ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — The local business community is not thrilled about the federal budget-related delay in opening Acadia National Park’s seasonal facilities, but at least one group is expected to benefit by not having cars on the park’s paved roads, according to officials: road cyclists.
Most of Acadia’s Park Loop Road and the entire length of the Summit Road on Cadillac Mountain, both of which are paved, are closed to traffic in the winter. Skiers, hikers and snowmobiles get to use the paved and dirt roads during the colder months, but motorized road vehicles are prohibited and bicyclists usually are shut out by the weather.
Even in the weeks leading up to Acadia’s traditional April 15 ‘opening’ date, fallen snow can linger in the park, especially in shady areas that receive little sun. But by delaying the opening until Friday, May 17, bicyclists will have a full month of spring weather during which they won’t have to share the park’s roads with cars, trucks and recreational vehicles.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Joe Minutolo, owner of Bar Harbor Bike Shop, said Tuesday. “It changes the whole dynamic of the place.”
The park is never fully closed, but visitation in the park declines dramatically when temperatures drop below freezing. The Ocean Drive section of the loop road, which is accessible year-round by Schooner Head Road that passes Sand Beach and Thunder Hole, is open to vehicles throughout the winter. The Jordan Pond House itself is closed in winter but it is accessible by car through the village of Seal Harbor.
Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that late April and early May this year is an ideal time for serious road cyclists or families looking for a leisurely pedal to come to Acadia. He said the chamber has been promoting the off-season appeal of the park on its website and on radio.
“We really want to highlight the fact that the park is open,” Fogg said. “This provides a unique opportunity for families and bike enthusiasts to come and enjoy the park in a different way than they normally could at this time.”
Fogg stressed that even if the park isn’t fully open yet, plenty of tourism-oriented businesses in Bar Harbor and on Mount Desert Island are. People in Maine and New England who are thinking about a spring jaunt to Acadia should come, he said.
“It is business as usual,” Fogg said.
During the past five years, annual visitation to Acadia has fluctuated between 2.1 million and more than 2.5 million visits, according to park officials. Acadia averages approximately 200,000 visits each April and May. Summer is the busiest time in the park, but about another 700,000 people visit the park each September and October. This is why the park chose to delay implementation of its full seasonal staffing levels, rather than ending them early in the fall, park officials have said.
In 2011, the most recent year for which such data is available, visitation to Acadia contributed more than $186 million into Maine’s economy and supported nearly 3,000 jobs in the Mount Desert Island region, according to the National Park Service.
According to Minutolo, his shop already has begun renting out bikes to weekend visitors.
“Usually we don’t see that kick in until Memorial Day weekend [at the end of May],” he said.
More serious cyclists also have been showing up to take advantage of the car-free loop road, which he said is approximately 20 miles all the way around.
“As soon as they get a break in the weather, they say ‘let’s go,’” Minutolo said. “People are coming in for sure.”
Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent, said Monday that encouraging cyclists to visit Acadia won’t affect the park’s expenses because winter staffing levels and operations will remain in effect. The simple act of unlocking the gates itself is not a financial issue, he said.
Until Sunday, May 19, most restrooms will remain closed (one at Sand Beach and another at Fabbri Picnic Area are open year-round), and normal trash removal will not yet have begun. The increase in visitors that comes with opening all the paved roads to vehicles requires the park to open all the bathrooms and to begin regular trash removal, he said, which necessitates full staffing levels.
“We’re not prepared to do that yet,” Bobinchock said. “The level of effort required [for keeping roads closed] is a lot less.”
Bobinchock said that there has been an increase in the number of road cyclists in Acadia in recent years. He stressed that cyclists still need to be careful even if there aren’t motorized vehicles on the roads.
Bicyclists can travel in either direction on any road that is closed to vehicles, even if only one-way traffic is allowed when cars and trucks can use it, he said. Cyclists should stay to the right and keep an eye out for anything that might be in the roadway, he said.
On the Ocean Drive section of the loop road that is open all winter, where it passes Sand Beach and Thunder Hole, bicyclists must pedal with the flow of one-way traffic, Bobinchock said.
They also need to be aware that gates block the roads at some points and to make sure they don’t run into any. In April 2004, a man from Washington state died when he collided with a gate near where the Ocean Drive intersects with Otter Cliffs Road.
“We had a terrible accident a few years back and don’t want to see that again,” the deputy superintendent said.
Bobinchock added that park staff are erecting signs along the roads to alert cyclists about closed gates.
Bobinchock said park officials had planned to open all the paved roads and restrooms on Sunday, May 19, but bumped it up by two days to accommodate visitors who may show up earlier that weekend. The national Victoria Day holiday in Canada is on Monday, May 20 — Quebec’s National Patriot Day is on the same date — and the cruise ship Veendam is scheduled to visit Bar Harbor on Friday, May 17.
Passengers from cruise ships typically take bus tours through the park when they visit Bar Harbor. Two of Bar Harbor’s 135 expected cruise ship visits for 2013 are scheduled for early May, before the all the park’s roads are fully opened.
“The thought was we could get through the weekend,” Bobinchock said, before the additional staffing levels go into effect on Monday, May 20.