Acadia National Park’s test drive of a vehicle reservation system for the spectacular Ocean Drive and Sand Beach area caused so many problems last month – one town official called it a “nightmare” – that it’s being postponed to 2022 at the earliest.
In the wake of the criticism, Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider is scheduled to update the Bar Harbor Town Council on the park’s transportation plan during a videoconference meeting of the council on Tuesday, Nov. 17. The meeting is open to the public via local cable TV or live streaming on the town’s web site.
Acadia still intends to require reservations next year to drive up Cadillac Mountain, another aspect of the test drive that ran from Oct. 1 to 18, but the part of the vehicle reservation system providing access to the spectacular two-mile Ocean Drive and Sand Beach area won’t go into effect in 2021 as originally planned.
Matthew Hochman, vice chair of the Bar Harbor Town Council, said in a Facebook message that the reservation system for Cadillac Mountain overall worked well, but the Ocean Drive part of the trial run was “a nightmare” and caused more problems than it solved, especially along Schooner Head Overlook and a residential street near the Sand Beach Entrance Station.
“Schooner Head Road was a nightmare,” Hochman wrote, adding it was his personal opinion. “I was out there one day and the section from the overlook back towards the Great Head parking was impassable, there were so many cars.”
This month, more than 20 park staff and consultants met virtually to reach agreement on a vehicle reservation system for 2021 that dropped longtime plans to include Ocean Drive and Sand Beach.
Poor cell phone coverage, traffic among issues to be addressed
Christie Anastasia, public affairs specialist at Acadia National Park, stated that one reason for the decision is that visitors during the pilot could not access their cell phones to verify their reservations at the Sand Beach Entrance Station because of a lack of cell coverage.
Acadia’s online system for making a reservation during the pilot said people needed to have a printed or digital copy of their vehicle reservation available to be scanned to enter a reservation area. That’s unlike a required separate park entrance pass that can be purchased online but needs to then be printed to be displayed on a windshield while in the park. People did not need to display a paper reservation while at Sand Beach or Cadillac during the pilot.
“The pilot was a huge success because we learned so much,” Anastasia added. “One of the things we learned is we have more work to do for Ocean Drive to make it as successful as it can be.”
The Sand Beach entrance station is the checkpoint for a one-way section of the Park Loop Road called Ocean Drive that includes the beach, Thunder Hole, and trailheads for Ocean Path, Beehive, Gorham Mountain and Great Head. The pilot showed the park needs to improve technology for cell phones at the entrance, Anastasia wrote in an email.
“The vehicle reservation needed to get past the Sand Beach Entrance Station and have access to Ocean Drive will be delayed at least a year,” she wrote. “We will focus on running the reservation system at Cadillac Summit Road next year.”
Acadia is offering a new web page to update people on planning for vehicle reservations in 2021.
Acadia, the seventh most visited National Park in 2019 with 3.4 million visits, joined Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks in operating vehicle reservation systems this year during the pandemic.
Because of illegal parking and vehicle tieups, Acadia National Park rangers in recent years have often closed the summit road to Cadillac Mountain to incoming vehicles because of traffic congestion, including 54 times in 2018 and 58 times in 2019.
More cars in park with absence of shuttle bus during pandemic
Anastasia also cited the absence this year of the Island Explorer, Acadia’s fare-free shuttle system, that carried a record 643,000 passengers in 2019. The shuttle buses, with each carrying up to 43 passengers, are vital for transporting visitors to Sand Beach and nearby stops, but it does not go to Cadillac. The bus system, which never operated this year because of the pandemic, could have increased access and helped free up more parking along Ocean Drive during the pilot.
“At Sand Beach Entrance, one of the things highlighted by the pilot was the importance of the Island Explorer bus system,” Anastasia wrote. “We hope to run the Island Explorer next year, however, COVID may require us to limit the number of passengers that can be on the bus.”
During the pilot, vehicle reservations were needed from 4:30 am to 6:30 pm for the summit road at Cadillac Mountain and from 7 am to 5 pm to get past the Sand Beach Entrance Station.
Hochman, vice chair of the Bar Harbor Town Council, wrote, “I think there will need to be some major adjustments before they can implement the Sand Beach portion of the plan.”
Vehicle reservation system created traffic stress in other areas
Instead of reducing parking and congestion, the reservation system for Ocean Drive shifted the traffic issues to other areas in the park, Hochman wrote, such as the Sieur de Monts area, the Schooner Head Overlook near the Sand Beach entrance station and Great Head parking.
One visitor, Rob Neitz, who used a reservation for Ocean Drive over the Indigenous Peoples’ holiday weekend and vacations in Acadia each year with his wife and their two boys, said it makes sense for Acadia to drop plans for a reservation system for the one-way Ocean Drive.
“I’m very pleased,” said Neitz, manager of the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, a state park in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. ”It’s a good common-sense compromise.”
He said the Ocean Drive reservation eliminates freedom to pursue different activities during a day. “We would regularly come in to the park for a hike, then leave for lunch and then come back in for some other type of activity,” he said. “The reservation system and the nature of a one-way road make it very difficult to be flexible, which is key to a successful family vacation with kids.”
He said he supports vehicle reservations for the summit of Cadillac, which is a singular destination with one road to the top.
Acadia eyes reservations for Jordan Pond and Bass Harbor Head
Acadia National Park is also considering a reservation system for the big parking lot at Jordan Pond, but no earlier than 2022.
“We know other areas of the park regularly experience congestion. We will be continuing conversations related to those areas such as Jordan Pond area and Bass Harbor Head Light Station, among others,” Anastasia stated.
The park has planned to operate the reservation system at Cadillac between June 23 and the second Monday in October in 2021. The vehicle reservation fee was $2 this year in addition to a pass to enter the park.
“We know national parks and outdoor areas have experienced huge popularity during this pandemic as people seek areas to be healthy and to spend time with friends and family. We want everyone to have a safe, enjoyable, and memorable trip to their national park. We want people to have choices about how they want to visit their park: bus tours, private vehicles, bicycles, hiking, and public transportation like the Island Explorer,” Anastasia stated.