New Acadia hiking trails foreman takes reins at key time
A new foreman is leading the way for work on Acadia hiking trails.
David Schlag, the new foreman of the Acadia trails crew, stands outside the crew’s trailer in Acadia National Park.
David Schlag, a 14-year veteran of the crew, is taking over as Acadia National Park trails crew foreman at a time when the park is facing some headwinds: trail damage from extreme weather events, increasing wear and tear on the trails with record crowds and a continuing shortage of seasonal workers.
Schlag will also oversee what could be one of the more transformational projects in years for Acadia hiking trails. The National Park Service is planning several trail extensions and a rehabilitation of the birch-lined Hemlock Path to make it more accessible, possibly with a boardwalk, as part of a more comprehensive effort to restore the Great Meadow.
This section of Hemlock Path with its birch trees is much photographed, and set for a major overhaul to improve drainage and accessibility as part of the restoration of Acadia’s Great Meadow. It’s one of the projects to be overseen by David Schlag, the new Acadia trails foreman.
Cross over to Bar Island at low tide in June and July, and soon you’ll discover fields of majestic purple, blue and pink lupine wildflowers of Acadia, beckoning to be admired and photographed.
Western lupine blooms in early June on Bar Island. The flower is popular with tourists who sometimes stop to pose for photos next to the purple, blue or pink flowers.
Squeezed along the edge of the fields stands a less showy plant – common milkweed – which could be missed if not for a sign calling this place a “Milkweed Habitat.”
These fields may be the site of a coming showdown between lupine and milkweed that could affect the fate of monarch butterflies in Acadia National Park.
As photogenic as the spiky tall flowers of the western lupine are, they are invasive non-native plants, threatening to crowd out the homelier milkweed critical to the lifecycle of the monarch, which recently became candidate for listing under the US Endangered Species Act. The faceoff between lupine and milkweed and the monarch could eventually come to a head on the island, just off the coast of Bar Harbor.
An effort by the National Park Service to protect the soon-to-be-endangered Monarch butterfly includes spreading seeds for milkweed on Bar Island and staking signs to inform the public.
“If the western lupine is encroaching on critical habitats in the park…it would be a very high priority to remove it,” said Amanda S. Pollock, Acadia public affairs officer, in an email. In years past, the park’s Invasive Plant Monitoring Team “removed lupines encroaching on a significant area of milkweed to protect habitat for the soon to be listed as endangered monarch butterfly.”
Pollock said the team has managed lupine encroaching on milkweed on Bar Island, Fernald Point, and a small area near Great Meadow Drive. She said the team has removed lupine on Bar Island “but only a section of the field, near the milkweed and the path.”
The park has not planted any mature milkweed, but resource managers have spread seed in areas where milkweed would likely grow well, including Bar Island, Pollock added.
Which plant’s tendency to spread will win out: Invasive western lupine, on the left, or the later-to-bloom milkweed on the right? Monarch butterflies exclusively lay their eggs on milkweed, as the developing caterpillars need the milkweed sap for chemical defense against predators. This scene played out on Bar Island in Acadia National Park in early July.
Cadillac Mountain may be the best spot for sunrise in Acadia National Park, or maybe even the entire US. Just try to get a ticket to the show – it can be as hard as scoring an entry to a Taylor Swift concert.
Another sold-out crowd for sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in August 2022 (Photo by Kate Sheehan)
A $6 reservation is required to drive a car up Cadillac summit from late May to late October and virtually 100 percent of the tickets were sold out over the online reservation system for sunrise during 2021 and 2022. The demand for a parking spot on Cadillac during sunrise is so intense that tickets can “literally sell out in seconds,” the superintendent of the park told the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission last year.
In 2022, for example, NPS statistics show that there were 21,895 tickets available for sunrise on Cadillac and 21,882 were sold.
Leah Bullard was one of the lucky ones to land a ticket for the best spot for sunrise in Acadia. The Alexandria, Va., woman said she set an alarm for the 10 am start of availability for advance purchase of tickets at recreation.gov for a May 31 sunrise on Cadillac, and then kept refreshing the page once the tickets became available. In about two minutes, she got one.
