A lot of us want to go for a hike right now to relieve stress, but it’s adding a lot of stress to our trails.
As part of efforts to clamp down on the spread of the coronavirus, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy closed all state forests and state and county parks, making it harder for folks to get outside and exercise while practicing social distancing.
In Delaware, officials are looking at limiting state park access on a “case by case” basis. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control said it will limit vehicle access to prevent crowding and allow for safe social distancing.
So what should we do when we want to get outside? Here’s what you need to know.
The risks of hiking now
In hard-hit New Jersey, it’s possible to find a trail or a beach or a nature preserve that is open to the public, but officials say you shouldn’t really go. These sites are becoming increasingly crowded, and the bottlenecks run counter to public health goals that park closures are meant to achieve.
In Jersey, it may be time for the idea of taking a nature hike to take a hike.
“We don’t love the idea of closing our parks, but we find it extremely necessary,” said Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen. He said social distancing in public spaces is a problem and priority not just locally.
If we all congregate in the few remaining natural places, it’s “counterproductive,” Keashan said, and could undermine efforts to help keep us all safe.
“As the days have gotten nicer and the stay-at-home period endures, we have been increasingly concerned to see the behavior of some visitors to our state parks and wildlife areas, with full parking lots and increasingly crowded trails,” said Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn M. Garvin.
The best idea, he said, is to walk, hike, and exercise in your neighborhood.
And if you’re in a state where some parks are still open, don’t travel far. The Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission recommends that people use state parks within 15 miles of their home, to mitigate the potential spread of the virus.
Delaware officials advise that you limit your time in parks, and visit during off-peak hours. Out-of-state visitors are subject to a 14-day quarantine. The polices will be enforced by Natural Resources police.
What about the Appalachian Trail?
On April 2, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Appalachian Trail clubs requested that the federal government consider closing the trail to hiking. The trail — which, in Pennsylvania, crosses the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike along a ridge in northern Lehigh and Northampton Counties — is already closed in some areas because of state and federal restrictions. Those areas can be found here (https://wildeast.appalachiantrail.org/explore/plan-and-prepare/hiking-basics/health/covid19/a-t-closures/). The conservancy requests that you stay off the trail no matter what local regulations advise because crowds have made hiking dangerous in many places.
“These same crowds accessing the A.T. may not know how a simple half-day hike can spread COVID-19. While hiking, they may have eaten lunch at a picnic table, taken a break in a shelter, used a privy, or shared a map or food with someone unknowingly infected with COVID-19 and carried this highly contagious virus back to their communities at the end of the day,” said Sandra Marra, president of the conservancy, on the organization’s website.
"They may not have realized that A.T.C. staff and trail volunteers have been recalled from the A.T. and cannot maintain the footpath, trail heads, shelters, and privies that may be heavily (or permanently) impacted by increased visitor use. And they may not be aware of the rural communities adjacent to the trail that may not have the health-care resources to help a sick hiker or volunteer or manage a COVID-19 outbreak should a hiker transport the virus in from the trail,” said Marra.
How to hike more safely
In the Philadelphia area, sites like the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum remain viable outdoor options, but you should take precautions, said Mica Denise McCullough of the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River Watershed, a group that organizes local outdoor events through its mission to promote the understanding and protection of aquatic life and habitats.
“Due to the great human desire to get outside these days, some trail areas are filling up quickly," McCullough said by email. "We recommend going in the morning or evening, but avoiding the mid-afternoon ‘rush hour.’ Hitting the trails during quieter, less crowded times also increases your chances of seeing wildlife, such as foxes and birds in Tacony Creek Park, or many types of waterfowl and migratory birds at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.”
Most Nature Conservancy and Natural Lands properties remain open for hiking, but there are exceptions. Stoneleigh Gardens is closed to protect staffers, and websites advise visitors to seek another site if a parking lot is crowded.
Philadelphia-area parks remain open, but they’re overcrowded, as so many people have been eager to find something to do. Wissahickon Valley Park has been inundated with hikers, causing problems for property and staff.