By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
A day in the great outdoors has become increasingly attractive during the coronavirus pandemic. With many entertainment, sporting, and recreational activities constrained by safety precautions, people are flooding into national and local parks and recreation areas, as well as some previously little-known places. The crowds, congestion and litter have now forced a new set of restrictions. Some parks are limiting the number of visitors and some lesser-known locations are closing. If you’re headed out to a park or natural area, avoid disappointment by checking for the latest information before you head out the door.
Local attraction closed
NANPA member and professional photographer John Slonina shared the story of a beautiful waterfall in New Hampshire that closed to the public earlier this year. Garwin Falls, outside Wilton, joins a growing list of natural attractions that have been shut down because of crowds, bad and unsafe behavior by visitors, illegal parking, garbage, graffiti, and more. Photo tour leaders like Slonina are having to constantly check the status of all their favorite locations for changed hours, closures, and other new restrictions.
National park restrictions
As an example, Rocky Mountain National Park, in an attempt to limit the number of visitors, instituted a system of timed entry permits through October 12, 2020. The park is trying to limit the number of visitors to 60% of capacity to comply with COVID-19 public health guidelines. Visitors will need to reserve a spot for a specific two-hour window. Once you have the reservation, you can enter the park at any time during the day of your reservation after your two-hour time slot. The reservations are required from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. and have been in effect since the park reopened on May 27, 2020. Reservations are not required from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. Many visitors, unaware of the new permit system, arrived at a park entrance only to be turned away.
Other parks are coping with visitors going off marked trails and creating “social trails” that damage plant life and disturb wildlife. Park rangers or volunteers then have to spend hours and resources to block off social trails and attempt to repair the damage done. With fewer facilities open, the larger crowds are also overwhelming trash collection and restrooms or comfort stations. With many Yellowstone overnight lodging options closed, people are camping illegally just outside the park and neighboring towns and campsites are bearing the burden, as reported here.
In the past, stories of unruly crowds forcing popular locations to close or restrict access have become distressingly common, as we noted here and here. The coronavirus has also played havoc with visitor plans as places like Glacier and Great Smokey Mountain National Parks closed access to popular areas and restricted numbers and hours.
If throngs of people develop a new appreciation for nature after visiting parks during the pandemic, some good may come of all this. Parks and natural attractions want people to visit and experience the splendor of landscapes and wildlife. In the meantime, we have to deal with the less welcome consequences of overcrowding.
Check the websites or call to check the status and any possible restrictions at any site you plan to visit. You don’t want to be surprised after driving several hours to get there. And, once you’re there, set an example. Be a role model. #RecreateResponsibly.
This article was updated on September 30, 2020 to clarify information about Rocky Mountain National Park’s timed entry permit system.
Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog and edits NANPA’s annual journal, Expressions.