“Everyone told me, ‘The one thing you need to do in Acadia is see the sunrise from Cadillac’,” Bullard said in an interview. “It was beautiful.”
The rising sun shines on Leah Bullard atop Cadillac Mountain on May 31, 2023. Bullard said friends told her that sunrise on Cadillac was the “one thing” she needed to do in Acadia National Park. (Photo provided by Leah Bullard)
UPDATE 6/15: Retired Acadia National Park trail crew foreman cites byzantine hiring practices as reason for Acadia staff shortage.
Acadia National Park is planning to build 50 to 60 units of new housing in Bar Harbor for seasonal workers off Kebo Street, in a bid to reduce a severe Acadia staff shortage in the half-year workers.
These existing 1960s-style apartment units for Acadia National Park seasonal employees would be built out to 50 to 60 units under a park plan for the property off Kebo Street in Bar Harbor.
Brandon Bies, deputy superintendent of Acadia National Park, said the park hired 114 seasonal workers so far this year, when it advertised for hiring 174 to work typically from April to October. Bies said the staff shortfall is coming when the park is “going to be right up there” around 4 million visits for the third year in a row, straining resources.
TRENTON – US Sen. Angus King and the state transportation chief helped celebrate the start of construction of a new $32 million welcome center and transit hub, saying it could dramatically reduce traffic at Acadia National Park and transform the way people visit.
US Sen. Angus King, independent from Maine and chair of the Senate subcommittee on National Parks, speaks at an event to celebrate the start of construction of the Acadia Gateway Center. On King’s right is Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation Inc., and on his left, Fred Ehrlenbach, first selectman for the town of Trenton.
The Acadia Gateway Center, located off Route 3 in Trenton, is planned as a new regional tourism hub with 250 parking spaces and likely an express bus service into the national park. The center is aimed at getting more day trippers and commuters into the park’s fare-free Island Explorer bus service, thereby reducing congestion on Route 3 near Mount Desert Island and cutting traffic at Acadia National Park, the No. 5 most visited US national park in 2022.
The Acadia Gateway Center, scheduled to open in May 2025, overcame many hurdles during 20 years of planning and debate and it remains unclear how many tourists and commuters will choose to leave behind their cars and hop on a bus at the center. The project’s ultimate success could hinge on efforts to hire more scarce bus drivers to provide the express service and to boost affordable housing for drivers and other seasonal workers, people at the event said. Affordable housing is currently in such sort supply that 10 Island Explorer drivers lived out of their cars last year, according to the president of the Friends of Acadia.
The total project estimate of $31.66 million for the Gateway Center — as opposed to construction only — includes pre-construction work, according to a report in the Mount Desert Islander. Work before construction typically includes costs such as design, engineering and construction administration.
King, chair of the Senate subcommittee on National Parks, said the Acadia Gateway Center is a landmark project that can serve as a model for other national parks. People can park at the Gateway Center, get on a bus and enjoy Acadia without worrying about fighting traffic, pollution or the time it takes to find parking, said King, a Maine independent.
“The problem isn’t so much people in national parks,” said King at the event, attended by local, state and federal leaders. “It’s vehicles.”
An aerial view of the planned Acadia Gateway Center, now under construction and set to open in May 2025. (Rendering provided by Maine Department of Transportation)
Update 2/24/23: The National Parks Traveler picked up this story and put a national spotlight on the “paint-can-carrying hiker” who has been putting bright red blazes on rock cairns and trees in the park.
Update 2/24/23: Spring Trail added to list of damaged trails.
Winter is not even off-season for vandalism in Acadia.
Bright red paint defacing about two miles along the Spring Trail, the Penobscot Mountain Trail on the south ridge of the mountain and the Deer Brook Trail has been reported to the National Park Service, which is now investigating.
