ACADIA NAT’L PARK — If you thought there had never been as many people and cars in Acadia as there were July 5, you were right.
The park set an all-time record for a single day, with the number of visitors estimated at more than 35,000.
That was an increase of about 15 percent over the previous record high set on July 3, 2017, and 33 percent more than the average busiest day for the past eight years, according to Acadia social scientist Adam Gibson.
The record-high day followed a relatively slow first part of the year for visitation.
In each of the first five months, January through May, visitation was less than in the corresponding month in 2018. The 37 percent drop in January, to an estimated 5,832 visitors, was likely due largely to the 35-day federal government shutdown, which ended Jan. 26.
But park visitation also was off 31 percent in February, 18 percent in March, 7 percent in April and 10 percent in May. The smaller spring numbers may have been due in part to the chilly, wet weather that lingered well into May.
Overall, for the first five months of this year, the number of park visitors was down 11.5 percent.
Tabulation of the visitation numbers for June had not been completed as of Wednesday morning.
The gridlock that occurred on Acadia’s roads and in parking lots July 5, compounded by illegal parking on roadsides, made it difficult for park personnel to keep traffic moving and respond to emergencies. Several roads had to be closed, some more than once.
July 5 started out as a rather typical summer day for park visitation, according to Christie Anastasia, Acadia’s public affairs specialist.
“And then about 11 o’clock the floodgates opened,” she said.
Superintendent Kevin Schneider said that in addition to all of the traffic, park personnel were dealing with four emergency rescues, all at about the same time.
“That maxed our staff to their absolute limit,” he said. “I think they did a marvelous job of trying to juggle all of the things that were occurring simultaneously. But they were dealt what was almost an impossible situation.
“We had situations where the Island Explorer bus couldn’t get through,” he continued. “People were parking everywhere.”
Schneider said the unprecedented congestion on July 5 starkly illustrated the need to implement the long-range, comprehensive transportation plan that received final approval this spring after more than four years in development.
A key component of the plan is a timed-entry reservation system for the Ocean Drive section of the Park Loop Road, the Cadillac Mountain summit road and the north parking lot at Jordan Pond during the summer and early fall. Park officials had thought they might have the reservation system in place for at least one of those areas by next summer. But a delay in finalizing the transportation plan, caused by the government shutdown, means they are now looking at implementation in 2021.
The transportation plan also calls for greatly expanding the parking lot at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. And the park will explore ways to expand the Island Explorer bus system in an effort to reduce the number of private vehicles on the park’s roads.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to begin implementing the transportation plan,” Schneider said. “There are a lot of details to work through, and it’s going to take some time.
“But July 5 illustrates the need to try to provide a better experience for our visitors.”
Acadia calculates visitation each month using primarily three sources of data. One is an electronic traffic counter on the Park Loop Road near Sand Beach. That number is multiplied by a monthly “vehicle expansion multiplier” to account for vehicles in the park on a given day that do not pass over the traffic counter. That expanded vehicle number is then multiplied by a “persons per vehicle” average. Both of those multipliers are higher in the summer and early fall than in the rest of the year.
The number of tour bus passengers who are counted as park visitors is based on passenger counts submitted by the local tour operators and by the average number of passengers for the different sizes of motor coaches that buy commercial vehicle entrance passes.
Finally, 25 percent of all Island Explorer bus passengers are counted as park visitors.