After holding a trial period last month for requiring reservations for private vehicles on Cadillac Mountain and Ocean Drive, Acadia National Park is not going to require them for motorists who want to visit Sand Beach or Thunder Hole in 2021.
The park is moving ahead with requiring reservations next summer for motorists who want to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain, and is likely to require vehicle reservations for Ocean Drive — a scenic stretch of the Park Loop Road with popular sites such as Sand Beach and Thunder Hole — in 2022.
Poor cell phone service at the Sand Beach Entrance to Ocean Drive, which prevented some visitors from showing rangers their reservations on their phones, is one reason why vehicle reservations for that part of the park are being put on hold, according to Acadia officials. Uncertainty about how the continuing COVID-19 pandemic will affect the Island Explorer bus system, which provides service on Ocean Drive but not to the summit of Cadillac, is another reason.
The reservation requirement is part of the park’s efforts to mitigate vehicle traffic in the park, which has been rising in recent years as more visitors come to Acadia. For six straight years, from 2013 through 2018, Acadia set new annual records for park visits, and last year got its third-highest visits total ever. Visits this year, however, have declined greatly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Park spokesperson Christie Anastasia said Thursday that the Island Explorer bus system is a key component of how the park hopes to manage vehicle traffic along Ocean Drive. If the seasonal bus system is operating at reduced capacity next summer — or, like this summer, is not operating at all — and if reservations are required, it might prove overly burdensome for a significant number of visitors who want to visit those sites, she said.
“We would not be providing the full spectrum of access that we would want to provide,” Anastasia said.
Road layouts at the Sand Beach Entrance and at the entrance to the Cadillac summit road also are partially affecting implementation of the reservation plan, she said.
At the base of Cadillac Mountain, cars can continue straight on the Park Loop Road and go to other nearby parts of the park if they do not turn onto the summit road. At the Sand Beach entrance, however, Ocean Drive is one-way and cars without reservations would have to turn onto Schooner Head Road and then drive back into downtown Bar Harbor, making it cumbersome to get to a different part of the park where a reservation is not needed.
Not having the option of riding the Island Explorer back to Ocean Drive from downtown Bar Harbor would exacerbate the difficulty of finding an alternate way to get into the park, she said.
“We learned a lot during the pilot project,” Anastasia said.
During the trial period, some visitors brought paper printouts of their reservations, while others saved screenshots on their phones of their confirmation QR codes, and showed them to rangers to be allowed through, she said. Because it was a pilot project, motorists at the Sand Beach entrance who were unable to call up their reservation confirmation emails on their phones also were allowed to proceed.
At times this summer, because of spikes in weekend visitors and because of the suspension of the Island Explorer system, traffic was congested in the park at the Sand Beach entrance. If the bus system remains on hiatus next summer, or reduces its passenger capacity, the park may consider alternate short-term traffic management measures to reduce Ocean Drive congestion, Anastasia said.
“We’re open to these discussions,” she said.
Things went more smoothly at the Cadillac Mountain summit road, she said, because of the road layout and because cell phone reception there is better. And because Island Explorer buses already do not drive up the road to the summit, park officials have a better feeling that the reservation system will work at that location.
Only people who want to drive their personal vehicles to the top will need reservations, she said. People who get to the summit by other means, such as hiking, biking or riding a privately operated tour bus, will not need any.
Anastasia said the park has not yet decided the dates that the reservation system for driving up Cadillac will be in effect.