Acadia National Park saw a sharp drop in visits in June, but crowds are steadily returning to Acadia during the pandemic, with rescues of hikers and recent closures to relieve traffic on Cadillac underlining plans for a dry run of a vehicle reservation system in October, Superintendent Kevin Scheider said this week.
The test of the reservation system, announced before the pandemic struck, is scheduled for Oct. 1 to Oct. 18 and will require people to make reservations to drive and park at two locations – Cadillac Mountain and past the Sand Beach Entrance Station to Ocean Drive and Sand Beach, Schneider said.
“With the pandemic in many respects I think it is going to be an even better year to do it,” Schneider said.
He said several other parks are using reservation systems this summer during the pandemic. To manage congestion, prevent crowding and achieve social distancing, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks started vehicle reservation systems and Zion National Park is requiring new tickets on shuttles.
To access those two areas in Acadia during the dry run, the park will soon release information about how people can make reservations at recreation.gov, the same online system currently used for reservations at National Park Service campgrounds and vehicle reservation systems at other parks, he said.
During a “Community COVID-19 Forum,” a Zoom webinar by the town of Bar Harbor, Schneider said online entrance pass sales have doubled this year for Acadia. He also discussed the closed Blackwoods and Schoodic Woods campgrounds, which on Wednesday were declared shut down by the NPS for all of 2020, dashing hopes they could open as early as Aug. 1.
The park’s two other campgrounds, Seawall and Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut, were earlier announced as not opening this year. As a reason, Schneider referred to the park’s shortage of custodians to clean bathrooms and the large number of people who share a bathroom at a campground.
More visitors arriving each week at Acadia during the pandemic
Schneider said visits to Acadia dropped by 59 percent in June compared to June 2019, but July is busier. Schneider cited revenue from Acadia entrance fees, which dropped only 37 percent so far in July compared to the same period in 2019, and recent search and rescues for injured hikers.
“Visitation is definitely ticking up, literally week by week,” Schneider said.
Cadillac has closed three times in the last couple of weeks for traffic congestion, twice at sunset on July 15 and July 24 and once on July 21 to respond to a single-car accident, according to statistics provided by Christie Anastasia, media relations specialist at Acadia. In the July 24 closure, a little more than 100 vehicles were turned away.
The entrance to Bass Harbor Head Light Station was closed because of congestion on July 3.
On a recent Saturday, vehicles waited as long as 20 minutes to drive into the park at the Sand Beach Entrance Station, Schneider added.
In an email, Anastasia wrote that park rangers have helped on numerous rescues over the past couple of weeks including incidents on the Great Head Trail, the Beehive and the west face of Pemetic Mountain.
According to the Facebook page of the nonprofit MDI Search & Rescue, volunteers helped carry out a woman with a head injury off Pemetic Mountain on Saturday, July 25. Ten members of the all-volunteer group responded to what became a complex 3.5-hour technical rescue and litter carry on steep terrain off Acadia’s fourth highest peak, the group reported.
At the same time, a 40-year-old woman suffered from heat stroke on the Amphitheater Trail, which leads to Cedar Swamp Mountain. The woman was able to walk out with assistance from park staff.
In another recent incident, a 43-year-old man needed CPR in the field on a carriage road in Acadia. He was transported to the Mount Desert Island Hospital and was breathing and conscious through great teamwork with paramedics from the Bar Harbor Fire Department, according to Anastasia.
Anastasia wrote that MDI Search & Rescue gets a “big shout out,” especially for rescues during a time of COVID-19.
Acadia during the pandemic: No Island Explorer, more traffic
With service on the Island Explorer, the park’s fare-free shuttle system, indefinitely postponed this year due to the pandemic, there is more traffic and congestion in the park, Schneider said.
The park’s reservation system was approved last year as part of a comprehensive transportation plan to manage traffic congestion in the park and prevent illegal parking along roads.
The 18-day run-through in October will help the park prepare for operating the vehicle reservation system at those same two locations, Cadillac and the Sand Beach area, for a full visitor season for 2021.
“It is going to give us some important information that will help us understand how we implement this into the future,” said Schneider. “What level of staffing do we need? How do we best communicate this?”
Schneider appeared on the Bar Harbor Zoom forum with other local leaders including Chrissi Maguire-Harding, CFO and COO and incoming CEO at Mount Desert Island Hospital; Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce; Matthew Hochman, vice chair of the Bar Harbor Town Council; Cornell Knight, town manager for Bar Harbor; Marc Gousse, superintendent of schools for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System; and Elsie Flemings, a member of the Downeast COVID-19 Task Force. Nina St.Germain, engagement coordinator for the town of Bar Harbor, moderated the event.
