ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
If you live in New England, you probably already know about Acadia National Park, Maine. The park celebrates it’s centennial this year (2016) as the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River. Acadia is best known for its rugged coast covered in pink granite, and a diversity that includes splendid woodlands, lakes, and ponds.
The most popular, and thus, most-frequently visited portion of the park is along Ocean Drive — that chunk of Park Loop Road spanning Sand Beach and Otter Cliffs. But Acadia offers much more to those who are willing to capture its rich diversity, and at the same time, avoid the ever-growing bustle of tourists.
GREAT HEAD PENINSULA
Great Head is a small peninsula located on the east side of Sand Beach. The Great Head Trail loops around the perimeter of the peninsula, making for a gorgeous hike with panoramic views of the rocky eastern coast of Mount Desert Island. The Great Head Trail is rated “moderate”, although there are portions of the trail that involve minor scrambling over rocks and boulders.
I caught my first glimpse of Great Head in a park guidebook years ago, but for some reason, could find few professional-level photos of the peninsula. Yet, I consider this portion of the park on par with the beauty of the rest. It may be that the hiking requirement is a deterrent to most, especially since catching the best light involves making the trek at the edge of day. Regardless of the reason, this area of the park is less photographed than Ocean Drive, so let’s keep this place our little secret as long as possible!
BEST TIME TO PHOTOGRAPH
Unlike Park Loop Road, Schooner Head Road (in Bar Harbor) is open all year long, ensuring year-round access to the Great Head Trail. So, it would be possible to photograph from Great Head at any time of year, although I much prefer the summer months. I’ve hiked the small peninsula in spring, summer and winter, and find that summer affords much better foreground potential, such as brilliant greenery and pink beach rose.
Great Head looks east, so the best time of day to photograph here is at sunrise, preferably on a day with good cloud potential. The entire scene will be backlit, so a colorful sky can make or break the image.
In July, sunrise occurs around 5am, requiring a painfully-early rise and hike. Since I always strive to be on location by dawn, I usually start this hike a full hour before sunrise. Yeah, that means hiking out at 4am in July!
You can access the Great Head Trail from either Sand Beach or Schooner Head. If you choose to begin at Sand Beach, park in the lower Sand Beach parking lot, and walk across the beach to reach the trail on the opposite end. Then, follow the trail up and along the coast to reach Great Head.
The second option is to join Great Head Trail at Schooner Head. This is my preferred starting point, as it takes less time and effort overall. The trail from Sand Beach is steeper and involves more scrambling over boulders, whereas, the Schooner Head approach tends to be more gradual and faster. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to skip any unnecessary scrambling in the dark.
To reach the Schooner Head entrance, drive on Park Loop Road until you approach the Park Entrance Station. Here you’ll find the marked left turn to Schooner Head Overlook just BEFORE the gates. Once you’ve made the turn, take your first right on the continuation of Schooner Head Road to reach the parking lot and trailhead.
The other option is to drive south on Schooner Head Road from Bar Harbor (accessible from Route 3). When you arrive at the stop sign at the end of the road, continue driving straight across to reach the parking area at the head of the Great Head Trail. This is the only option available in Winter.
Once in the Schooner Head parking area, look for the marked trailhead. You’ll soon come to a junction in the trail, where you can either continue straight or take a sharp left turn. Turn LEFT here for the shorter hike. You will soon see the coast — keep the coastline to your left until you reach the top. If you choose to go straight at the junction, you’ll still get to the top but using the longer Sand Beach approach.
The Great Head Trail is marked with light blue lines. Be sure to follow the blue markers painted on trees and rocks to remain on the trail. This can be tricky in semi-darkness, so keep a sharp eye.
It takes about 20 minutes to reach the top of the peninsula, although I find the best compositions to be just below the top, on the side of Sand Beach. Look for a clearing in the trees and brush that provides open access to the granite cliffs and a vantage point over the rocky coastline below.
The hike to Great Head is not difficult but does involve hiking over uneven and rocky surfaces much of the way. Be sure to have proper footwear (preferably hiking boots) for better traction over rough trail surfaces. Granite is also very slippery when wet, so tread carefully after rain or dew.
Most of the hike is through woodlands, so be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight. And if you’re worried about possible animal encounters at dawn, I’ve yet to see anything more than the occasional deer. Bear and moose sightings are rare in Acadia National Park (I asked a Park Ranger), so the risk is small.
This is not a trail you should attempt for the first time in partial darkness. If you haven’t been here before, make a “dry run” of the hike in daylight to familiarize yourself with the trail, markers, and peninsula. I also suggest you choose a photo composition at that time, before returning to the spot in the dark of dawn. In summer, there are lots of people (including young families) hiking this trail in daylight. But you will almost certainly be alone at dawn. I’ve yet to see a single person on the trail in those early morning hours.
The cliffs at top of Great Head peninsula are steep and dangerous in places. So, be sure to exercise caution in your choice of tripod location. The rocks and rough surf below are unforgiving to the careless.