Acadia was the first National Park to be created east of the Mississippi river and despite being relatively small (around 40,000 acres) it's one of the most visited of all the National Parks. Not too surprising since it's the only National Park in New England and it's within a day's drive for over 50 million people. It receives over 2 million visitors each year. Yellowstone gets 3 million visitors, but at over 2 million acres it's 50 times as big.
Most of the Park is located on Mount Dessert Island (MDI), Maine but there are smaller units on Isle au Haut and the Schoodic Peninsula. In this article I'll concentrate on the MDI unit since it's the most visited. Isle au Haut is accessible only by passenger ferry from Stonington (no cars). Schoodic is about a hour's drive from MDI and is relatively undeveloped.
The Mount Dessert Island (MDI) section of Acadia NP (shown in green)
A larger version can be found here
The park loop road (shown in yellow above) is the way most visitors access the main part of the park and it connects many of the best spots for photography. From mid-June to early October there are also free shuttle buses which take visitors to most areas of the park, so even if you don't have a car you can get around pretty well. In the winter much of the park loop road closed at the first snowfall and only accessible to hikers, skiers and snowmobiles. Accommodation in the winter is limited since many of the local hotels and motels close between November and May. If you are visiting in July and August you may need to reserve rooms before you arrive since many of the hotels and motels are fully booked in the peak holiday season
This section of the park loop road is the prime area for shots of the sea, cliffs and mountains. Since it faces to the east, the best light is at dawn. The area falls into shade in the evening as the sun sets behind the mountains. For a literal overview of this part of the park, shoot from the top of the "Beehive", a 520ft climb which starts on the opposite side of the road from the Sand Beach parking lot. There are two ways up, the first is quite strenuous and involves climbing iron rungs embedded in the rock. The Bowl trail is longer but easier and less steep. Either way the view from the top is spectacular.
View of Great Head and Sand Beach from the summit of the Beehive
Canon EOS 20D, EF-S 10-22 @ 22mm, 1/50s @ f8, ISO 100
Further along the road is "Thunder Hole", a sea cave which emits a loud "boom" when the tide is right and the surf brings in large waves. It's not a very natural spot since it has a concrete walkway and handrails, but there are some nice shots along the shore that can be made from the the surrounding rocks. It's also a good area to catch lobster boats hauling traps while they are close to the shore.
Lobster Beat Hauling traps (Great Head in the background)
Canon EOS 10D, 75-300IS @ 125mm, 1/250s @ f5.6. ISO 200
Looking north towards Thunder Hole
Canon EOS 5D, EF70-300 @ 90mm, 1/500s @ f8, ISO 400
If you carry on along the park loop road past Otter cliffs, you will eventually pass Wildwood stables on the right. From here there are carriage rides along some of the carriage roads and opportunities to photograph the horses.
Horse drawn carriage at the Wildwood stables
Canon EOS 10D, EF28-135IS @ 112mm, 1/180s @ f5.6, ISO 100
Just past Wildwood stables, Jordan Pond House is a favorite stop on the Park Loop road and can serve as a base for several photo related side trips.
North and South Bubbles from Jordan Pond House
EOS 20D, EF75-300IS @ 75mm, 1/160s @ f8, ISO 800
Jordan Pond is a great spot for photography. There's a good chance of finding Mergansers on the pond, often with chicks in the spring. They tend to hang around the southern end of the pond, but there's a chance they can be seen anywhere along the Jordan Pond Trail which runs all the way around the pond.
Red Headed Merganser
EOS 20D, 300/4L + 1.4x TC, 1/400s @ f9, ISO 400
At the north end of the pond is a beaver lodge. I've seen beavers there, but not that often, at least during the day. Loons are also present on the pond at times and I once saw a pair of River Otters - but didn't have my camera with me of course!
Detail of Jordan Pond Stream
EOS 20D, 28-135IS @ 50mm, 0.6s @ f8, ISO 100
From the south end of the pond Jordan Stream descends along a rock strewn river bed, creating many small waterfalls when the flow is high. The flow is usually high only after a period of extended rain, so if you get a few rainy days it's a good area to check out.
Carrying on around the loop road from Jordan Pond you will arrive at Bubble Pond. Though it's a small pond, I've found it to be quite a good location for seeing wildlife. At the end of the pond nearest the parking lot I've seen and photographed Loons and Mergansers, and I once saw (and got a distant photograph of) a mink! In the fall the trees at that end of the pond are often quite a brilliant red.
Bubble Pond in the Fall. HP 945 P&S Digicam
Further on along the road is Cadillac mountain (1530 ft), the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard north of Rio de Janeiro (Mt. Corcovado - 2,330 ft). It is said to be the first location in the US to see the rising sun (at least in the fall and winter). If sunrise in the summer is a little early for you (around 4:45am in mid June), it's also a great spot for photographing sunset. At the top of the mountain the Blue Hill Overlook gives a clear view to the western horizon and the setting sun. It's a very popular spot and can get quite crowded but lower on the mountain there is an area overlooking Eagle lake where you can pull off the road which is less popular and also offers a clear shot to the west. Wideangle shots aren't always the most impressive way to show the sunset. Try using a telephoto lens for a close-up of the setting sun for a dramatic image.
