A trial run of the Acadia National Park vehicle reservation system received mixed reactions from visitors, with some cheering the new requirement for reducing traffic congestion and making it easier to access Cadillac and Sand Beach and others criticizing it as too heavy-handed.
Under the pilot, which started Oct.1 and ends Sunday, Oct. 18, vehicle reservations were required from 4:30 am to 6:30 pm for the summit road at Cadillac Mountain and from 7 am to 5 pm for the Sand Beach Entrance including access to Sand Beach, Thunder Hole and other spots along a two-mile section of the Park Loop Road.
The vehicle reservation system faced intense pressure over the Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend when some of the biggest crowds of the season descended on Acadia during sunny days on Saturday and Sunday, clogging some areas of the park. Acadia sold more than 4,000 vehicle reservations on one day alone over the weekend, according to a park spokesperson.
People with reservations praised the system because it shrunk the time to enter Sand Beach Entrance Station and the Cadillac Summit Road and took the edge off finding parking.
Visitors with reservations sail through Sand Beach entrance
Along Ocean Path on Sunday, Bob and Ann Neitz of Emmaus, Pa. said it was very easy to enter the Sand Beach area at 10 am with a reservation. Ann Neitz said she can see how the reservation system will help with parking and help relieve tensions among motorists.
“You don’t have the long lines,” said Ann Neitz.
Christie Anastasia, public affairs specialist for Acadia National Park, wrote in an email that she did not have full data on queueing lengths, but even with all the holiday traffic, the lines for Cadillac Summit Road never were especially long with limited queuing on the northern approach from Bar Harbor.
There also were no closures of the Cadiillac summit road or the Sand Beach entrance, she told us.
“And everyone who arrived with a vehicle reservation knew with certainty that they would arrive and be able to park their car and enjoy the day,” Anastasia wrote. “And, if we needed to assist a visitor who was injured, our emergency vehicles had access since the traffic remained free-flowing.”
Despite widespread publicity and public outreach by the National Park Service, some people were unaware they needed a reservation and were denied entrance to Sand Beach or 1,530-foot Cadillac, the highest point on the US east coast.
Bill and Sue Woodrow of Belfast, Maine, who have visited Acadia regularly for years, said they did not know about the reservation system until they arrived on Sunday. They said they were disappointed when they were turned away at the new entrance station in front of Cadillac Mountain when they tried to drive up the summit road with friends from out of state.
“We came to show off our beautiful Cadillac and we literally were humiliated,” said Bill Woodrow at Otter Point, a coastal area that does not require a reservation. “Why practice on us?”
Vehicle reservation system surprises some
Mike Fitzpatrick, a mason at Acadia National Park who worked as a traffic assistant near the entrance station to Sand Beach and directed hundreds of drivers, said probably about 20 to 30 percent of motorists that he greeted did not have reservations, but the rest did and were pretty happy about it.
To help avoid traffic tie-ups around the corner at the Sand Beach Entrance Station, Fitzpatrick, standing near a stop sign at the corner of Schooner Head Road, would ask motorists if they had a reservation. He would tell them to take a left away from the entrance station, into the Schooner Head Overlook parking lot, if they did not have one, and a right toward the station if they did.
“All things considered, it’s going relatively smoothly,” said Fitzpatrick, who worked a half day Monday and nine hours Sunday. “It’s done pretty well. You have a few irritated people, but that’s to be expected.”
Reservations are big change for Acadia and visitors
The October vehicle reservation system is intended to provide lessons for the park ahead of plans to implement the system for a full season in 2021 at Cadillac and the Sand Beach area. Jordan Pond was not part of the trial run, but the big North lot is often full by late morning on a sunny weekend day andis frequently plagued with traffic on a nice weekend day.
Due to that kind of congestion, the Jordan Pond area is slated to be considered for vehicle reservations sometime in the future, Anastasia told us.
After leaving the Jordan Pond lot, Constance Mensink of Bar Harbor said she became stuck in gridlock traffic on Saturday on the two-way section of the Park Loop Road with vehicles bumper to bumper between the Bubble Pond parking lot and Cadillac Summit Road.
Mensink said some local residents are critical of the reservation system because they are used to driving to Cadillac without restrictions and won’t have that luxury in the future. “Locals now don’t have access to the park any more,” Mensink said.
Pilot to provide many lessons about vehicle reservation system
Eric Hendrickson of Minneapolis, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said he has visited Acadia so many times that he thought he could just go to the park this year in the same way he has in the past with no need for a vehicle reservation.
When he read the park’s web site, it stated that a reservation was necessary for the Sand Beach Entrance Station and did not specify that reservation included all of Ocean Drive and sites past the beach such as Thunder Hole and Otter Cliffs, he said.
