Visitors to Acadia National Park would need reservations before driving up Cadillac Mountain, along Park Loop Road near Sand Beach or parking in the Jordan Pond north lot under a plan to reduce congestion during peak tourism season.

After years of discussion, Acadia officials formally unveiled their plan Monday for a “timed-entry reservation system” to manage parking at some of the park’s most popular attractions. The plan, which is expected to be approved by the National Park Service’s regional director, would require drivers to obtain reservations between mid-June and mid-October before entering Cadillac Summit Road, Jordan Pond’s north lot or the 1.8-mile stretch of Park Loop Road/Ocean Drive between Sand Beach and the Fabbri picnic area.

Drivers will have a window of time to enter those areas but could stay as long as they desired. Reservations will not be required to travel on the rest of Park Loop Road – with the exception of the Ocean Drive corridor that includes Sand Beach and Thunder Hole – and parking at other locations would continue to be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Over time, however, the park aims to eliminate the right-lane parking currently allowed along the busy, one-way stretches of Park Loop Road.

Although details have yet to be fleshed out, the plan calls for a “modest” reservation fee of $10 or less to cover the costs of running the system and to support the Island Explorer bus service that ferries visitors around the park for free.

Park spokeswoman Christie Anastasia said the timed-entry reservation system could be in place for the 2020 season, at the earliest, but other aspects of the plan will take up to a decade to implement. But the overarching goal of the transportation plan, Anastasia said, is for park visitors “to have a better experience in those areas” that have become traffic bottlenecks as drivers jockey for limited parking.

“I think it’s very important for people to realize that, even with the final plan in place, the majority of hiking trails and carriage roads will be accessible without a reservation,” Anastasia said.

Acadia consistently ranks among the top 10 most-visited national parks. And those visitation figures have surged in recent years.

The park has reported more than 3.5 million visitors during both 2017 and 2018. While figures fluctuate from year to year – depending on weather, the economy and other factors – the number of visitors has risen 60 to 70 percent over the past 10 to 15 years. But Acadia’s growing popularity is straining – and sometimes exceeding – the capacity of Acadia’s aging infrastructure as well as raising concerns about protecting the natural environment that draws visitors in the first place.

It is not uncommon, for instance, for a line of traffic to snake down the road from the summit of Cadillac Mountain during busy summer months as cars wait or circle for one of the 170 spots. That has prompted park rangers to close the road to new traffic, at times, in an attempt to regulate congestion on top. Similarly, the Ocean Drive section of Park Loop Road can also become clogged around Sand Beach and Thunder Hole, creating safety concerns for crossing pedestrians and resulting in damage to roadside vegetation from illegal parking.

The timed-entry reservation system is one component of a transportation plan that runs more than 260 pages, with appendixes and figures. In addition to regulating parking at the busiest spots, the transportation plan calls for:

Replacing the small, existing parking lot and restroom for Eagle Lake on Route 233 with a much larger lot (up to 125 spots) in a nearby 2-acre area now used as a maintenance storage yard.

Adding 200 to 250 more parking spaces (up from the current 270 spots) at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and eventually building a new, larger visitor center on the same grade as the parking lot to improve accessibility.

Removing the Thompson Island Information Center once Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton is built out.

Gradually eliminate the right-lane parking now allowed along Ocean Drive as other alternatives are developed.

Encourage use of the Island Explorer or other tour services.

Acadia officials first solicited public feedback on the timed-entry reservation system as well as three other alternatives last April. Hundreds of individuals or organizations submitted comments in the ensuing months.

Officials from Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit that works closely with park officials, praised the final plan as a measured but much-needed approach to the park’s congestion problems. Friends of Acadia president and CEO David MacDonald said he was pleased the Park Service took an “adaptive” approach, rather than a rigid plan, that will allow them to adjust the management practices depending on need and how they are working.

And while MacDonald said 2020 is likely an ambitious target date for the timed-entry reservation system, he said the extended roll-out will allow his group as well as the park to prepare visitors, particularly those from other states.

“It will take some getting used to but I hope to take good advantage of the next year or two to educate people about the changes and let them know what their other options are,” MacDonald said. “I would say the plan takes the right approach for the current situation we are in.”

The plan envisions 1,460 “private vehicle reservations” per day atop Cadillac Mountain, 850 per day at Jordan Pond and 1,020 reservations for the Ocean Drive corridor.

Instituting an entry-reservation system along Ocean Drive will disrupt flow along Park Loop Road, forcing drivers without a reservation to exit the road at the Sand Beach entrance station. Drivers will still be able to access Park Loop Road via Otter Cliffs Road, however, without a reservation. Great Head Road would be closed to vehicle traffic; however, a new trail from Schooner Head Overlook will connect hikers and cyclists to the Great Head trail system.

Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider thanked the public for its participation in developing the plan. After being published in the Federal Register, the final transportation plan and associated environmental impact statement is expected to be approved by the National Park Service’s regional director, Gay Vietzke, next month.

“We believe the preferred alternative as revised in response to public comment best fulfills the purpose and need for the plan and the mission of the National Park Service,” Schneider said in a statement. “The preferred alternative provides for the best protection of the significant natural and cultural resources of Acadia National Park while also providing high-quality experiences to visitors. This plan is a blueprint for the future; many of the details related to implementation of the Final Plan/EIS will take years and continue to require public feedback and stakeholder engagement.”

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