What Acadia National Park Plans To Do About Chronic Congestion

Jul 25, 2019

Acadia National Park is seeing some record breaking attendance numbers this summer. With that comes significant congestion at the park.

Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz to discuss the park’s long-term plans.

Gratz: This year in the park racked up its busiest day ever, approximately 35,000 people visiting on July 5. What has it been like around Acadia with so many visitors?

Schneider: Well, Acadia is one of the beloved national parks in the United States. And we’re really fortunate, this is a good challenge to have. We want to make sure that people have a phenomenal experience when they’re at Acadia, and we also want to make sure that we preserve the fabric that makes this place so special, that makes people want to return here year after year.

Do you have a sense as to why attendance keeps going up at the park?

We live within a day’s drive of 80 million people. And this is one of the crown jewel national parks in the United States. So I am not surprised to see our visitation continue to climb — it is at other iconic national parks in the United States as well.

On that July 5, apparently 600 cars tried to drive up to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, how were you handling traffic like that?

We have only 155 parking spaces at the summit of Cadillac Mountain. So obviously, you can’t have 600 cars vying for 155 parking spaces. So on July 5, we had to close Cadillac Mountain on three different occasions to uphill traffic for between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, which allows traffic to unclog. One of the challenges is if someone, for example, needed a rescue at the summit of Cadillac, or needed an AED [automated external defibrillator], our rangers wouldn’t be able to respond when there’s 600 cars on the summit of that mountain. It’s just an impossible situation and compromises the safety of our visitors.

Are the Island Explorer buses helping?

Island Explorer buses are a great way to see Acadia, and last year, they carried more than 600,000 passengers. So they are a really important part of our solution both today and into the future.

Let’s talk about that future. What kinds of steps you envision Acadia needs to take in order to ease congestion on its roads, and perhaps at its more popular tourist sites as well?

In May of this year, we completed a long-range transportation planning process. We’re looking at expanding park-and-ride availability, where visitors can hop on the bus and get to their location in Acadia. We’re looking at moving to smaller size touring vehicles and eliminating the large motor coaches that really don’t fit within the roadways in the park. We’re looking at things like vehicle reservations, so that you would have the certainty of knowing you can find a place to park at Cadillac Mountain or at Jordan Pond, and that you wouldn’t have to be surprised by finding the road closed when you’re trying to get to those locations.

What kind of funding will you need to do some of these things? And where will that come from?

There are many different sources of funding that we will look at, like the construction of a new visitor center or the gateway center. We’re looking at potential partnerships to do those kinds of things. Things like a reservation system would probably have a reservation fee associated with it. Other things we can use our entrance fee revenue to fund, so it’s really a variety of different sources that we would be looking at.

You mentioned at the outset that the rising number of visitors is actually a good problem to have. I’m curious what you think having so many visitors does to the park experience.

You can have a phenomenal experience at Acadia National Park, even on July 5, when it was so busy. You just have to know how to navigate, where to go, and then have the expectations set so that you’re not surprised. We want to make sure that the park is accessible to all Americans. The park plays a very important role in the state and in the regional economy. And you can get to your own quiet moment in Acadia, even when we’re really, really busy. You just have to know where to go.

There is a potential public safety issue to consider with all of this as well, correct?

That’s right, we want to be able to make sure that our rangers can respond in emergencies. For example, on July 5, we had four rescues happening simultaneously in the park. And we were confronted with that, plus all of this congestion, and it really taxes our staff. We have some great partners, like Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue crew, the Maine Forest Service, our local police and fire departments and ambulance departments that assist when those kind of circumstances arise.

Well, this summer isn’t over. What message do you have for people who are still planning a visit to Acadia before the summer season ends?

Stop in at a visitors center and talk to ranger. Understand how to visit the park in a way that will be a positive experience. Ride the Island Explorer bus, you can take it right from your hotel to get to key destinations in the park. And really just take the time to do a little bit of planning, have some alternatives in mind and you’ll have a great visit.