unique design.

Photo Tip: Nicholson singles out one spot with two bridges—Hemlock Bridge and Waterfall Bridge— that lead up to Hadlock Falls. It’s not a secret spot, but it’s just far enough (about 40 minutes on foot) that it doesn’t get too crowded. One of two waterfalls in the park, Hadlock Falls is situated in such a way that, as you hike up the trail toward the bridge you see the waterfall right through it. “Both bridges are distinctive and great for shooting,” says Nicholson. “You could spend half a day just there, especially during foliage season.”

Cadillac Mountain

Rising from the middle of Mount Desert Island, Cadillac Mountain is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and the first US location from which to view the sunrise from October 7 to March 6.

While photographing sunrise usually insures safety from crowds, Nicholson notes that Cadillac Mountain can be an exception to this rule, especially during Acadia’s peak of tourist activity in summer months. Under these conditions, he advises, “if it’s crowded in the parking lot, just go down a trail for a bit and you’ll find a spot alone.”

Located off the Park Loop Road, climbing to the top of South Bubble is a steep endeavor, but the payoff is worth it, with breathtaking views over Jordan Pond and the Mount Desert Island coast.Chris Nicholson

Parking lots are located at the base and summit, enabling visitors to hike the mountain trails from the bottom or top. While most of the trails go down the mountain, Nicholson suggests also checking out a loop trail that circuits the area, “which is really nice when it’s foggy.”

Travel Tip: During peak season, a free shuttle bus offers eight routes connecting Acadia National Park locations with neighboring village centers. Cadillac Mountain is not an included stop, so to get there Nicholson recommends hiring a cab service in Bar Harbor for transport to the top or bottom of the mountain.

Exposing for Sunrise and Sunset

As Monkman points out, most of the classic scenes in Acadia face east or southeast, offering early-bird shutterbugs far more opportunities for capturing the sunrise from a variety of vantage points. “But since it’s an island, you can find some sunset views, as well,” he says.

To get the most out of your exposures during either window, he advises, “make sure you’re exposing your scenes bright enough. The tendency is to look at your LCD and maybe underexpose a little bit, because you like the color saturation you’re seeing.”

Sunset from the Raven's Nest on the Schoodic Peninsula, near the town of Winter Harbor, Acadia National Park.Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography

When shooting during golden hour—an hour after sunrise or before sunset—overall image contrast is generally low, producing a histogram that looks like a big bell curve. “It’s important to check the histogram and to make sure it’s in the middle or slightly overexposed so you have some extra data to work with,” he adds.

Monkman’s camera of choice is a Canon 5D Mark III, which he typically shoots with a wide-angle zoom, such as the Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III USM or Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L II USM, although he also carries a Canon EF 70–200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM for pulling out details in the landscape, and the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM lens for close-ups.

In addition to the classic sunrise views, Monkman says, “The east side of Mount Desert Island features a number of hardwood areas, including locations such as Jordan Pond, Sand Beach and the Beehive, and Champlain Mountain, where you can find nice pockets of nice color in the fall. But what I really like about Acadia is that if the colors aren’t peaking, there’s all that great ocean and cliff-side scenery to photograph,” he points out.

Fog and Foul Weather Considerations

Given Acadia’s island setting, fog and mist become an attraction rather than a hindrance. Says Nicholson, “Inclement weather conditions shouldn’t preclude photography. There’s so much in Acadia that is great to shoot in the fog—fishing villages, ponds, or any of the other bodies of water.”

Located near the intersection of Park Loop and Otter Creek Roads, Boulder Beach is one of Acadia’s iconic photography spots, best photographed in morning’s very first light, or in inclement weather.Chris Nicholson

On the west side of the island, which the locals call the quiet side, residential houses are visible from across Long Pond and Echo Lake. Nicholson finds this area hard to shoot except in the fog, which allows him to obscure the residential parts.

Photo Tip: “Low-lying fog on the water can provide a good opportunity to find a spot with a little elevation such as up on Cadillac Mountain,” says Nicholson. “From there you can capture moody landscape views with the fog wrapping around the islands.”

In wet conditions, Nicholson relies on the weather-sealed durability of his Nikon D3s or D810. “I don’t always use one, but if it’s really raining out I like using a Peak Design rain cover,” he says.

To protect his cameras when not in use, Nicholson uses a Manfrotto bumblebee bag, which is water resistant and comes with a rain cover. Yet, topping his list of inclement weather gear are waterproof shoes. “If anything is going to stay dry, I want it to be my feet,” he says. “In wet weather, I also recommend wearing something besides jeans, because as soon as it rains they are going to get heavy and wet and cold,” he adds.

One of Acadia’s best locations for pounding surf during rough seas, Schoodic Point, near the town of Winter Harbor, is generally quieter than the park’s main section across Frenchman Bay.Chris Nicholson

Yet, to be fully prepared for New England weather, take a tip from the local fisherman and pack a pair of ventilated rain pants, and a water-resistant shell.

