Michael Kelley has been visiting Acadia National Park for more than 25 years, but he’s never seen Thunder Hole up close or been on Sand Beach. That’s because he uses a wheelchair, and an accessible ramp is either too far away or non-existent for these major attractions.
On a recent visit to Thunder Hole, he went down the ramp to a top platform, but he couldn’t see the waves crashing inside the sea crevice, like people who can walk to the lower viewing platform can. And the lack of a ramp down a long stretch of cement stairs to Sand Beach means he has only experienced it via videos taken by his mother.
“It is ironic that he has a lifetime park pass, yet can’t access the best of the park,” said Carol Kelley of Waldo, whose 31-year-old son has a rare chromosomal disorder, Triplication of Chromosome 17. People with permanent disabilities can get a free National Parks pass, but Michael felt like a second-class citizen at Thunder Hole, his mother said.
While Michael Kelley and others with disabilities can use wheelchairs on carriage roads at Acadia and otherwise enjoy the park, a recent 280-page report on access at Acadia National Park says the park fails to provide equal opportunities for physically disabled persons to visit popular sites and much of the rest of the park.
The report, by the National Center on Accessibility (NCA) at Indiana University, recommends some dramatic improvements, including a ramp down to Sand Beach, new accessible platforms at a scenic lot just short of the summit of Cadillac Mountain, at Bass Harbor Head Light and at Thunder Hole, and a redesign and rebuilding of the two National Park Service campgrounds on Mount Desert Island.
Barriers, progress in access for physically disabled persons at Acadia
The report was funded by the Friends of Acadia through a grant from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation. The report comes five years after we interviewed physically disabled persons at Acadia and wrote a story that underscored some of the same criticisms and issues outlined by the authors of the report.
The report noted that Acadia National Park made progress in building accessible parts of hiking trails such as at the Ship Harbor Trail and Jesup Path, providing parking, ramps and other facilities and services for physically disabled people, but said “it is critical” for the park to continue planning to remove barriers and improve access.
The team from the center spent 10 days at the park and found numerous violations of access standards under federal laws for the the blind, deaf and people with mobility or cognitive disabilities.
In an emailed response to questions, Katie Liming, a public affairs specialist with the National Park Service, emphasized that the NPS staff at Acadia worked closely with the National Center on Accessibility and played a significant role in completing the report. Staff took part in site visits and interviews and provided feedback and review as the report was completed, Liming told us.
From the report, Acadia National Park has identified improving accessibility at Cadillac Summit as one park priority, she added.
“We’re still reviewing the report and determining which among the other recommendations to prioritize,” Liming wrote. “The recommendations in the report range in scale of complexity; some projects could be completed somewhat easily, and others will require significant funding and planning.”
Acadia plans a new accessible path to link parking lots on Cadillac
With funding from the Friends of Acadia, initial planning has started this year for an accessible connection between the 120 parking spaces in the main lot on Cadillac Summit and a second 38-space parking area about 0.3 mile short of the peak, known as the Blue Hill Overlook, according to Liming . Currently, there is no path to link the two lots, just a steep part of the Cadillac Summit Road between them with no pedestrian route and a narrow shoulder, posing a safety risk, according to the report.
At the peak of Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the eastern US seaboard, the report also calls for reconstructing the summit loop trail to meet accessibility standards including extending the trail to reduce the slope. The report also urges building an accessible viewing platform at the north end of the Blue Hill Overlook, which already has a west-facing viewing area popular at sunset.
The park is also working on preliminary design for a rehabilitation of the park’s campground amphitheaters, according to Liming.
All of the report’s recommendations are up for consideration, including a ramp to Sand Beach, according to Liming of the NPS. “We haven’t determined that any of the report’s suggestions are unfeasible at this time,” she stated.
New projects for physically disabled persons could cost millions
It could cost millions of dollars to build new projects to boost access for the disabled and Acadia already is facing a backlog of tens of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance. Some of the work would also occur in environmentally sensitive areas.
Jim Linnane, who lived on Mount Desert Island for 20 years and worked five years seasonally for the Friends of Acadia, said places like Thunder Hole, Cadillac and Sand Beach are already often overrun with crowds and improving access in a tasteful and limited way won’t be a disaster.
“Disabled persons pay taxes for national parks just like everyone else, how could they not have access?” Linnane said.
The NCA team members examined 28 sites in Acadia and identified barriers at each site for physically disabled persons and made long-term and interim recommendations for removing them.
At Echo Lake, for example, as one measure to increase access, the report urges the park to advertise the availability of a beach wheelchair and establish a process for the public to request use of the chair. Echo Lake also needs wheelchair-accessible picnic tables and signs to mark an existing accessible route down to the beach.
Report calls for Island Explorer service to Cadillac Summit
In what would be a groundbreaking development, the report called for adding fare-free Island Explorer bus service to Cadillac Summit to increase the use of the site by people with disabilities who cannot drive and need assistance. Island Explorer service would mean Acadia could reduce the number of parking spots now set aside for vehicle reservations at Cadillac summit and reduce parking congestion. Currently, there is no Island Explorer service to the summit.
At Jordan Pond, the center studied only outdoor facilities and features, because the NPS is considering a major renovation or replacement of the Jordan Pond House Restaurant using new accessible standards.
The report urges creation of accessible routes to seats on the tea lawn for Jordan Pond. It recommended an accessible boat launch and cleared space at the south shore of the pond for people in wheelchairs to get the iconic view of the Bubbles.
Accessible ramp and other improvements eyed at Sand Beach
At Sand Beach, the report calls for design and construction of an accessible ramp on the wooded hillside below the parking area, offering access to the beach and views of the wetlands and dunes.
At Bass Harbor Head Light, the report called for design and installation of an accessible viewing area for the disabled, giving them the same right to view the lighthouse along the seaside cliffs that exists now for people without disabilities. Currently, on the southeastern side of the lighthouse parking lot, people need to descend on a steep wooden stairway and then walk along rocks toward the lighthouse to an overlook.
On the other side of the lot, a paved route brings people next to the base of the 32-foot- high lighthouse, but the grade is steep and potentially slippery.
The study acknowledged that some major changes might not be feasible and the park could offer new interpretive displays or videos to provide experiences like Thunder Hole or Sand Beach in places easier to reach.
While the report will help the NPS look at Acadia’s accessibility needs overall and prioritize future projects, the NPS is already working to make Acadia as accessible as possible, Liming wrote. For example, a new maintenance complex, with construction planned to start this fall at the McFarland Hill park headquarters site, will meet accessibility standards, she said. Also, during an ongoing rehab of Ocean Path, the trail crew is modifying the path to reduce grade, remove obstacles and improve firmness and stability, she said.
Lack of information creates barrier for physically disabled persons
Acadia does have an accessibility guide and information on accessibility on the park’s web site, she added, and will use the report to improve those resources, she added.
Also, work is under way to install new informational kiosks at more than 20 trailheads in the park, providing more details for the disabled to decide whether to use a trail, Liming added.
Carol Kelley said her wish is for her son to get down to Sand Beach. She said the report sounds great, but she questioned if it anything will change.
“The disabled community has always been a second thought to most every park, concert or public event,” she said.