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.
Michael Kelley, shown in his wheelchair, used an accessible ramp to reach an upper platform over Thunder Hole, but the view was limited. There is no ramp for the disabled to reach the main platform next to Thunder Hole. (Photo courtesy of Carol Kelley)
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.
Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider said that a trial run of a parking reservation program for the Sand Beach area caused confusion among many visitors and led to “unintended consequences” such as increased traffic congestion in some nearby residential areas.
Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider responded to the Bar Harbor Town Council’s concerns about the vehicle reservation program (NPS photo)
“I think that is part of the reason why we are holding off on trying to move forward with Ocean Drive next year,” Schneider told members of the Bar Harbor Town Council during a videoconference meeting. “We did see those impacts. That is not something we want to see happen outside the park.”
He said park officials would consider moving the entrance for the popular Sand Beach area and other changes to improve the parking reservation program and reduce the impact.
Schneider took some flak from councilors about the troubled pilot of the reservation effort for Sand Beach, Thunder Hole and other sites along a one-way, two-mile stretch of the Park Loop Road called Ocean Drive.
During a recent visit to Acadia National Park, Shirley Beck, who has multiple sclerosis, said she was “very pleased” to find a paved path that allowed her to reach a viewing platform at the Cadillac Mountain summit with her light three-wheel electric scooter.
Shirley Beck, a pediatric physical therapist from Arlington, Va., who has multiple sclerosis, or MS, said she was very pleased to find a paved path that allowed her to reach a viewing platform at the Cadillac Mountain summit with her small electric scooter.
“It’s pretty good,” said Beck, a pediatric physical therapist from Arlington, Va., after taking in the sweeping vista of Frenchman Bay, islands and distant summits on the mainland.
Beck said she is grateful to Acadia officials for making the peak of Cadillac accessible and praised them for building the pink-granite path for physically disabled persons. Before reaching the viewing platform, the path loops around steps and directly passes by a plaque of the first National Park Service director, Stephen Mather, who was periodically disabled by manic-depression, and was a contemporary of Acadia founder George B. Dorr, who became blind in his later years.
Beck, who visited Acadia while traveling with her husband, Roy, on a cruise ship, said she was not able to get quite as full of an experience at another key Acadia landmark, Thunder Hole. An accessible ramp leads to the upper viewing area of Thunder Hole for physically disabled persons, but not down to the lower area next to the sea cavern itself.
“The path was easy to use that got me part way down,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “I’m not sure how they could provide a way to get farther than that.”
While Beck only visited Acadia briefly, her experience was similar to that of some other physically disabled persons who travel to the Maine national park.
Acadia National Park has 45 miles of even-surface carriage roads, trails, sites and facilities that are available to wheelchair users but others that are not wheelchair-accessible such as Sand Beach, which is below a high bluff and does not have a ramp for physically disabled persons. Citing the terrain, the park service has determined that it is not feasible to build ramps down next to Thunder Hole itself or to Sand Beach.
These upgraded cement stairs provide the main access to Sand Beach, but are too difficult to navigate for many disabled people, such as Helen Franke of Wellington, Fla, who uses a cane and was stymied at the top.
But Helen Franke, a retired college administrator from Wellington, Fla., said she believed a gradual ramp at Sand Beach might be possible to accommodate physically disabled persons. “For something like this, I think they could,” she said, after stopping at the top of the stairs with a cane she needs to use.
Across the nation, access for people with disabilities is a key issue in outdoor recreation including the 59 national parks, which are required by the federal Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) to adopt accessibility standards for the design, construction, and alteration of facilities covered by the law.
About a month after he was confirmed by the US Senate in 2017, now-former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke said in a release that “it’s time to start thinking about accessibility and infrastructure” and that “we will remain focused on increasing access” for physically disabled persons and other people with disabilities in national parks. Continue reading →