In this May 16, 2021, file photo, early-rising visitors to Acadia National Park await the sunrise on the summit of Cadillac Mountain. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

As the number of visitors to Acadia National Park has shot up during the pandemic, so has the number of illegal campers.

Illegal camping at Acadia, including people who set up secret campsites in the woods or try to sleep in their vehicles in parking lots, has long been an issue at the park, according to Acadia spokesperson Sean Bonnage.

In 2017 and 2018, long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, the park documented 128 and 102 cases respectively of people trying to sleep overnight in the park at an unsanctioned site.

Rangers counted 146 illegal camping incidents in the park in 2019, but then in 2020, when the pandemic greatly reduced visitation to Acadia, the number of illegal camping cases jumped to 198, a 35 percent increase. The park’s campgrounds did not open in 2020 because of COVID, which likely contributed to the number of illegal campers, Bonnage said.

Last summer, the park’s three campgrounds at Black Woods, Seawall and Schoodic Woods all reopened, except for the group campsites, but still rangers recorded 182 cases of illegal camping, a 25 percent increase from 2019. Overall, the park had more than 4 million visits in 2021, the most ever in the park’s 106-year history.

Bonnage said it is not clear that the global spread of COVID is the main driver for the increase in illegal camping.

“Overall, we saw more people at the park in 2021, and that alone could account for the increase in camping-related issues at Acadia,” Bonnage said. “Visitation has steadily been increasing during the summer months at Acadia over the last decade, and we think this is the bigger reason for increased illegal camping contacts rather than the pandemic.”

Acadia is not the only place in Maine where unwanted campers have appeared during the pandemic.

Last summer, state officials banned camping on Tumbledown Mountain in Franklin County after some campers there damaged the landscape and left behind trash. Similar problems, to a lesser degree, also occurred at other Maine parks, state officials said at the time.

Last week, illegal campers were reported on Marlboro Beach in Lamoine, on the north side of Frenchman Bay from MDI. The group moved along after a deputy went to the beach and told them camping was not allowed there, according to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office.

Bonnage said that some incidents of illegal camping in Acadia in recent years have gone beyond people sleeping in a van or tying up a hammock in a scenic spot for an overnight stay. Some involve what he called “long-term, residential, full camping setups with tents and illegal fire rings.”

He also said that some illegal campers are people who intend to spend the summer on Mount Desert Island but have no place to stay. The lack of affordable housing on MDI and housing for seasonal workers has become a significant problem for employers — including Acadia National Park — and residents alike.

“The park also sees at least a few contacts each year that are repeatedly contacted, and the individuals are oftentimes homeless,” Bonnage said.

Bonnage said he did not have a number of illegal camping incidents rangers have dealt with so far in 2022. But the park seems to be on track to have between 150 and 180 cases again this year, he said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....