Park visitation numbers were first tracked in 1919, the year Lafayette National Park was established. That year, 64,000 visits were made.
Visitation numbers for what in 1929 became Acadia National Park swelled to 5.44 million in 1989 and then dropped off significantly after new counting methods were used. In 2015, visitation was 2.81 million, the highest in 20 years, which put Acadia ninth on the list of most-visited national parks.
At least that’s what official records reflect. Park Planner John Kelly points out those numbers can be deceiving. Kelly said the process of collecting data is not an exact science.
“We’re not counting as much as we’re estimating,” Kelly said. “In the end it’s a darn good guess.”
Kelly said a major change in methodology used to arrive at these figures occurred in 1989, the year visitation reached the peak of 5.44 million. The switch accounts for the plunge to 2.34 million visitations the following year. Despite the new approach, which park officials maintain is much more accurate, caveats still exist regarding the numbers. In fact, efforts are underway to improve on the process.
“We’re looking to redo the methodology to ensure that it’s current,” Kelly said.
When looking at the numbers, it’s important to understand that the totals do not tell us how many people visit the park in a particular year. Instead they are an estimate of the number of visitations, not the number of visitors, to the park, Kelly said.
For example, a family might enter the park four or five times during their week vacationing on the island. Each family member counts as one visit every time they enter the park. The 2.81 million visits last year probably translates into 750,000 to 1 million individuals, Kelly said.
From that point, keeping tabs on visitation gets knotty. One problem, Kelly said, is the many ways to access Acadia, not only on Mount Desert Island but also on the Schoodic Peninsula, Isle au Haut and even Bar Island, which at low tide can be accessed by a short walk from downtown Bar Harbor.
“We’re a porous park; there are 45 to 50 points of entry,” he explained. “Some parks have it easy. There’s one way in; there’s one way out.”
There are only two vehicle-activated traffic counters in the park, one at Sand Beach on Mount Desert Island, the other at the entrance to the Schoodic Peninsula.
Of course, the counters only tell part of the story, and this is where social science and statistical analysis take over. Traffic counts from Sand Beach and the Schoodic entrance are multiplied by a “vehicle expansion” factor. The multiplier attempts to compensate for vehicles entering the park where there is no counter, the “porous” access points referred to by Kelly.
These total vehicle counts are then multiplied by another factor: people per vehicle. The estimated number of people in each vehicle multiplied by the vehicle count results in the number of visits.
Determining the average number of people in a vehicle is based on surveys of visitors. Park personnel periodically count the number of people per vehicle at busy areas of the park, like Sand Beach and Cadillac Mountain, Kelly said. This information is included in the formula determining visitation.
At Sand Beach, Kelly said, “on average there are three people in a car going through the entry station.”
There is one unit of the park that does have limited access. The offshore island of Isle au Haut is accessible only by boat. Most visitors get to the island on a ferry out of Stonington. As a result, Isle au Haut might have the most accurate visitation numbers of all units of park. Rangers survey passengers as they arrive on the ferry, Kelley said.
Although the totals vary, monthly visitation follows a predictable pattern. The summer months are the busiest, with August having the peak number of visits. In 2015, nearly 667,000 visitations were recorded that month. July is the second busiest month, September the third busiest, June the fourth and October, not May, the fifth.
The slowest month visitation-wise varies from year to year. December, January and February all have had that distinction. Going back to 2005, December has had the lowest visitation five times, February four times and January twice. February was the slowest month last year, with visitation at 10,626.