ACADIA NATIONAL PARK — The parking lots along the one-way Park Loop Road were filled by mid-morning.

The overflow of vehicles formed a line in the right-hand lane, where parking is permitted, that started well before the Sand Beach entrance station and stretched more than a mile past another popular destination, Thunder Hole.

Drivers, many with out-of-state plates, slowed down to see if they could find a spot, or to gauge whether they could fit into a spot they clearly couldn’t. Most left frustrated and motored on to try farther down Park Loop Road.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Kathleen Zizzi of Nashua, New Hampshire, who has visited many times with her husband over the years. “It definitely changes the experience.”

It was Tuesday, an 80-degree cloudless mid-July day inside Acadia National Park. As the only eastern national park north of Virginia, uniquely surrounded by water and Maine’s signature rocky cliffs, the park has always been popular. In recent years, though, park visitation has approached critical mass, forcing officials to continually manage congestion and also visitor expectations.

From 2000 to 2013, the number of yearly visitors remained consistent, never more than 2.5 million or less than 2 million. Since 2013, visitor numbers have increased dramatically, to 3.5 million last year. That’s more than 1 million additional visitors in five years. Some of that is driven by a steep increase in the number of massive cruise ships that visit Bar Harbor.

This year, the park already has logged its busiest day ever – 35,000 visitors on July 5. The heavy volume that day strained park resources. There were 755 radio calls to park rangers and 20 calls to 911 for injuries or rescues. At the day’s peak, there were more than 400 cars passing through the Sand Beach entrance. On the summit of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia’s most iconic spot, more than 600 cars competed for 157 parking spots leading up to sunset.

Congestion was so bad, dozens parked illegally, forcing officials to close the summit road multiple times for safety reasons.

Although July 5 was an extreme example, park officials have seen this coming. They spent five years studying trends and drafting a comprehensive transportation plan that was released in March. Most of the recommendations will take time to materialize, though, so bumps are expected.

In the meantime, park officials are not ready to call it a crisis but are watching trends more closely than ever.

“Many national parks have similar issues,” said Christie Anastasia, Acadia’s spokeswoman. “On one side, isn’t it amazing that all these people are coming? Of course. I would cry if I saw the Eagle Lake parking lot empty.

“But the other side – how do we manage this in a way so the resource stays beautiful and people aren’t having angst over finding a parking spot?”

There are plans to expand parking in three areas – the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, which is often the first stop for most; on Route 233 near Eagle Lake; and at the to-be-expanded Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton, just before the bridge onto Mount Desert Island.

That, coupled with expanded bus service and a parking reservation system for some of the most popular spots (Ocean Drive from Sand Beach to Thunder Hole, Jordan Pond House and the Cadillac Mountain summit) should reduce the number of passenger vehicles on park roads.

A wide range of visitors who spoke to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram last Tuesday largely agreed that the park seemed unusually congested and that changes would be welcome to ensure a pleasant experience.

Some of it, though, comes down to expectations.

“I think if you do a little planning, it’s not so bad,” said John Mannion of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, who was visiting with his girlfriend, Cassandra Whelan.

The couple got up early Tuesday to hike Cadillac Mountain ahead of the crowds. They finished in late morning and drove toward Sand Beach. The lot there was full, but Mannion circled a couple of times and found a spot.

Five minutes later, they were lying on beach towels in the warm sand as gentle waves rolled in.

MORE VISITORS AT MANY NATIONAL PARKS

Acadia National Park was first established as a national monument in 1916 and became a park three years later. It was built largely from donated land.

The park reached 2 million annual visitors for the first time in 1964 and hasn’t looked back. The first time the park topped 3 million visitors was in 1982, and the next year it jumped to 4.1 million. By the end of the decade, in 1989, the park reached 5.4 million visitors. But the very next year, attendance dropped back to 2.3 million and stayed in the 2-to-2.5-million range until the current spike.

Stephanie Clement, conservation director for Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit that provides philanthropic and volunteer assistance to the park, said the dramatic change from 1989 to 1990 was because of a change in how visitors were counted. The counts now are believed to be far more accurate, but Clement says there have been historical concerns about overcrowding.

She said the current increase in visitors can be attributed to better marketing by the National Park Service, especially around its centennial in 2016, an improved economy and warmer summers prompting city dwellers to seek respite.

“We’re also a day’s drive from a quarter of the U.S. population,” Clement said.

Other national parks across the country have seen more visitors, too.

Attendance at Grand Canyon National Park increased from 4.5 million in 2013 to 6.3 million last year. At Zion National Park in Utah, visitor traffic increased from 2.8million to 4.3 million. At Yellowstone, 3.2 million to 4.1 million.

But not every park has experienced this. The two that are closest to Acadia – Cuyohoga Valley in Ohio and Shenandoah in Virginia – saw flat numbers.

In 2018, Acadia was the 7th-most-visited national park, but every park that had more visitors than Acadia also is much bigger. The national park with the most similar visitor numbers – Grand Teton in Wyoming – covers 301,000 acres, more than six times the area of Acadia.

Jane Sunnerfield, from Stratford-upon-Avon, England, home of William Shakespeare, was visiting Acadia for the first time last week. She didn’t have any firm expectations but said it seemed busier than she thought it would be.

“It’s beautiful. I can see why so many would want to come,” she said outside her rental car, which was parked on Park Loop Road near Sand Beach.

A family of four from Connecticut said they spent 20 minutes trying to find parking near Sand Beach. There were long lines for the restrooms and changing rooms, too, but plenty of space on the beach itself, which is the only real saltwater swimming spot in the park.