An illegal red blaze was painted on the mantle stone of this historic-style cairn on the Penobscot Mountain Trail. (Photo by Kevin Young)
The illegal red rectangular blazes frequently were painted right next to the park’s official sky-blue blazes on the historic hiking trails, according to photos posted on Facebook by a hiker and provided to Friends of Acadia and the park in early February. At least three dozen historic-style cairns, trees and bedrock locations were painted with the red blazes, according to interviews with two hikers who took photos.
This is the latest example of a growing problem in Acadia and other national parks, with vandals defacing the landscape with paint, rock stacking and even human and pet waste. Now, the vandalism in Acadia has happened in the dead of winter, when the hiking trails are often little used and icy.
The illegal painting off Penobscot, the fifth highest mountain in Acadia, follows a rise in the number of citations issued by the National Park Service for vandalism in Acadia over the past two years, compared to the three prior years, according to park statistics.
This red paint damage on a cairn on the Penobscot Mountain Trail is especially galling because it occurred right next to a National Park Service sign that asks people to leave cairns as they find them. Rangers are investigating the illegal activity. (Photo by Kevin Young)
December is usually a slow time of year in Acadia National Park. But with the National Park Service proposing a 27 percent increase in the Acadia annual pass next year, the park holiday tradition of selling the annual entrance pass for about half price is bringing out the bargain hunters.
Get the Acadia annual pass for about half price in December, while they last, before the proposed 27 percent price increase in 2023. (NPS image)
The Acadia annual pass is currently on sale for $28 during the month of December. People can buy multiple discounted annual passes and many are buying them for holiday gifts, according to people selling the passes at three local chambers of commerce and four town offices. Also, there is a limited number available of annual passes at the reduced price and it’s possible they could sell out, at least at several locations, in the wake of the the NPS’s Nov. 29 announcement of its proposal to hike entrance fees at Acadia in 2023, people said.
“They are selling like hot cakes,” said Brianna Mitchell, deputy town clerk in Gouldsboro, which offers the discounted passes, and which includes Acadia’s Bar Island within its borders. “I am trying to tell people, if they call, to try and grab one sooner rather than later.”
The yearly sale of the pass is always popular, but Mitchell agreed the proposed fee increase for 2023 may be spurring some sales of the discounted pass this year.
The park’s Sand Beach Entrance Station is the primary location for sales of the discounted Acadia annual pass. The entrance station is open year-round and is planned to operate seven days a week in the winter, depending on staffing, with core hours 9 am to 3 pm during December, said John T. Kelly, management assistant in the superintendent’s office at Acadia National Park. “There is a limit, but I can’t predict whether they will sell out,” Kelly said of the discounted passes.
UPDATE on 2/8/2023:Nickerson O’Day of Brewer today submitted the low bid of $27,653,784.59 to construct the Acadia Gateway welcome center and transit hub in Trenton and will begin working with the state to secure the contract for the long-awaited project.
Like most MaineDOT projects, the state is aiming to award the contract to the low bidder, according to William Pulver, chief operating officer and deputy chief engineer for MaineDOT.
“The next step in our typical low bid process is an internal evaluation of the bids received and a review of any required bid submittals from the low bidder,” Pulver wrote. “Following that review, a recommendation is made to the Commissioner’s office.”
Under the state bid process, it should take about 6 weeks to award the contract if all is in order.
The Maine Department of Transportation said it expects to break ground in 2023 on a new state-of-the-art, $32 million welcome center and transit hub for Acadia National Park and the region, marking a big step forward in a strategy to get more visitors to use the park’s fare-free shuttle and reduce traffic congestion.
This design shows Island Explorer buses picking up visitors from the planned Acadia Gateway Center’s intermodal and welcome center, with a current state estimate of $32 million for the project. (NPS image)
The MaineDOT this week officially advertised for bids for a contractor to construct the national park welcome center and intermodal facility off Route 3 in Trenton about three miles north of the bridge to Mount Desert Island. The bids were scheduled to be publicly opened and read on Jan. 4 in Augusta but the bid opening was recently changed to Jan. 18, and then delayed again until Jan. 25, and postponed again to Feb. 8, according to the MaineDOT web site. The winner must agree to complete work by May 3, 2025 for the project, estimated by the department to cost $32.076 million.
