A Trail’s Pace: Circulation Systems in Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park in its entirety is not something that can be experienced over the course of a day, or even in the six weeks that we will have here on Mount Desert Island. The patchwork of land stretched out over the island and into the surrounding region can only be experienced in disjointed bits and pieces, and the circulation systems that exist within the park perpetuate this disjointedness even as they make understanding and appreciating the vast resource more achievable. The motor and carriage roads, along with the hiking trails move past and across each other over the island’s varied landscape, allowing people to traverse large portions of the park. But while the routes are connected, they are designed almost to a fault. Each system was designed for its user and each has its own pace and measure which set it apart from the others.

The motor road was designed for the car. Its smooth and sweeping curves take you around the island at the fastest pace. As the road moves through the trees, along the coast and on mountain ridges, visitors experience the landscape’s depth rather than its focus. The vistas and scenery on display along the routes are best experienced in motion. They are on the grand scale, breathtaking and vast, and yet people still deviate from the ideal course, pulling off the road at overlooks, trying to focus in on details that are best appreciated at a different scale and at another speed.

The carriage roads are equally specialized. They are best experienced in conjunction with each other. One carriage road by itself does not provide a complete experience. The many bridges and other points of interest along the roads have value in being a part of a larger system, and the way they are spaced dictates the speed of travel. The features are just too far apart for someone on foot to appreciate. The impression of one feature fades before the next feature can be reached, and the path is too unvarying to make the journey between features a new experience in itself at slow speeds. The carriage roads are best seen by bike or through the novelty of a carriage ride.

We spent the majority of our time on the last of the circulation types, the hiking trails. Here, everything slows down and comes into sharper focus. On the trails, hikers can’t simply glide through the landscape. In addition to the many anticipated stops at overlooks, pauses along the trail become a necessity as portions of the trails move up rock faces and over large boulders. Hikers have a more direct contact with the landscape, using trees as handholds to navigate steeper slopes or rocks as stepping stones across a stream. On the trails, small changes are more noticeable: thinner canopies shift to thick screens and the light dims, forest gradually gives way to open cliff, the familiar lichen-covered pink granite is suddenly interrupted by bright, newly-laid stone. The trails move at the slowest pace, but they offer the most detailed view of the park.

During our inventorying, we experienced the trails in two different ways and at different speeds, further refining our impression of the park. On the first trip, we moved slowly, agonizingly so in places where the work was complicated by portions of the trail that had been worked on by nature or by human hands. We saw the trail in highly defined terms and characterized it based on the job at hand through measurement and documentation. On the second trip, we sped up the pace, turning our attention to new values. We evaluated the trail in terms that weren’t biased by our physical ability to traverse its span and its elevation. We looked at the complete length of a trail and reflected its place in the park and categorized it based on our impressions. Was it a woodland trail or a mountain trail? Did it serve to connect other trails or did it lead to a certain destination? Was it defined by its natural features or its built elements? We placed the trails into the larger network, taking the sharp clarity we had gained from our first trip and blurred the edges in order to meld the experiences from all our hikes together into a complete picture of what the hiking trail system in Acadia National Park has to offer.

In the history of the park, the three systems have not always received the same level of care, one system taking precedence over the others. However, based on our experience in these last five weeks, the park seems to have reached a satisfying level of equality, balancing the needs of those using the motorway, the carriage roads, and the hiking trails. Visitors have a wide variety of options, and they can choose their method of travel and their course with the assurance that they will be able to get where they want to go with relative ease and safety within the time they have. Additionally, the distinct identity of each system, sets them apart from each other and creates a unique user experience within Acadia, where visitors can experience the park in three separate and highly defined ways or create a hybrid experience of their own.

2 responses to “A Trail’s Pace: Circulation Systems in Acadia National Park

  1. Sarah, great description of the two trail approaches and experiences! This is great material for final presentation. Looking forward to hearing more about the team’s impressions this week.

    Bob and George

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