ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
If you live in the northeast, it’s likely that you’ve already visited Acadia National Park in season. The 47,000-acre recreation area lies mainly on Mount Desert Island, featuring a spectacular landscape that includes pink granite cliffs, granite peaks such as Cadillac Mountain, lakes, ponds, and woodlands.
But have you ever considered photographing Acadia at night in the dead of winter? That might sound a little crazy at first, but there are several good reasons for doing just that.
Maine’s rugged coast includes some of the last pristine, star-filled skies on the east coast. And Acadia is known for its dark sky, celebrated each year with the Acadia Night Sky Festival held in September .
So, the first good reason to go is because Acadia has very little pollution, and is recognized as one of the best places in New England to photograph the night sky.
And, a second good reason to go in winter is because the Milky Way is best aligned with Ocean Drive — that photogenic portion of Acadia best known for its colorful granite cliffs.
If you’re lucky, the granite coast will be topped with fresh snow. And the night exposures will give the ocean a silky look, adding to the mystical feel of images that already include an awe-inspiring Milky Way.
Park Loop Road (also called Ocean Drive) is closed annually from December through April 14. I’ve talked to people who were under the mistaken impression that the entire park was inaccessible during winter, but there are two short sections of Park Loop Road that remain open all year long.
One is a scenic one-mile section along Ocean Drive that goes from Schooner Head to Otter Cliff. The stretch begins two miles south of downtown Bar Harbor. Although short, it includes some of the best coastal views in the park, including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Boulder Beach, and Otter Cliff.
The other open section gives access to Jordan Pond via the Jordan Pond Road in Seal Harbor. Although Jordan Pond is not considered an ideal location for Milky Way photography, it remains a fabulous destination for star photography and an excellent location for recording star trails.
BEST TIME TO PHOTOGRAPH
Between February and April, the Milky Way appears in its full glory at a longitude that spans 85-175 degrees. This means that its placement in the sky is far more horizontal in winter than it is in summer. Thus, the Milky Way is more conducive to a horizontal and panoramic formats during the winter months.
The bad news about photographing the Milky Way in winter is that it has to be done in the wee hours of morning. During the summer months, the Milky Way is photographed AFTER evening twilight, but in the winter, it only appears BEFORE morning twilight — a rather trying time of day.
In late February, the Milky Way is at its brightest between 4:30am and 5am (a mere 30-minute window). By late March, the window expands a bit to 4am-5am. And by late April, the Milky Way has shifted into a more vertical position, and is best photographed between 3am and 4am.
Needless to say, all of this involves leaving the comfort of your bed in the middle of the (possibly cold) night, just to chance a very narrow window of opportunity. But your efforts will be rewarded with horizontal and panoramic images that cannot be taken during the warmer months of the year.
As always, a cloudless and moonless sky are the basic prerequisites for Milky Way photography. So, be sure to check both weather conditions and the moon phase before venturing out. There are many applications for both computers and smart phones that provide excellent lunar calendars and moon phase calculators.
In winter, the normal entrances used to reach Park Loop Road are closed, leaving only two ways to reach Ocean Drive by car. The first way is via Schooner Head Road from Main Street in Bar Harbor. Turn left onto Schooner Head Road just before reaching The Jackson Laboratory. Continue driving about two miles, and then turn right at the stop sign. This will take you to the entrance station, about a mile north of Sand Beach.
The second way is to head west on Route 3 from Bar Harbor, and make a left turn onto Otter Cliff Road. This will take you to the end of the open portion of Park Loop Road, where you can park the car and walk along the coast. If the coastal road from Schooner Head is icy, this inland approach approach may be safer.
Ocean Drive remains a one-way in winter, so the only exit from the park is via Otter Cliff Road, which takes you back to Route 3. Be sure to check the Acadia site for temporary closures before coming out.
As far as Jordan Pond is concerned, the normal Stanley Brook Entrance is gated in winter, but the pond remains accessible from Jordan Pond Road off Route 3 in Seal Harbor.
Both lodging and food are more limited in Bar Harbor during the winter months. I usually stay at the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel although several other B&Bs and motels are also open. If you prefer a wider variety, you can stay in Ellsworth (25 miles away) but it will take you some 45 minutes to reach Ocean Drive.
The accessible stretch of Park Loop Road is plowed and maintained throughout the winter, but it frequently gets icy from sea spray so be very careful driving it in the dark.
The granite rocks on the coast can also get very slippery, so I recommend always wearing ice cleats over your boots when walking on the rocks. And never approach the edge of cliffs as the risk of falling doubles at night.
Acadia is quite safe from predators in the winter, although there has been a significant increase in the presence of human photographers in recent years — even in the wee hours of morning. The fabulous sensors on modern cameras have made it possible for us to photograph in near-total darkness, propelling night photography to a new level of popularity. So, be aware that there will likely be other photographers in the park, and be cognizant of any pollution you create with your own flashlights and headlamps.
I always look forward to my winter nights in Acadia, cherishing the quietude and feeling humbled by a wondrous sky. May you explore, enjoy, photograph, and be safe!