Reopening the historic vistas of Acadia National Park

UPDATE 12/11/14: Added links to Acadia National Park Service page showing all historic views being restored, and new Friends of Acadia article on the project, at bottom of article.

For the first time in years, there’s once again a spectacular view at Schooner Head Overlook in Acadia National Park, out toward Egg Rock and its lighthouse, and across Frenchman Bay to Schoodic Peninsula.

Schooner Head Overlook view blocked

BEFORE – This was one of up to 100 trees blocking the view from Schooner Head Overlook.

On a recent Monday, with chainsaw in hand, Charlie Sanborn took down one of the last of the up to 100 trees blocking that easterly view. As he, Earl Smith, Ryan Meddaugh and Curtis Emerson, all part of the Acadia road maintenance crew, wrapped up for the afternoon, they stepped back and admired their handiwork.

Schooner Head Overlook panoramic view

AFTER – Taken from the same exact spot as the “before” picture, under partly sunny skies the following day, with the now-open view to Egg Rock and its lighthouse, and across Frenchman Bay to Schoodic Peninsula.

“It’s been a long time” since the view was visible, said Sanborn. “You couldn’t see the lighthouse before,” said Smith. The crew returned the next day to expand the vista toward Champlain’s Precipice, at the western end of the overlook parking lot.

Opening back up the panorama from Schooner Head Overlook is part of a grand plan to rehabilitate 30 historic vistas along the Park Loop Road, existing pull-outs and parking lots, according to Robert Page, director of the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Boston, part of the National Park Service.

Over the past few years, the Olmsted Center and Acadia National Park staff have matched up historic 1961 pen and ink drawings of views along the park’s road system with GPS data, to identify what once was, and to try to recreate it again, according to Page, who wrote a guest column in the Aug. 28 issue of the Mount Desert Islander on the vista management project, entitled “Taking the long view in Acadia.”

Preventing Acadia’s version of “bear jams”

Many of the historic views along Acadia’s road system, built between 1922 and 1958, have grown in, leading to what perhaps could be called “vista jams,” when visitors try to squeeze in a peek at fewer available viewpoints during busy summer or peak foliage weekends. That would be Acadia’s version of the “bear jams” in western national parks.

Lessening those bottlenecks, as well as reopening historic vistas in time for the National Park Service and Acadia Centennial in 2016, are among the reasons for the vista management project, according to Page. Trees and shrubs are being cut in the smallest area possible to bring the views back to their former expansiveness.

Schooner Head Overlook

Charlie Sanborn, with chainsaw in hand, right, removes a tree from Schooner Head Overlook, as Earl Smith, left, looks on. They and fellow Acadia road maintenance crew members Ryan Meddaugh and Curtis Emerson recently reopened the historic vista.

Referring to modern-day photos, taken while leaves were just coming in during the spring or fully formed in the midst of summer, and using GPS data, sight lines and evidence of old cut lines, Olmsted and Acadia staff members have been meticulously working on recreating the historic vistas. For instance, Jeffrey Killion, historical landscape architect for the Olmsted Center, has drawn maps of views to be reopened, overlaying GPS and topographic data on top of satellite images.

As the Acadia road maintenance crew was wrapping up the other day at Schooner Head Overlook, Smith said that the reopening of historic vistas has already been completed on Paradise Hill Road, at the Frenchman Bay Overlook, the Fire of ’47 Overlook and the West Street Overlook, all along the Park Loop Road.

With the Schooner Head Overlook finished, Smith said, “only 25 more to go” to complete the 30 views on the Olmsted and Acadia priority list.

Another factor entering into which views to open up, according to Page of the Olmsted Center: Whether they are of some of the more popular visitor destinations.

Bubble Rock vista to be reopened

Acadia National Park crew measures where the historic view of Bubble Rock will be reopened on the right, along the Park Loop Road. (NPS photo)

For example, one 245-foot long stretch of the Park Loop Road, between the Jordan Pond House and Bubble Rock parking lots, once offered a vista of Bubble Rock high up on South Bubble. Modern-day photos taken as part of the project show a dense line of trees along that stretch so that anyone driving, walking or bicycling wouldn’t know the precariously perched glacial erratic was once visible from the road.

We drove along that part of the Park Loop Road recently, straining to see Bubble Rock through the trees, but no luck.

Next time we take that road, we hope to get the panoramic view up toward Bubble Rock, just as in the days of old.

UPDATE 12/11/14

Links of interest on this project since this post was first published:

Friends of Acadia historic vista article

Acadia National Park’s page on historic vistas, including map and photos