Photo Tip: “I always think that I hate shooting in the rain, but I love having shot in the rain,” Nicholson says. “There’s something about rain that brings a forest to life visually. I always keep it in my head that I’m going to like the photos,” he adds. “You stick through something that’s uncomfortable for the sake of the photo, and if the conditions are great, you can just focus on the photography and you’ll forget where you are.”

Autumn Leaves and the Science of Foliage

While Acadia’s fog season tends to peak in late summer, Monkman notes that the weather in autumn can offer just about anything. During this time of year, New England visitors are privy to a spectacular show, as hardwood trees begin to shed their leaves, resulting in a brilliant display of colorful foliage. As cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours overtake the region from north to south, chlorophyll production slows down, causing leaves to start changing color. Different tree species produce varied hues of foliage—from the brilliant reds of certain maple varieties, to the golden yellow of aspen and poplar, to the drab brown of an elm.

From late September through the month of October, Monkman particularly enjoys shooting fall foliage on misty, foggy days. To reduce glare on the leaves and make the colors more saturated and vibrant, he recommends using a polarizing filter.

Shooting Acadia's Stanley Brook Bridge during an autumn rain brought drama to the scene, but all that moisture added a sheen to the leaves, stonework, and road below. A polarizing filter reduced that glare, allowing everything to look wet but not shiny. Chris Nicholson

Gear Tip: Nicholson seconds this tip, saying, “Don’t go to Acadia without a polarizing filter, especially in the fall.” He suggests bringing two polarizers, “just in case something happens to one of them,” and recommends the brand Formatt Hitech. In addition to bringing out the vibrant red, orange, and the yellow of fall foliage, he notes, “A polarizer can also help intensify blue skies and remove the reflection of the sky on the water’s surface.”

For coastal scenes, Nicholson recommends stocking a neutral density filter, which is handy for blurring the motion of surf or waterfalls. Graduated neutral density filters are particularly useful for coastal scenes that include both big sky and foreground elements, because the exposure of each element is usually different.

A variable neutral density filter was used to lengthen the exposure time of this early morning shot, blurring the waves lapping against the shore, at Boulder Beach, in Maine's Acadia National Park.Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography

Another factor influencing fall color is moisture. Foliage usually peaks later and lasts longer around water, because the trees tend to be better hydrated. Nicholson recounts that an arborist once told him, “it’s not just about the amount of water, it’s the timing. And trees adjacent to a body of water get moisture all the time.”

But, regardless of the shooting location and conditions, Nicholson advises photo enthusiasts to push beyond just the classic calendar shots. This can be especially true in autumn, when nature is in a wholly transformational state. “It’s important to consider that fall foliage changes over two to three weeks, and the look of the landscape during that period changes the type and mood of the photo you can make,” he points out.

Photo Tip: “If I’m shooting foliage in an area that’s past peak I try to find water, where I’ll usually have better luck,” says Nicholson. Another tip for finding locations for prime leaf peeping is to check the peak fall foliage map on the website, as well as the fall foliage trackers of the individual states you plan to visit.

A long exposure creates a blur of autumn color above the rushing water of Duck Brook, in Maine's Acadia National Park.Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography

“I think a lot of people believe that photo opportunities are over as soon as the foliage is reported to be past peak,” Nicholson sums up. “But I really like shooting past peak, when you can find a lot of bare trees next to isolated color. There’s a nice juxtaposition to this that you can’t get earlier in the season.”

About the photographers:

Jerry and Marcy Monkman run the Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based stock and assignment company EcoPhotography, producing stills and video of nature and outdoor lifestyle subjects for non-profit, editorial, and commercial clients. Their images, books, and films have told adventure- and conservation-themed stories for more than 20 years, appearing in publications worldwide. Select books include Wild Acadia, named a top photo book of 2007 by Shutterbug Magazine, and The AMC Guide to Outdoor Digital Photography, which received a 2012 National Outdoor Book Award. Jerry’s first feature-length film, The Power of Place, explores the potential impacts of a controversial energy project proposed for New Hampshire, and was an official selection of the 2015 New Hampshire Film Festival.

Chris Nicholson is an East-coast-based photographer and writer, and author of the book Photographing National Parks. He is also a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night LLC. A magazine editor for ten years, Nicholson has worked independently since 2004. He has studied and worked in America’s National Parks throughout his career, regularly traveling to various parks for photography and related projects. This October, Nicholson will be a featured speaker at the Out of Acadia Photography Conference. Additionally, he will be teaching night photography in Acadia with Maine Media Workshops and leading an Acadia workshop with photographer Susan Magnano.

This story is part of an ongoing series on America’s National Parks, Forests, and Monuments. Read the other stories in our series here: South Dakota: From the Black Hills National Forest to the Badlands and North Dakota Driving Guide: Theodore Roosevelt National Park.