Cars back up on the Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, as visitors wait in line to drive through the fee station near Sand Beach. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Acadia National Park is on the verge of breaking its record for the estimated number of visits it gets each year.

As of the end of September, Acadia had an estimated total of 3.4 million visits so far in 2021, which is roughly 100,000 visits shy of the record 3.5 million visits it registered for all of 2017.

Visitation counts for October aren’t yet available, but Acadia typically attracts more than 400,000 visits in October.

The number of people in Acadia this month almost certainly has already pushed its yearly visits to an all-time high, John Kelly, spokesperson for the park, said Monday.

“Very likely we have passed our own record,” he said. “We’ll have a better idea of what the annual total will add up to when the October numbers come in.”

Park officials have been predicting that the visitation total for all of 2021 likely will exceed 4 million. Annual visitation to Acadia first rose above 3 million in 2016, when the National Park Service heavily promoted its 100th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of Acadia, both of which were created in 1916. The park’s visitation totals hovered between 3.3 million and 3.5 million from 2016 through 2019, but then fell below 2.6 million in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The surge in visits has helped to offset the dearth of tourists to Bar Harbor in 2020 when COVID-19 concerns and restrictions resulted in low visitation numbers at nearby Acadia. Beginning in last October, the estimated number of monthly visits to Acadia since then have been significantly higher than the corresponding monthly totals from previous years.

The volume of visitors has helped businesses stay busy this year, but the national labor shortage still has hampered the ability of those businesses to handle the volume of people, Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said. Acadia also suffered from low staffing levels because of the labor shortage, according to Kelly.

“That was a huge challenge for businesses [this year],” Anderson said.

Anderson said Acadia and Bar Harbor officials have been working to manage the number of visitors Mount Desert Island gets each year.

Acadia adopted in 2019 a traffic management plan that limits car access to the top of Cadillac Mountain and which relies heavily on the seasonal Island Explorer bus system, which did not operate at all in 2020 and operated at a limited capacity this summer and early fall. For its part, Bar Harbor is looking to limit the number of cruise ship visits it gets each year, though none visited in 2020 or 2021 because of the pandemic.

“We think it is the right thing to do,” Anderson said of the Chamber’s support for limiting vehicle access to parts of Acadia and the number of cruise ships that visit Bar Harbor. The island’s tourism industry has to be well-received by both visitors and local residents, he said.

“The name of the game now is managing the visitor experience,” Anderson said.

Park officials have said the vehicle reservation system for Cadillac Mountain worked well this summer to better manage congestion at the summit, but Kelly said the park might use the system later into the fall next year. Late last week, after the Cadillac reservation system ended for the year, the summit road was closed several times and hundreds of cars were turned away as throngs of visitors tried to drive up to see sunrises and sunsets from the top, he said.

“Almost the entire summer was spent responding day by day to congestion, rescues or visitor assists,” Kelly said, adding that the number of rescues park rangers responded to were up by roughly 33 percent.

Since last fall visitation to national parks nationwide — and to outdoor recreation areas in general — has increased sharply as people have sought to avoid congregating with others indoors, where the chances of catching COVID-19 from someone infected by the disease is higher than it is outside.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....