Maine quarantine order hitting tourism on Mount Desert Island
Schneider said he realizes how difficult the pandemic has been for the community with the tourism industry hit particularly hard.
Tourism was damaged in Maine this year after Gov. Janet Mills required people to quarantine for 14 days or obtain a negative test in order to stay in lodging. People from five states, including Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, are exempt from the Maine quarantine order and tests.
Maine’s quarantine order does encourage people to leave a quarantine for “outdoor exercise activities, such as swimming, hiking, provided that you abide by physical distancing guidelines and avoid contact with other people.” The Maine Office of Tourism also says people can enjoy a drive or get takeout or delivered food during a quarantine. Gov. Mills’s updated FAQ also addresses when masks should be worn.
“Everyone at the park is working incredibly hard to provide the most access to the most people,” Anastasia added in her email. “Outdoor spaces like Acadia are critical for our communities and visitors during times like these. The balance of providing access and keeping our employees, local communities and visitors safe is extremely important to us.”
Schneider said he was also pleased that online entrance pass sales have doubled over last year at Acadia during the pandemic. “More visitors are buying their pass online, which we really pushed this year, so it is great to see people picking up on that,” he said.
Interestingly, he said that annual entrance pass sales to Acadia in July are almost even with annual entrance pass sales for the same month last year. As a percent of overall pass sales, the annual pass is up significantly for the month this year.
“Maybe that means people are tending to stay here for several weeks or months, something beyond the 7-day pass which is usually the No. 1 sales item,” he said.
Schneider said Acadia headquarters is still closed to the public, but most staff are out in the field serving visitors such as the outdoors information booths at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and the Sieur de Monts Nature Center.
Among the scheduled ranger-led programs available this pandemic summer, which you can learn about from rangers at the information booths or on the park website: “Missing Mansion,” a tour of the ruins of the family home of George B. Dorr, the “father of Acadia”; “Acadia’s Night Sky,” “Owl Prowl,” “Mr. Rockefeller’s Bridges” and “Acadia’s Plants.”
Some Acadia staff working from home for safety
“People like me who can telework still are teleworking by and large. I may be in the office here one or two days a week at most. We are encouraging people who can telework to continue to telework.”
Because of a reduction in the density in employee housing during the pandemic, some park programs did not hire the number of people they expected this season, he said.
Normally, about 80 employees reside in park housing, but only 38 employees are in NPS housing this year, he said. The park wanted to make sure that employees had a private bathroom during the pandemic, he said. In a normal year, employees might get a private bedroom, but all would have to share a bathroom, he added.
Unfortunately, at a time when Acadia needs cleaning help more than ever, the park has fewer custodians this year, he said. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, custodians are doubling efforts at cleaning restrooms in the park, he said.
Private campgrounds are open during the pandemic in Maine
Although Acadia campgrounds won’t open, Schneider said the good news is that private campgrounds, including about 10 on Mount Desert Island, several near Ellsworth and two on Schoodic Peninsula, are open and have done a great job of picking up the slack. “I think it is a great opportunity for those private businesses to try to essentially stay alive during a challenging time.”
In answering a question about whether other national parks are seeing similar declines in visits as Acadia, he said he was still watching trends unfold, but he referred to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Grant Teton has about 3.4 million visits a year, same as Acadia, but Wyoming has no travel restrictions for US tourists.
Grand Teton’s visits in June dropped by 25 percent, less than half of Acadia’s 59 percent decline for the month, according to the National Park Service. Visits at Grand Teton in July may also decline less than Acadia’s, Schneider added, referring to an article in National Geographic that reported on suring tourism in Jackson Hole, gateway to the Tetons.
“Every park is doing something a little bit different right now,” Schneider said. “They are seeing a little bit different circumstances in their communities and their states.”
Schneider said he agreed with other panelists that coronavirus “will be with us for a long time,” but he said he was “bullish” about the years ahead.
“Places like Acadia are going to be the first places to bounce back from a tourism standpoint,” said Schneider. “I think that long term we will get back, we will bounce back.”
“People are going to feel safe getting in their cars and going to a predominantly outdoor destination …. It is going to take probably a vaccine for people to feel 100 percent comfortable in getting out again but I am bullish on our future.”
Editor’s note: Correction in fourth paragraph to say “Rocky Mountain” has vehicle reservation system. The original story inaccurately said Yellowstone had the system.