Past Sand Beach is another must-see, Thunder Hole. It’s essentially an outcropping of rock where water has, over time, created a natural cave. When waves come in and then go back out, it can produce booming sounds. The area features a section of rock with railings where visitors can walk out. On Tuesday, people had to wait to get a spot, even during a time when the water was calm.

Past Thunder Hole, traffic thinned out until Jordan Pond, another popular spot in the park and home to the only restaurant, famous for its popovers. There were lines everywhere at Jordan Pond. The parking lot was full. Dozens waited for the park’s shuttle bus, known as the Island Explorer.

Doron Shiloach and his wife and two daughters were among them. They are from New York and were visiting the park for the first time.

Shiloach said when they arrived Tuesday morning, they checked in at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center.

“We asked about the best way to navigate the park, and the ranger told us it was likely to be a busy day so we should consider taking the bus,” he said.

Asked if he’d do it again, Shiloach said he wasn’t sure.

“Seeing all the parking lots full, I’m sure that would have been challenging to navigate,” he said. “But we’ve had to wait for the bus a few times.”

One of his daughters quickly reminded him how crowded the buses have been as well.

SHUTTLE BUSES AT CAPACITY

The Island Explorer bus system is a free shuttle that operates throughout the park and also travels to downtown Bar Harbor and other stops outside park boundaries. It’s part of Downeast Transportation, a private nonprofit that contracts with the park service.

Executive Director Paul Murphy said the Island Explorer buses – there are 31 in use currently – have been operating at capacity for a couple of years. Ridership increased by about 7 percent, or 40,000 passenger trips, from 2017 to 2018, he said.

“More people know about us than we can accommodate,” he said.

On private tour buses, the increase has been far more dramatic. In 2017, there were 85,559 passenger trips. Last year, it was 151,632, an increase of 77 percent.

Much of that is tied to the cruise ship industry. Cruise ship visits to Bar Harbor have more than doubled in the last 12 years, from 73 in 2006 to 177 last year.

Murphy said he believes the park’s transportation plan, which includes expansion of the Island Explorer, is a major step toward addressing overcrowding at the park. Quoting the late baseball great/linguist Yogi Berra, he said, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

“We don’t want that,” he said.

Other parks have taken steps to reduce traffic. At Zion in Utah, the park’s signature Scenic Drive is accessible only by a free shuttle from March through November.

Acadia is not likely to take that drastic step.

Clement, at Friends of Acadia, said most Americans rely on their cars as a part of everyday life. Gas has remained relatively cheap for the last few years.

“Also, when you leave that car behind and take the bus, you have to have everything and plan. That’s scary for people to be that prepared,” she said.

Bob Moreau of Wells has been coming to Acadia every summer for the last 30 years with his wife and has definitely noticed changes. They sometimes use the bus, something they never really felt the need for until recently.

“You might have to be a little more patient nowadays,” he said.

Steve and Karyn Schulz of Baltimore were visiting last week. Steve Schulz had been once before, as a teenager with his family. They drove up in a camper.

The recent experience was much different. He and his wife visited the park in a tour bus.

The Schulzes said they liked the experience because they didn’t have to stress over parking or traffic and enjoyed listening to the tour guide. But Steve Schulz also said the crowds exceeded his expectations.

“Everything else looks the same, just more cars and people,” he said.

ENTRANCE FEE NOT DISSUADING VISITORS

The increased traffic comes despite a $5 park entrance fee increase that went into effect last year. The increased fee was to help pay for deferred maintenance and repairs, but some of the money will likely pay for the proposed changes to alleviate congestion. It was the first fee increase in more than 30 years.

Some of that extra revenue will be used to implement changes outlined in the transportation plan, including more parking.

However, that extra parking will not be inside the park but on the outskirts. Parking at or near popular destinations will remain scant. At the Cadillac Mountain summit, there are 145 spaces. At Jordan Pond, which features the park’s only restaurant and is the trailhead for the popular hikes, there are 152. At Sand Beach, there are 101.

The way people described their experience last week depended on two factors – whether they were local or whether they had visited before and had something to compare. Locals or return visitors were far more likely to bristle at the crowds.

Clement, who has worked for Friends of Acadia for 22 years, said she visits the park regularly, like many locals, but often avoids peak days or times.

“We enjoy it when it’s quiet, so in the summer it is harder to enjoy that experience and there’s some grumpiness,” she said. “But a healthy part of the community recognizes that tourism drives economic activity here and are willing to shift their experience.”

Clement said visitor behavior is sometimes a bigger challenge than sheer volume.

The increased traffic has been a boon to the local economy. From 2013 to 2018 – the same period the park saw an additional 1 million visitors – total visitor spending in the region increased from $191 million to $284 million.

One-third of spending was on lodging or camping, followed by 27.5 percent on food and drink.

Alf Anderson, director of membership sales and marketing for the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 400 businesses, said the increased traffic has been mostly positive.

“Most of our members have seen an increase in business but, like the park itself, they’ve been trying to manage some of the spikes in attendance,” he said.

None of the changes laid out in the transportation plan will happen immediately.

The next major change, installing a parking reservation system for the Cadillac summit, Jordan Pond, and Ocean Drive between Sand Beach and Thunder Hole, won’t be online until 2021. Other changes, including adding more parking and beefing up the bus system, could take years.

That could mean more growing pains if visitation trends continue.

Anastasia, the park spokeswoman, said officials may be forced to take more drastic measures, like road closures, when necessary.

“The way to convince people to visit or to come back is to be able to offer them a level of certainty,” she said. “We’ve done the best we can on multiple fronts to address this.”


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