While standing along Ocean Path on Sunday, Hendrickson said he did not like using the reservation system. “I just found it one big royal pain in the butt,” he said.
Anastasia, public affairs specialist for Acadia National Park, said she knows some people were confused despite the park’s best efforts to communicate the areas that could be accessed with a reservation.
In an email, Anastasia wrote that the pilot is being held for the park to learn as many aspects as possible about vehicle reservations. Among numerous other lessons, the park learned that many people believed that a reservation for “Sand Beach Entrance” meant that a reservation was only needed for the Sand Beach parking lot.
She forwarded images from the park’s social media, web pages and recreation.gov that stated a reservation for the Sand Beach Entrance Station included access to Sand Beach, as well as Thunder Hole and trailheads for Ocean Path, Beehive, Gorham Mountain and Great Head along a section of the Park Loop Road known as Ocean Drive.
“The park has not finished the pilot and we have not met as a team to fully harvest the learnings,” Anastasia wrote when asked about any other lessons from the pilot.
Acadia National Park vehicle reservation system fee faces criticism
Reservations during the trial cost $2 apiece for a vehicle and have to be purchased in advance on the Internet at recreation.gov. The administrative fee is in addition to a regular $30 weekly pass or $55 annual pass for a vehicle.
Another Maine resident, Brett Johnson, an information systems administrator from Hudson, said he purchased an annual pass so he could hop in the car and visit the only National Park in the Northeast whenever he wants. He said he understands the reasons for the reservation system but he opposes the reservation fee on principle since he already has an annual pass.
“To have another fee slapped on top for locals is kind of insulting,” Johnson said in a phone interview.
Reservations are not needed to use areas of the park other than Cadillac and the Sand Beach area, and hikers and bicyclists do not need reservations at all.
Once people enter a reservation area at their designated time, they can stay as long as they want.
Reservation system launched during COVID-19 pandemic
The National Park Service approved the reservation system as part of its 2019 transportation plan to reduce traffic congestion at Acadia, the seventh “most visited” national park in the country with about 3.4 million visits a year.
The pandemic has cut visits to Acadia so far this year, but visits have risen each month through August, as more people got in their cars and headed for the safety of the outdoors.
People also needed their cars once they arrived, after the pandemic forced cancellation of the Island Explorer, the park’s fare-free shuttle system, that carried more than 640,000 passengers in 2019. The park’s four campgrounds were also closed this season.
As she waited at Schooner Head Overlook parking to use a reservation at the Sand Beach entrance, Amanda Halford, an analyst in Baltimore, said the Acadia reservation system makes sense especially during the pandemic. She said a reservation system helps with overcrowding.
“It’s organized,” she said. “It’s spacing … With COVID, hiking is so popular.”
Halford and Josh Brennan, a benefits analyst in Baltimore, Md.d said they are familiar with online reservations at parks since Maryland has such a requirement for state parks.
Christopher Jones and his wife, Lisa Strobel-Jones of Columbus, Ohio said they booked their reservation three to four weeks ago and drove to the Sand Beach area with no backups at 9:30 am on Sunday. Strobel-Jones said she was surprised at the long line of cars parked in the right lane of the one-way section of the loop road, but the couple turned into a parking lot and it was three-quarters empty.
Christopher Jones said he likes the reservation system partly because he likes to plan ahead.
“I felt like I could park closer to where I want to start my day,” he said.
Vermont residents Emily Harwood and Ryan Sengebush, who were planning to use ropes to climb Otter Cliff, said they had a reservation for Thursday for the Sand Beach area and then returned on Sunday to access the cliff from an area that did not require a reservation.
“We got the lay of the land and we came back to do more at our own pace,” said Harwood, who said she supports the reservation system.
“I think it is a good idea for the park to try to minimize impact of people on natural spots and also allow people to enjoy it,” she said.
Vehicle reservations guarantee a parking spot for visitors
Starting Aug. 4 on recreation.gov in order to help long-term planners, 40 percent of all vehicle reservations were released in advance for each day of the pilot, according to Anastasia, the park’s public relations specialist.
The remaining 60 percent are released at 10 am each day two days prior to a reservation. That helps people with spontaneous or fluid plans, she wrote.
As an example of sales, on Sunday, Oct. 11, she stated, more than 4,000 vehicle reservations were purchased including 150 vehicle reservations for sunrise at Cadillac between 4:30 and 7 am, plus 1,340 vehicle reservations for Cadillac Summit Road between 7 am and 6:30 pm and 2,740 for the Sand Beach Entrance Station.
“I don’t have the full data on queuing line lengths, but I know we have not needed to shut down the Park Loop Road Sand Beach Entrance or the Cadillac Summit Road during the pilot due to congestion,” she wrote.
