Derek Runnells of Dedham demonstrates proper trail etiquette by moving to the side of the carriage road and stopping to allow a horse-drawn carriage to pass Wednesday in Acadia National Park. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

Horseback riders and horse-drawn carriages have long experienced problems with speeding bicyclists on the carriage roads of Acadia National Park, but with the recent introduction of electronic bikes, or e-bikes, the issue has only gotten worse.

Equestrians have reported e-bikes approaching horses from behind and speeding past, closely, with no warning, said Christie Anastasia, public affairs specialist for Acadia National Park. While people with disabilities have always been allowed to ride e-bikes on the park’s carriage roads, it wasn’t until fall 2019 that e-bikes became an option for all park visitors.

“We also have reports that the e-bikes are also cutting in front of horses too quickly and too close,” Anastasia said.

Cyclists have even reached out and touched horses as they speed by, said Emily Carpenter, manager of Carriages of Acadia, which operates daily horse-drawn carriage tours on the carriage roads. This behavior could easily startle horses and cause bad accidents, she said.

“We’ve always had a little bit of an issue,” Carpenter said. “I would say more so in July and August when the park gets really busy with bikes in general … It’s just amplified with e-bikes.”

In response, the park is trying to increase its public outreach, educating carriage road users about the rules of the road and proper trail etiquette. But that may prove challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the park’s volunteer bike patrol has been asked to put its work on pause. This was done to reduce congestion in park offices, the sharing of gear and close contact between volunteers and visitors.

Bike patrol volunteers typically travel throughout the 45-mile carriage road system, aiding visitors in navigation and bike repairs, while instilling the importance of following the rules.

“I wish we could be out there helping with this right now, because I know it’s a real concern to the horse and carriage community,” said Carol Bult, a volunteer on Acadia’s bike patrol. “The carriage roads are for everyone.”

Signs at trailheads outline carriage road rules, and park staff members communicate those rules to the cyclists at the park’s visitor centers. Some bike rental shops also relay this information. Still, it appears that many visitors miss the message, Bult said.

“I think one of the challenges is how to explain the etiquette to somebody who’s only here for a couple of days or, in some cases, a couple of hours,” Bult said. “There’s a lot to it.”

Acadia’s carriage roads are shared by cyclists, horseback riders, horse-drawn carriages, hikers and runners — and in the winter, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and, in some sections, snowmobiles. Motorized vehicles (aside from e-bikes and snowmobiles) are not permitted.

A horse-drawn carriage from Wildwood Stables tour the carriage roads of Acadia National Park on Wednesday on Mount Desert Island. (Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN)

“I think a major thing is the false sense of security people have because cars aren’t allowed on the carriage roads, not understanding that these roads can be dangerous and there still needs to be a level of care [when traveling on them],” Carpenter said. “These roads aren’t meant for things to be going fast.”

In September 2019, the park announced that it would permit class 1 e-bikes on the carriage roads, which increased accessibility for visitors while sparking concerns about the speed and noise of electronically powered bikes. All bikes are asked to abide by a 20-mph speed limit, which is posted on signs throughout the carriage roads. But this speed is easy to exceed on an e-bike (which has a speedometer) or a traditional bike, especially when cruising down hill, Bult said.

Even hikers can cause problems on the carriage roads by walking abreast and not allowing enough room for horses, cyclists and other walkers to pass. This is especially an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic, when maintaining a distance of 6 feet or more from others is crucial for slowing the spread of the disease.

“You know, some of it may seem like common sense, but I think a lot of people are coming here who aren’t on these carriage roads very often, and they may not even normally bike,” Bult said. “I’ve never run into anyone intentionally trying to impede cyclists or horses. I think people are just getting absorbed in the enjoyment and they forget there are other people out there enjoying the park, too.”

As a general rule, all carriage road users should stick to the right side of the road when in movement, especially if other people are around. If stopped, they should move to the edge of the road, well out of the way. And to pass someone from behind, Bult suggests alerting the person or group (perhaps by yelling “cyclist on your left”), then passing to the left.

Everyone should yield to horses and horse-drawn carriages while on the carriage roads. That means slowing down, moving to the side and, in some cases, stopping. In addition, cyclists are expected to yield to people on foot.

“When I’m on my bike and a horse and carriage is coming toward me, I stop my bike and I dismount and wait until they pass, and everyone in my group does that,” Bult said. “And if we’re coming up behind a carriage or a horse, we definitely don’t just scream by them. We let them know we’re there and ask if it’s safe to pass.”

The horses that pull the carriages for Carriages of Acadia out of Wildwood Stables have learned to not be afraid of bikes — within reason, Carpenter said. Still, a speeding bike that comes too close one of those horses could startle it. In addition, individual horseback riders visit Acadia to ride the carriage roads, and their horses might not be used to bicycles, Carpenter said.

Children are another big concern, Bult said. Often, parents or guardians will allow their children to ride too far ahead to watch. A great solution is to rent a tandem bike or e-bike, which allows an adult and child to explore the carriage roads together.

“Kids are predictably unpredictable,” Bult said. “You have to be careful.”

If you’re new to biking, it’s crucial to practice using your brakes before cruising down big hills. Excessive speed has led to many serious bike injuries in the park, according to the National Park Service.

“Just because you can ride really fast doesn’t mean you’re entitled to,” Bult said. “It’s not your carriage road. Sometimes you’re going to have to deviate from your speed or even dismount from your bike because there are other people around.”

By following the rules of the carriage roads and practicing proper trail etiquette, people can increase the safety of themselves and others, horses included.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.