Since returning home to Maine, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some of my free time in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park, arguably two of the most beautiful natural areas in the country. Besides the bald mountains and glaciated landscapes, though, the two parks couldn’t be more different. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the differences as I walk on the rough granite bedrock, and the mossy, root-choked forest trails, finding solitude where I can.
That solitude is the defining difference. Acadia, a premier national park, follows the philosophy of providing the most accessibility to the largest number of people. Millions of visitors flock to Mount Desert Island every year to witness the beauty of the island’s granite domes, the jagged coastline, the idyllic carriage roads along the mountain sides. To get them along to their destinations, the carriage roads and the Park Loop Road are well maintained and scattered with viewpoints, rest stops, picnic areas, and the occasional unique attraction like the stone gatehouses or the Jordan Pond restaurant. Two primitive campgrounds within the park, and several private campgrounds nearby, allow for the semblance of ‘roughing it’ without having to give up running water or flushing toilets.
There is no solitude or wildness in Acadia. The island is overflowing with natural beauty, but it’s nearly impossible to find a spot on a mountainside that you can call your own for a full hour, let alone a full day.
Baxter State Park, at the other end of the spectrum, is quiet. The Park Tote Road leads along the edge, bringing visitors to more than half a dozen primitive campgrounds and several scenic roadside attractions, but the amenities are far more sparse. There is no potable water at the campgrounds, nor flushing toilets. No bus roams around the park, and no RVs (vehicles that size aren’t even allowed in the park, since the road is so narrow and winding they would undoubtedly get stuck). Even getting into the park is a task, with daily limits on the number of cars allowed past each gate, and no camping allowed without prior reservation. And while many ponds are close to roads and can be easily accessed, none of the park’s many mountains has any sort of road to the top, paved or otherwise.
Spend a full day at the highest point in each park, and your experiences will be vastly different. On Baxter Peak of Katahdin, you might see thirty or forty people on a very busy day, each one having climbed one of the incredibly steep trails to the summit. That’s no small number, but on Cadillac Mountain, you’d see hundreds of people, shuttled to the summit on tour buses, vans, cars, SUVs, and motorcycles. You’d see a few hikers and bicyclists, too, but mostly a torrent of car-bound tourists. A better comparison, though, would be to take the second-highest peak in the park. Hamlin Peak in Baxter might see half a dozen people on a busy day. Sargent Mountain in Acadia, still close to a hundred.
Before I go much further, I’ll say that the increased access at the National Park isn’t always a bad thing. It makes planning a trip to the park much simpler, and it shows off the natural beauty of the area to many more people. The gateway communities on the way to Acadia see a huge inflow of cash every summer and autumn as millions of tourists flock to the park, their money burning holes in their pockets. And, of course, why should my grandparents, who are no longer able to hike very car from a car, not be able to share in the glory of Acadia? There’s certainly something to be said for ease of access to the country’s most beautiful places.
But we have to remember what is lost in the opening of the wild to the masses. I sometimes wonder what John Muir, the champion of Yosemite National Park, would say if he saw the cheek-to-jowl lines on Half Dome, or the traffic jams backed up through Yosemite Valley, few people venturing much further than an arm’s length from their vehicles in order to snap photos before going back to the air conditioning. Muir spoke of the mountains as a cathedral, and as a link to the divine– but how can you have any kind of connection with the landscape when you’re focused on your car or your noisy neighbors?
As much as I love the landscape in Acadia, I have to limit how often I go there and at what times of year. The spiritual recharge that I get in the deep woods or on the top of a remote mountain feels muted and imperfect when there’s a constant flow of people around. The sounds I need to hear in the wild are the birds singing, crickets chirping, and the wind whispering; not roaring motorcycles, boisterous parties, and people trying to keep their dogs in line.
My most recent experiences at campgrounds in both parks are indicative of the basic attitudes at each. On a night in Roaring Brook campground in Baxter, when the campground was completely full, I was pleasantly surprised to find the area silent by 8 PM, except for the sounds of the brook and the occasional crackle of a campfire. At Blackwoods, in Acadia, I was awoken at midnight by my neighbors having a bongo jam along with their stereo blasting Grateful Dead all throughout the campground. Both campground have rules about nighttime quiet hours, but neither are enforced by much more than the honor system (and people like me who get up and lecture the offenders).
Greater accessibility has its upsides, but less of it seems to lead more often to a greater respect for what brings us to the outdoors in the first place. Whether that’s the peace and quiet of the wild, or the joy of a fine view, it’s good to remember why we preserve those places.