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Tourists Can Be Too Much Of A Good Thing For This Maine Town

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For many people, the great American road trip would not be complete without some camping, hiking and biking in some of the most beautiful spots on earth. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, more than 330 million people will visit a national park this year, and as folks rush to get away from it all, they will also import some problems from the big city, like traffic jams and competition for parking spaces. As Jennifer Mitchell of Maine Public Radio reports, the issue has reached epic proportions at Acadia National Park.

JENNIFER MITCHELL, BYLINE: Situated within a day's drive from the most densely populated part of the country, Acadia National Park on Maine's historic Downeast Coast has been attracting tourists for more than 100 years. These days, it gets millions of visits each year.

NATE BOSSIE: You definitely want to get early - you know, get up early and, you know, get parked.

RAY PENN: When we got here, there was nobody here. There was, like, five cars.

BOSSIE: But if you get here, like, now, there's cars...

PENN: Now...

BOSSIE: ...Parked down the street. But...

PENN: Yeah, like, when we did two days ago, we got here at what - 11, 12?

BOSSIE: It was 12.

PENN: You had a line down the road.

MITCHELL: That's Nate Bossie and Ray Penn, visiting from Connecticut for the first time. They say the trip was totally worth it for the biking and hiking trails, the mountains and the wilderness once they were safely parked. Terrible traffic is probably the last thing you expect to encounter up a mountain in one of the most rural states in the nation, but it's getting to be the case more and more.

KEVIN SCHNEIDER: Well, for example, at Cadillac Mountain, which is one of the key destinations here in Acadia, we have 155 parking spaces at the top of the mountain. And on a busy day, we can have as many as 400, 500, even 600 cars vying for one of those parking spaces.

MITCHELL: And as those cars hopefully hover, waiting for spots to open up, Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider says the area becomes choked with cars, and no one is able to get through, including emergency responders. It was an especial problem on July 5 this summer, when the park experienced its busiest day ever with 755 calls for assistance and at least 20 emergencies. Dangerous congestion led park officials to close the road more than 50 times last summer, thus denying visitors one of the park's most iconic views.

SCHNEIDER: And so, you know, that's not the kind of experience we want to be able to provide our visitors.

MITCHELL: Acadia has seen a 59% increase in visits over the last 10 years, says Schneider, and a lot of those people drive into the park.

GLENN TUCKER: (Unintelligible) take a ride. You'll go about 100 yards. You'll be there.

MITCHELL: Then they drive over to the neighboring town of Bar Harbor, where hundreds of businesses also rely on the help of the park visitation.

From a business perspective, is it possible to, you know, have too many tourists in one place at one time?

TUCKER: I think it's possible to diminish the experience.

MITCHELL: Glenn Tucker rents bikes and kayaks from his shop in Bar Harbor. Originally from South Carolina, he says Acadia's natural beauty was irresistible, and it's not surprising to him that others are also flocking to enjoy its charms. But he'd like to see more folks thinking outside the car and considering options like arriving via cruise ship, going with a local tour company, choosing to bike or taking the free bus that's available. He doesn't think that Acadia will crack down on cars as Zion National Park has, but he also doesn't want the balance upset to the point where his customers go somewhere else.

TUCKER: And I don't know what the tipping point is, and I'm not sure that the Park Service knows what the tipping point is. They don't want to deny people the opportunity to visit parks, but at the same time, they want a pleasant experience.

MITCHELL: Acadia National Park plans to create a reservation-only parking system for some of its busiest areas, and park supporters want the federal government to help the park buy dozens of buses so that more people can enjoy it without their cars. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Mitchell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.