Paul Merrill, director of communications for the MaineDOT, said the department expects groundbreaking for the Acadia Gateway welcome center and intermodal facility to happen in the first half of 2023. The MaineDOT would own the project, which would be funded mostly by federal transit aid, in addition to $4 million from the National Park Service, state money and $1 million from the Friends of Acadia, a partner in planning since 2004.
Gary Stellpflug, now-retired Acadia trails crew foreman, in front of a map of some of Acadia’s historic trails.
The superintendent of Acadia National Park and other National Park Service employees and supporters gathered recently to bid farewell to retired Acadia hiking trails foreman Gary Stellpflug, sending him off with high praise and lots of laughs.
Stellpflug, who retired at the end of August, led an extensive rehabilitation and expansion of 155 miles of Acadia hiking trails over the past 20 years, made possible when Acadia became the first national park in the country with an endowment for a trail system.
People at the retirement party lauded Stellpflug’s expertise in stone masonry and craftsmanship in trail building at Acadia. They said his work helped in the successful nomination of Acadia hiking trails to the National Register of Historic Places in April.
At his retirement party, Gary Stellpflug was honored with a “Happy Trails” cake decorated with the names of Acadia hiking trails.
Citing a shortage of seasonal staff this year, the park has closed Cadillac Mountain overnight to vehicles and stopped staffing the popular Village Green Information Center in Bar Harbor, among other moves to deal with a lack of workers for Acadia visitor services.
It’s going to be harder to see the stars from Cadillac with the closing of the summit road after 10pm through late October, while the vehicle reservation system is in effect. (NPS photo by Sardius S. Stalker)
Even the Star Party at Cadillac, one of the more in-demand events of the Acadia Night Sky Festival in September, has been cancelled “due to limited capacity and staffing constraints,” according to the festival website.
But perhaps the biggest impact to Acadia visitor services is the elimination of park staff at the Village Green Information Center, ending a longtime presence of rangers in downtown Bar Harbor during the busy season. According to former ranger Maureen Robbins Fournier, rangers sold park entrance and commercial passes, swore in hundreds of Junior Rangers every year, and helped people plan visits and Acadia hiking, among other services, with lines sometimes out the doors during cruise ship season.
“We are not staffing it this year due to limited staff availability,” Sean Bonnage, public affairs assistant for Acadia, told us in an email. “We don’t have plans to staff it in the future, although ideally we would like to.”
The Village Green Information Center is owned by the town of Bar Harbor and is leased as an operations center to Downeast Transportation, the nonprofit that operates the Island Explorer on Mount Desert Island. It is still being used as an operations center this year, with the Island Explorer operating a full schedule for the first time since 2019, and is open to the public, only with no rangers present for Acadia visitor services. It was first staffed by rangers 20 years ago.
Limited staff at Acadia prompted the National Park Service to decide against staffing the Village Green Information Center this summer. Hundreds of Junior Rangers used to be sworn in by park rangers at this location every year.
Acadia National Park visitors in search of sunset on Cadillac Mountain know from social media and the Internet that the best place to watch sunset is from the Blue Hill Overlook. But late last year, workers removed the sign for the overlook and put up one that says “West Lot” instead.
Crowds start to gather for the best place to see the sunset on Cadillac Mountain, whether it’s called the West Lot, Blue Hill Overlook or Sunset Point.
And before the spot was named for its view west to Blue Hill in the late 1980s, visitors knew to flock to what was then called Sunset Point, as the official park map labeled it. But the crowds got so bad, “to alleviate evening traffic congestion, the National Park Service changed the name in 1988 from Sunset Point to Blue Hill Overlook,” according to the new and definitive book, Place Names of Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Islands, Maine, by Henry A. Raup.
As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Whether it’s called the West Lot, Blue Hill Overlook or Sunset Point, the view of the sunset on Cadillac from this very spot is, indeed, just as sweet. And visitors will eventually find it.