Sunset from the Cadillac Mountain Summit
Canon EOS 20D, 300mm lens, 1/640s @ f5.6, ISO 200
From the summit of Cadillac mountain it is said to be possible - on a very clear day - to see over 100 miles to Mt. Khatahdin to the north and Nova Scotia to the East. Such clear days are rare however. I have seen Machias Seal Island from the summit of Cadillac, which is a distance of almost 50 miles. The theoretical distance to the (sea level) horizon from the summit is 52 miles.
Glacial Erratic boulder on the summit of Cadillac mountain, sunset
Canon EOS 5D, EF 24-105/4L @ 24mm, 1/125s @ f8, ISO 200
If you're into panoramic photography, the summit of Cadillac would be a good place to attempt a 360 degree panorama.
After descending the Cadillac summit road, head north towards Bar Harbor, stay on the park road and take the Duck Brook exit towards town. As you go down the hill, turn left onto Duck Brook road. Duck Brook is one of the larger streams in the park and the view from Duck Brook Bridge can be very colorful in the fall, with foliage usually peaking in early October. Like most streams in the park, it's more impressive after a period of heavy rain. Using a slow shutter speed (around 1/4s) will blur the water as can be seen below.
Duck Brook in full flow, early October
EOS 20D, EF-S 18-55 @ 18mm. 1/4s @ f10, ISO 100
The western half of MDI is known locally as "the quiet side". There are no park roads or carriage roads, but there are hiking trails, ponds, mountains and a number of photographic opportunities there.
The Bass Harbor light is on the western side of MDI just off Rt. 102A. The lighthouse itself is a private residence and is not open to the public, but the surrounding land is part of the Park. A stairway at the eastern end of the parking lot takes you down to the rocks below the lighthouse.
Bass Harbor Light
Canon EOS 20D, ISO 100, 1/100s @ f8, EF24-105/4L @ 47mm
From the rocks you can take the classic shot (above), but to get the best light you really need to be there in the morning. The shot is to the west, so in the afternoon the lighthouse is backlit and the side facing you will be in shade. There is access to the other side of the lighthouse from the other end of the parking lot, but it's not a good spot for photography. Another good view of the lighthouse is from a boat and there are nature cruises leaving from Bass Harbor which sail past the lighthouse and give you the view shown below. Don't forget to try a shot with a polarizer if the sky is clear.
Bass Harbor lighthouse from a Nature Cruise
EOS 5D, 24-105/4L @ 105mm, 1/200s @ f8
The nature cruises carry on out to some small offshore islands where harbor seals often haul out (especially at low tide) and where seabirds (Cormorants, Eider Ducks and Gulls) can be seen nesting. Eagles are also often seen in the treetops on the offshore islands, but can be difficult to photograph as it's not easy (nor is it legal) to get close to them.
EOS 40D, ISO 400, 1/800s @ f5.6, EF 70-300/4-5.6IS @ 300mm
By the way, if you're looking for shots of lobster boats, Bass Harbor has the 3rd largest fleet in the state of Maine. It's a real working harbor for commercial lobstering.
While on the western side of MDI check out the Wonderland Trail which is about a mile or so to the east of the Bass Harbor light on Rt 102A and is part of Acadia NP. It's a short trail, fairly flat and takes it takes about 20 minutes to walk. From the end of the trail which comes out onto some rock ledges I've often seen Eagles out on one of the small offshore islands. They're pretty much out of range even for a 1000mm lens, but you never know your luck. Take a spotting scope if you have one. There are also tide pools here at low tide and red squirrels among the pine trees. Keep an eye open for flocks of Eider Ducks which seem to like this area.
Wonderland (note offshore island where Eagles can be seen at times)
Canon EOS 5D, EF28-105 @ 28mm, 1/160s @ f16, ISO 400
To list all the other photo spots in and around Acadia would need another 10 pages, but here are a few you might want to check out:
The Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor, especially mid-May to mid June. Ornamental gardens with a Japanese theme
Indian Point Blagden Preserve (Nature Conservancy). Off Indian point Road on the western shore of MDI. I've seen Barred Owls here, as well as Woodpeckers, Osprey and Seals on the offshore ledges.
In the fall (from late August to early October) there's a hawk watch on the top of Cadillac mountain. On peak days in mid-September over 250 birds can often be seen.
The Wild Gardens of Acadia are open all year round and are located about 2 miles south of Bar Harbor at the Sieur de Mont Spring. There are more than 300 species of native plants on display. This is also often a good area to see owls in the evening.
Beaver Dam Pond on the park loop road has been a good place to see beavers around the time of sunset. They often inspect the dam at this time of day.
I'd bring along both a DSLR and a P&S camera. If you're going on long hikes you might not want to carry a heavy camera and an assortment of lenses. I'd also bring along a tripod, even if it's only something small and light.
For a small P&S camera I'd look at the Canon Powershot SD880is if you want something really small, or something like the Canon Powershot SX110is if you want something with more zoom capability, but which is still smaller and lighter than a DSLR.
Any DSLR would be great, but I'd look at these three from Canon.
Almost any lens can be useful when visiting Acadia, but I'd suggest at least a good wideangle, a good telephoto zoom and perhaps a macro lens.