Note: November also marked a new high in visits for Acadia National Park. Statistics, reported by the NPS after publication of this story, show 76,251 visits in November, up 66 percent from 2019. The total for 2020 through November is 2.65 million, down 23 percent from 2019.
Visits skyrocketed in October at Acadia National Park, clogging the park with a record amount of traffic fueled by an unusually younger crowd with time to spend and an apparent hunger for the outdoors during the pandemic.
While visits to the entire park rose by 10 percent in October, visits to the Mount Desert Island section of the park , jumped to 450,675, up by an eye-popping 27 percent from the same month in 2019, despite the loss of cruise ship passengers from Bar Harbor, according to the National Park Service. Sixty thousand vehicles entered the park at Sand Beach in October at Acadia, the highest-ever count for the month in records going back to 1990, an NPS report said.
The surge of people in October at Acadia means the park is on pace to log more than 2.6 million visits for 2020, or about 800,000 less than 2019 with 3.43 million visits, and about 900,000 less than the 3.53 million that set a visitation record in 2018. Travel restrictions in Maine helped reduce visits to Acadia early in the season, and the total for the year is set to drop to its lowest in about five years, but with the reduction still much less than initially expected.
Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider said October typically attracts a lot of newlyweds and retirees to the park. This year during the pandemic, the newlyweds still came, but there were fewer retirees, he added.
Younger people dominated the crowds in October at Acadia
“We saw a different demographic of visitors this year that skewed much younger, maybe college kids that were taking courses online or not in school for the semester,” Schneider told the Bar Harbor Town Council during an online meeting in November. “We saw a lot more pressure for the Beehive and Precipice, kind of the signature trails that skew to a younger crowd.”
The NPS statistics for October show that total recreation visits in Acadia – even with the loss of commercial bus passengers, including those from cruise ships, and the Island Explorer – rose over the same month in 2019 for the first time this season.
Visits to all parts of Acadia plummeted by 59 percent in June, 35 percent in July, 10 percent in August and 17 percent in September, NPS statistics said.
Visits to all parts of Acadia totaled 480,859 in October, up from 436,194 in 2019 when passengers from cruise ships boosted the numbers and just a little less than the record for the month set in 2017. No cruise ships sailed during the pandemic, but travelers on the big ships constituted about 8.5 percent of visitors to the park in September and October 2016, according to the park’s transportation plan.
Visits to the Schoodic Peninsula, the only part of the park on the mainland, fell by more than 5 percent in October, while Isle au Haut was down 73 percent for the month.
Traffic congestion grows after Island Explorer shuttle buses grounded
People on social media have said the park seemed as crowded as ever later in the season of the pandemic – and the traffic counts and other statistics corroborate their observations. In August, for example, visits to the MDI section of Acadia increased by 2 percent over August of 2019.
Schneider said there were more private cars in the park after the pandemic prompted the closure of the Island Explorer, the park’s fare-free shuttle system. The shuttle is expected to operate again next year, maybe at a reduced capacity.
The grounding of the shuttle buses contributed to traffic problems during the park’s pilot for a vehicle reservation system in October at Acadia at the Sand Beach Entrance Station. In the wake of criticism over the traffic congestion, the park decided to delay implementation of the reservations system at Sand Beach until no earlier than 2022, but will move forward with vehicle reservations at Cadillac Mountain for the 2021 season and maybe hold another pilot in 2021 for the big Jordan Pond parking lot, also often snarled by traffic.
Number of vehicles race to record high in October at Acadia
According to traffic counts at Sand Beach, the number of vehicles in October increased by more than 25 percent over 2019, when 47,346 vehicles were counted in October.
In August, the Sand Beach traffic counter tallied 77,397 vehicles, up from 75,542 for the same month in 2019.
Acadia suspended visitor services and closed facilities at the end of March, while leaving hiking trails open during the pandemic. Acadia opened the Park Loop Road and other services on June 1, but out of state visitors remained stymied by travel restrictions.
Visits began to increase when Gov. Janet Mills, starting on the July 4 weekend, exempted New York, New Jersey and Connecticut from having to quarantine for 14 days or test negative. Mills removed the exemptions for those states on Nov. 1 when virus rates increased again.
Massachusetts was exempted on Sept. 23, but the restrictions for Bay State travelers were reinstated on Nov. 16.
As one measure of the effect of travel restrictions, look at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which usually attracts about the same number of yearly visits as Acadia. Grand Teton, located in a state with no restrictions for US travelers, recorded 4.2 million visits through October of 2020, well above the 3.4 million for the Wyoming national park for all of 2019.