The renaming of Blue Hill Overlook to the West Lot is just the latest chapter in the long history of changing place names in Acadia and surrounding areas. Even the park itself went through several name changes, from the Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, to Lafayette National Park in 1919 and finally Acadia National Park in 1929.
No matter what you call it, this is the sweetest place to watch the sunset on Cadillac, even if it will get crowded during the peak season with visitors setting up lawn chairs, picnic blankets and cameras on tripods.
After 20 years of planning, construction of a new $24 million Acadia National Park welcome center and transit hub could be completed in 2025, providing visitors a major new way to take the fare-free shuttle to the park and help reduce crowds and traffic problems.
This design shows Island Explorer buses picking up visitors from the planned Acadia Gateway Center’s intermodal transportation and welcome center. (NPS image)
The Acadia Gateway Center, which is a project of the Maine Department of Transportation, will serve as an intermodal transportation hub and offer a 11,000 square-foot welcome center. The center will boast high beamed ceilings, huge windows and a new busway for the park’s Island Explorer shuttle and commercial tour buses right outside the doors, a National Park Service official said.
The national park welcome center will be “an attraction in itself,” said John Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park, and comes when Acadia drew more than 4 million visits in 2021 and parking was tighter than ever inside the park. The new welcome center, when built, would operate along with the existing Hulls Cove Visitor Center.
In a new boost for the project, the Maine Department of Transportation, in a construction advertising schedule for 2022, says it will seek bids in December to construct the Acadia Gateway intermodal and welcome center, earmarking $26.2 million for the project.
Kelly released new slides that display the expansive interior of the national park welcome center with cathedral ceilings, as well as a new overall site plan that shows the busway and parking. Two hundred and fifty new parking spaces with 32 spaces for electric vehicles behind the center are also planned, Kelly said.
Acadia National Park is collecting entrance fees during the winter for the first time this year, raising more than $500,000 as of January to help retain staff and fund plowing and other winter services.
A visit to Acadia in winter now means having to pay a park entrance fee (NPS image)
In a change that started Nov. 1, Acadia National Park entrance fees are now required year-round and the park is staffing the Sand Beach Entrance Station seven days a week for the first time in the winter. Previously, the park required an entrance pass only between May 1 and October 31 and there was no charge between Nov. 1 and April 30.
Winter visits nearly doubled over the past decade, helping spur Acadia to start charging the fees.
“We did not collect entrance fees in the winter in the past, but it has gone very, very smoothly,” Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider said during an online meeting of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission this month. “We have not gotten a lot of pushback from park visitors, which is great. People have embraced entrance fees I think and understand the importance of it.”
UPDATE on 2/15/2022: Reaction from Jack Russell was added.
UPDATE on 2/18/2022: Gary Stellpflug thanks people for their comments on his planned retirement.
Gary J. Stellpflug, longtime foreman of the Acadia National Park Trails Crew, said he is planning to retire from the National Park Service this year, after leading a sweeping rehabilitation of the historic Acadia hiking trails during his tenure.
Gary Stellpflug, Acadia trails foreman, inspects the damage done to a bridge on the Hadlock Brook Trail by an “exceptional” storm on June 9, 2021, attributed by the National Park Service to climate change. (Photo courtesy of Gary Stellpflug)
“I’ve been here long enough,” Stellpflug said in an exclusive interview. “It’s time for somebody else to step in.”
He said there is no exact date for his retirement, but it will be before the start of a new fiscal year on Oct. 1. He said he wants to help in a transition to a new Acadia hiking trails foreman and is working with Keith Johnston, chief of maintenance, on a succession plan.
Stellpflug, who has been foreman of the Acadia trails crew for more than 35 years, helped launch a major effort to restore and maintain Acadia hiking trails after Acadia became the first national park in the country with an endowment for a trail system.
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.
About 4,000 vehicle reservations were sold for Sunday, Oct. 11 at Acadia National Park including those for people who crowded together on the viewing platform at Thunder Hole.
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.