In recent years, because of traffic jams, the park has temporarily closed the Cadillac summit road and access roads to other attractions such as Bass Harbor Head Light or Sand Beach. Traffic shut Cadillac and other spots 105 times in 2019.
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I read about the reservation system in advance and when it was being implemented. I visited the park 10-17 October and played it safe doing a reservation for Sand Beach at 0700 even though I did not use it. As a serious hobby, photography, I always plan on arriving about an 1.5 to 1 hour before sunrise so I was able to get into Sand Beach and Thunder Hole before the NPS folks manned the booths. I understand the need for a reservation system especially during peak months (July to September). I used to visit the park during the summer but stopped because of the crowds and now only visit when its less crowded. Four things I hope for in the future. First, the entrance to Sand Beach parking lot is where the reservation begins so one can continue on the park loop road. Entrance could be left lane only and right lane allowed to continue. Second, I hope the reservation system is not year round but only peak season. I don’t recall reading anything about this but may have missed it. Third, reservation should be free. It’s bad enough the town metered every street in Bar Harbor. Lastly, to help keep the congestion down in the park, don’t let cruise ships dock and flood the town with more people.
Thanks for the comment, Dennis. It’s great you started early and entered free at the Sand Beach entrance. That is a good way to avoid a reservation, plus get the best photos in the morning light. The reservation system will be only peak season — roughly June 20 or so through the holiday weekend in October each year. A reservation costs $2 at Sand Beach and Cadillac and it likely will increase slightly next year; the fee is not going away. Cruise ships are also here to stay — except this year of the pandemic when there are no cruise ships. The park estimates that cruise ship passengers constitute 8.5 percent of visitors to the park in Sept. and Oct and downtown restaurants and other businesses like the foot traffic. The pandemic will also likely continue to hurt the cruise ship industry for at least the next couple of years, so it will be interesting to see the extent of cruise ships when they do return to Bar Harbor.
While I understand that the situation in the park has become untenable in recent years, I hope the park will consider doing something different for locals. The reservation system has made living here a lot less attractive for those of us that moved here for access to the park’s serenity and beauty. I have loved being able to go to the park whenever I want. Also, not mentioned in the article, the reservations system pushed traffic out of the park and into local areas not prepared to deal with so many cars, people, and illegal parking. The Jordan Pond Rd in Seal Harbor was nearly impassable last weekend due to illegal parking. Had an emergency vehicle needed to get through, it would not have. I hope these issue will be considered going forward.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Suzie. You make a good point about whether the reservation system is pushing more people into areas that do not require a reservation such as Schooner Head parking. Jordan Pond is a choke point on any holiday weekend. We were just at the big Jordan Pond lot on a cloudy Friday afternoon and we could not find parking.
Well, we had a not so pleasant surprise at the Sand Beach entrance on Saturday… I had done 4 reservations, 2 for Sand Beach, 2 for Cadillac, 1 each for Sat and Sunday…
Thinking that once you’re in, you’re good for the day…
Well, I had a 10:00 for Sand Beach on Sat, arrived at 11:38.. we were somewhat rudely turned away, “You’re late for your reservation”… and rudely reminded by the Ranger cop afterward on our way to the turn around “It’s like a doctor’s appt, you have to show up on time”..so then I read the details on the reservations of a WINDOW to arrive… foo on me for reading the details… but, given this was a TRIAL, you’d think I’d be allowed some grace for doing the work and paying???? We arrived at Cadillac on Sunday 20 minutes, early, and the young ranger gave me the pass… like don’t sweat the small stuff… Overall, at least got to go up. We weren’t able to last year on that weekend.
Thanks for providing details on your experiences, Joseph. Glad to hear you were cleared to drive the Cadillac summit road on Sunday, even though you arrived 20 minutes early. Another visitor told us she was turned away when she arrived too early and she cautioned us against being early. It’s interesting. Every one who made a reservation has a story.
When we were there with a 9 am reservation for Sand Beach, there was no way we could access the beach as there was no parking available in the lot or for a long stretch of Park Road in the vicinity. Though the reservation system did say it did not guarantee a parking slot, what is the point if it doesn’t. Cadillac Mountain had spaces but was fogged I’m at the time of our reservation. There are probably to many reservations allowed.
Dave — Thanks for this comment on your experiences with the reservation system. It’s a good warning for others that you found the Sand Beach lot full and you arrived so early. A reservation for Sand Beach includes a two-mile-long section of the Park Loop Road, so the park is offering a lot of right-lane parking along that road, but it can mean a walk back to Sand Beach if there are no spots near the beach. We ourselves drove into Sand Beach at 11 am on Sunday and after seeing the “no parking” sign at Sand Beach and a long line of parked cars, we thought we were doomed in our search for parking, but we pulled into the lot across from Thunder Hole and found a spot.