SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — Among our national parks, Yosemite has more than 750 miles of trails, Great Smoky Mountains has about 800, and Yellowstone has more than 900.
Acadia, the pride of Maine, has a mere 155 miles of walking and hiking trails. What they lack in distance they make up for in charm, and nobody knows that better than Gary Stellpflug.
For 35 years, Stellpflug worked for the National Park Service at Acadia. When he retired at the end of August, his job title was trails maintenance foreman, which meant he was responsible for overseeing the 155 miles of trails that run through the park from the shores of Isle au Haut and the Schoodic Peninsula to the summit of Cadillac Mountain—minus the famed carriage trails.
To a lot of people that would sound like a dream job, and Stellpflug relished it.
His favorite part? “Well, for starters, I got to work for the National Park Service,” he said. “I loved the National Park Service.”
Our national parks have been called "America’s greatest idea," and on that point, Stellpflug is succinct and emphatic: “I totally agree.”
Over the years, the experience of exploring Acadia has been changed by the ever-growing numbers of visitors, now more than four million annually and climbing.
The phrase one hears is that the national parks, Acadia included, are being "loved to death." It’s a description Stellpflug does not embrace.
“If I say ‘to the death,’ it’s like we’re throwing in the towel,” he said. “And I don’t believe we’re doing that. I think we’re trying to meet the demands.”
As trails foreman, Stellpflug tried to put himself in the shoes of visitors, tried to figure out what they’d need in the way of clear signage, well-marked trails, and useful directions. He’s quick to acknowledge that he knows the park so intimately that it sometimes wasn’t possible to see the place as tourists see it.
In the end, he came to a conclusion about the experience visitors have at Acadia, a conclusion hard to argue with. “It’s got to not be getting worse,” he said, “Or they wouldn’t keep coming.”