For many, the great American road trip would not be complete without camping and hiking in some of the most beautiful spots on earth. According to the Department of the Interior, more than 330 million people will visit a national park this year — and a lot of them will be driving.
But as visitors rush to get away from it all, they're bringing with them some problems from the big city. And at Maine’s own Acadia National Park, gridlock is becoming a regular problem.
That's Nate Bossie and Ray Penn recently visited the park from Connecticut for the first time.
“You definitely want to get up early, you know...get parked,” says Bossie. If you arrive much later: “there's cars parked down the street.”
They say the trip was "totally worth it" for the biking and hiking trails, the mountains and the wilderness — once they were safely parked.
Located within a day's drive from the most densely populated part of the country, Acadia receives 3.5 million visits each year and, sometimes, there just isn't room for everyone on a given day.
"Well, for example, at Cadillac Mountain, which is one of the key destinations here in Acadia, we have 155 parking spaces at the top of the mountain, and on a busy day, we can have as many 400, 500, even 600 cars vying for one of those parking spaces," says Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider.
And as vehicles wait for spots to open up, Schneider says the area can become choked with cars so that no one is able to get through — including emergency responders. It was an especially challenging problem July 5 this summer. That was the park's busiest day ever, with more than 750 calls for assistance and at least 20 emergencies.
Dangerous congestion last summer also led park officials to close the road more than 50 times, which meant visitors were denied one of the park's most iconic views.
"You know, that's not the kind of experience we want to be able to provide our visitors," Schneider says.
Acadia has seen a 59 percent increase in visits over the last ten years, says Schneider, and a lot of those people are driving into the park.
To try to reduce the traffic, Acadia adopted a new transportation plan which has yet to be implemented. It includes a reservations-only parking system for some of Acadia's busiest spots during the summer months. That plan has drawn fire from some local residents who fear that they won't get a chance to visit some of their favorite places in their own backyards — such as Cadillac, Sand Beach or Jordan Pond.
Another part of the plan includes more public transportation options. But for that to be successful, park supporters say a cultural shift in attitude may be necessary.
"My generation definitely has a love affair with the car, right? And its national parks. Those two things are very much tied up with what it means to be a baby boomer," says David MacDonald.
MacDonald grew up locally and has been coming to the park since he was a child. Now he is president of the nonprofit Friends of Acadia, which works to raise funds to support the park. It took a shift in thinking, but MacDonald says he has started to ride the free Island Explorer bus, and others may also be willing to do the same.
"Kids who are in their teens and twenties, they don't have that same attachment to owning their own private vehicle,” he says. “International visitors do not have that. I suspect that as visitation grows, if it grows, it's going to be more of those younger folks, international visitors, and those of us who are more old school traditional, yes we have to adjust our ways."
After driving around the park, visitors often head to Bar Harbor for meals and shopping, creating congestion there as well, but supporting hundreds of businesses in the process. This summer, there's a new paid parking system in town. Cones, ropes and signs threatening to tow vehicles have also sprung up. And there are now security personnel checking cars at the local supermarket parking lot.
Originally from South Carolina, Glenn Tucker was drawn to the area by its natural beauty.
He runs Acadia Bike and Coastal Kayak downtown where he rents gear to visitors. He acknowledges that congestion is a problem inside and outside the park, but he says it's essential that the area remain open and welcoming by offering other ways to see the park: arriving by cruise ship, for example, booking small personalized tours, biking, or taking the Island Explorer bus. And he says it's not just a Maine thing; other parks and park towns also face the same challenges.
"This is a typical gateway town,” Tucker says. “In fact I was in Jackson, Wyoming a couple of years ago, and I looked around and I said ‘This is Bar Harbor — it's just antlers and cowboys, rather than lobsters. So there are attractions here and it's a small area. And I don't know what the tipping point is. And I'm not sure the park service knows what the tipping point is.”
But when you do take that great American road trip? They're really hoping it's the sea, the mountains and the moose you remember — not the parking lot.
Originally published 4:59 p.m. July 31, 2019