On Ocean Path in Acadia National Park, trails crew supervisor Christian Barter knelt on the ground on a sunny morning in April while he built a new retaining wall, aiming to protect the trail from climate and the relentless pounding of hikers.
“You have to think about every bit of edge along that trail and how you can make it permanent, so that it will hold the surface in between the edges,” said Barter, who started on the Acadia trails crew in 1989 and has been a supervisor for about 23 years. “It is just a matter of going through every spot.”
Work on the historic hiking paths and trails in Acadia is stepping up as the numbers of people on Ocean Path and other trails is set to climb in the months ahead. With Acadia attracting more than 4 million visits in 2021, keeping the trails in shape is an on-going process.
The National Park Service opened the full 27-mile Park Loop Road at Acadia on Friday, including the summit road to Cadillac Mountain, which will require a vehicle reservation starting May 25. The park’s 45-mile carriage road system, which was closed for mud season, reopened to pedestrians on April 12, but not yet to bicyclists or horses.
The opening of the loop road and carriage road system increases access to trailheads and historic hiking paths in Acadia and heralds the start of another tourist season. It’s also the beginning of a busy time for the Acadia trails crew, charged with maintaining and rehabilitating the 155 miles of hiking trails in the first national park east of the Mississippi.
Special recognition and care for historic hiking paths in Acadia
The historic importance of the Acadia hiking trails – and the masonry, carpentry and other skills needed to rehabilitate and maintain them – was underscored on April 8 when the hiking trail system on Mount Desert Island was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is by far the largest hiking trail system on the historic register and includes 109 maintained trails on Mount Desert Island covering 117 miles, most of them in the national park.
Battered by the weather and crowds, the historic hiking paths in Acadia demand a lot of care, perhaps none more than scenic Ocean Path, which parallels a section of the loop road open year-round, exposing it to a lot of road runoff. The work can seem never-ending on the path, which goes gently along a dramatic shoreline of sprawling pink granite boulders and viewpoints. The spectacular oceanfront draws people off the path, creating damage to grass and other plants.
The Acadia trails crew is wrapping up work during April on Ocean Path, part of a multi-year rehabilitation of the path that began in 2015. They are also making plans for similar work on other historic hiking paths in Acadia this year including Parkman Mountain, Giant Slide, Jordan Cliffs and Great Head trails.
During the first two weeks of April, a small number of crew members have been resurfacing an 800-foot-long section of Ocean Path from Thunder Hole to near Monument Cove. Last November, the crew completely rebuilt an eroded section just north of Monument Cove.
“Beautiful forever” is goal, hope of work on Acadia hiking trails
Once they are done in April, crew members will return maybe in November as they try to complete sections every year during the off season when fewer visitors are around.
“Eventually, we are going to get to the end; it is going to be beautiful forever,” said Barter, who is also Acadia National Park’s poet laureate. “That is our hope.”
The trails crew attempts to restore all trails and paths to the historic style of their construction, mostly built by village improvement groups in the early 1900s or by laborers with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
A lot of work is still done by hand but modern machinery also helps. During the visit earlier this month, Isaac Smith, a trail worker, used an excavator to lift and place pink-granite curbstones on the edge of about 70 feet of the path facing the ocean.
The curbstones, as well as the new side wall built by Barter, are then secured in place by hand to blend with the surface of the trail, stabilze the trail’s surface and protect it from erosion.
Resurfacing with “Rockefeller mix” helps protect Ocean Path
Barter said the new surface on the path will be graded with a blue ledge stone from Ellsworth and then topped with “Rockefeller mix,” a fine gravel mixed with pink-colored native stones and named after John D. Rockefeller Jr., one of the park’s founders. The mix was also used in the rehab of Seaside Path from Jordan Pond to Seal Harbor.
The new tread improves drainage and removes roots and other hazards on the historic hiking path in Acadia. Unlike most other trails in Acadia, people frequently cut on and off Ocean Path to get to their cars on the adjacent Park Loop Road or to the shore, Barter explained.
As they have done on other trails to protect fragile plants and lichen, Barter said the crew will install ropes in some spots on Ocean Path. Openings will exist in appropriate areas for people to reach the oceanfront.
The 2.2-mile-long Ocean Path goes from the top of the stairs at Sand Beach to Otter Point. The path first existed in 1874 and it was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1937.
The crew studied historical photographs of the work by the CCC to help guide the Ocean Path project.
Great Head Trail among other work set for rehab in 2022
Once they finish a section of Ocean Path in April, the crew will begin work on other projects including a number of other historic trails.
Plans call for resurfacing a more inland section of the Great Head Trail that follows the old driveway for the Satterlee estate on the peninsula. The estate was built on beautiful land that JP Morgan gave to his daughter as a wedding gift in the early 1900s and was donated in 1949 by a granddaughter to Acadia National Park.
Gary Stellpflug, foreman of the trails crew, said the old driveway on Great Head is pretty washed out with gullies caused by water damage and overuse.
“We won’t be there too long,” he said. “Again, that gets so busy that we will probably leave that by the end of June.”
The crew will also be tackling a small project on the Giant Slide Trail including possible rehab of old stepping stones and a retaining wall, he added. The Giant Slide Trail goes through the notch between Sargent, Gilmore, and Parkman mountains and winds over giant boulders and brook crossings. It stems from the 1870s and has some stone steps in the style of the Seal Harbor Village Improvement Society.
Other work on trails and historic hiking paths in Acadia will include restoring and rehabilitating the beat-up southern half of the Parkman Mountain Trail, as well as washed-out gravel trails that lead from the front of the Jordan Pond House tea lawn down to the pond shore. Likewise, crews plan to restore the eroded north end of the Jordan Cliffs Trail, part of one of the older cliff trails in the park.
Workers will also climb one of the steeper trails in the park – Beech West Ridge Trail to Beech Mountain – for rehabilitation including erosion control and repair or replacement of stone steps constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. In recent years, the trails crew has done extensive, similar work around Beech Mountain including restoring the once badly-eroded approach to the steel fire tower on the mountain and stone work on the Beech South Ridge Trail.
Maple Spring Trail damage highlights climate change consequences
Two sections of the Maple Spring Trail, damaged in a ferocious June 9, 2021 rain storm, will for now remain flagged off and closed with caution signs, according to Stellpflug. The trail, which follows a gorge between Gilmore and Sargent mountains, is the focus of a debate about how to rebuild trails when they face continued damage by climate change consequences in the future.
He said it is probably a good idea to allow the closed sections of the Maple Spring Trails to lie fallow, at least through this year.
Stellpflug, who is planning to retire in a couple of months after being foreman of the trails crew for more than 35 years, said he has hired about 11 seasonal workers and an intern this year to bolster the crew. He said he has funds to hire more seasonal workers, but is facing difficulties because of high costs of housing and other issues like pay for the demanding job.
In a boost for their work, Stellpflug said the trails crew will be helped this year by the return of the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps, which had been shut down for the past two years because of the pandemic. The Corps is a summer youth employment program funded by the Friends of Acadia.
Volunteers at Acadia each summer season also perform critical work to help maintain the trails. Volunteers with Friends of Acadia, with support from the Acadia trails crew, did most of the work on the Jordan Pond west shore to replace the wooden foot bridges. Two volunteers, Mark Munsell and Jerry Hopcroft, did almost all the carpentry in rebuilding the steep stairway at Bass Harbor Light in 2019. “We’re going to have a busy year. Oh yeah. Give me 10 people and we will be busy. Give me 50 we will be busy,” Stellpflug said with a laugh. “We won’t run out of work.”