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November 18, 2020

Acadia’s pilot reservation system gets mixed results

Courtesy / National Park Service/John Kelly A park ranger uses a mobile device to verify a visitor's reservation at the entrance to the Cadillac Summit Road during an 18-day pilot in October.

Acadia National Park’s pilot vehicle-reservation system at two of the park’s most popular spots went well at one but not so much at the other.

The system, tested for two weeks, worked successfully on the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road, Acadia’s superintendent, Kevin Schneider, told the Bar Harbor Town Council at its meeting Tuesday night.

But the entrance station leading to Sand Beach was tricky, he said. Many visitors showed up not knowing they needed a reservation. Spotty cellphone service made it difficult for many to pull up their electronic reservations.

Those who didn’t have reservations were turned back, which created a further problem for a nearby residential road. Schooner Head Road leads from the town of Bar Harbor into the park; intersecting with the Sand Beach entrance station, it provides a loop back to town from the station. 

Typically, the town-owned residential portion of the road is quiet, and residents feel comfortable biking and walking there, Town Councilor Jill Goldthwait said. But cars turned away from the entrance station congested the road. Some were speeding, which created dangerous conditions, she said.

Relieve parking congestion

The pilot, developed by the National Park Service, ran from Oct. 1 to Oct. 18. The Sand Beach entrance required reservations from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Cadillac Summit Road required reservations from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. All reservations provided a timed entry, but did not require a departure time. Vehicle reservations were available for purchase only online. 

The system was designed in order to relieve parking congestion, Schneider said. Traffic at hot spots like Cadillac was exacerbated by the lack of the Island Explorer shuttle bus service this year. 

The service is designed to encourage visitors to leave their vehicles in town and access the park by bus, but was suspended due to the pandemic.

Without the Explorer running, the park experienced more traffic, Schneider noted.

Courtesy / National Park Service
This map depicts the Cadillac Summit vehicle reservation area.

That congestion was illustrated over the summer, when rangers closed the access road to the Cadillac Mountain summit numerous times, sometimes turning away as many as 100 cars because the parking area at the summit was overflowing, with multiple cars parked illegally.

At the Sand Beach entrance station, summertime congestion resulted in waits as long as 20 minutes.

The reservation system was designed to tackle such issues, Schneider said.

Getting word out

The primary objective of the two-week pilot was to learn how to implement a further roll-out, he added.

Getting information to visitors about the system is critical before their visit, he said.

To that end, the park worked with local chambers of commerce, hotels and the Maine Tourism Association, which distributed about 60,000 rack cards about the system at its visitors centers. The park’s website and social media platforms also included information about the system.

“But trying to connect with everyone who comes before their visit is challenging,” Schneider said. “That’s part of the growing pains that any kind of reservation system like this will encounter.”

For the 2021 season, the focus on the system will be on Cadillac Mountain, he said. Further refinement will include infrastructure and safety improvements at the base of the mountain, and adjustments to the online reservation system to improve visitor experience, he said.

Additionally, he added, continued communication with visitors as well as local communities will be important. 

The park will potentially look at a similar pilot, perhaps in 2021, at Jordan Pond House, also a hot spot. 

“We’ll continue to work on Sand Beach for future years,” he said.

File photo / Laurie Schreiber
Visitors in a pre-pandemic year prepare to bike on carriage roads around Acadia's popular Eagle Lake. Parking spillover onto the road results from Eagle Lake's two parking lots being full.

Congestion on neighboring Schooner Head Road was part of the reason for postponing the Sand Beach system, he added.

“It’s not something we want to see happen outside of the park,” he said. 

The park is also looking to work with commercial transportation providers, as well as the Island Explorer, to facilitate access to popular spots without overloading parking lots, he said. 

Acadia is among the top 10 most popular national parks in the United States, with more than 3.5 million visits per year. Visitation has surged almost 60% in a decade, leading to severe crowding at most park destinations, according to a news release.

In 2019, the National Park Service completed a transportation plan to reduce severe traffic and parking congestion.

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