At first, when officials declared outdoor activities like hiking safe from the bans and closures closing the circles of our lives, it was a reason to celebrate. If we couldn’t get to work, or if we wanted to take our minds off the impromptu doomsday preppers walking out of grocery stores with carts full of toilet paper, we could at least regain some sanity and calm on the trails.
And there was good reason to celebrate this – the mental health benefits of being outdoors are well known and becoming more well documented. It can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, fight anxiety, and clarify thinking. It can make you feel more altruistic and connected with your fellow humans. Basically, kind of exactly what we need at a time like this.
But implicit in those declarations that kept parks and trails open was a bargain – you can hike, the agreement went, as long as you continue to practice social distancing. We still need to curb the spread of the coronavirus for the health of our fellow citizens. We’re all still in this together.
There were many hikers who kept their end of the bargain. They maintained their distance, visited lesser-known trails on off hours, and stayed as local as they could. But far, far too many did not. People had parties on beaches. Trailheads were so crowded that cars spilled out into no-parking zones and neighborhoods. Large hiking groups took up entire trails. In response, the parks began closing. Some just to automobiles, but many to everyone. The behavior got worse – in Sierra Madre, the first city in Southern California to own a municipal wilderness reserve – signs and barriers to entry on trails were removed and destroyed by people who thought rules did not apply to them. Now, a police presence prevents people from hiking. Even in remote places, people called for hikers to stay home. Both the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy urged thru-hikers to cancel their plans.
Practice #SocialDistancing! CDC says to avoid groups larger than 10 and stay 6 feet apart. You can help slow the spread of COVID-19!
We do not recommend hiking busy narrow trails (like Angels Landing).
NPS Photo taken yesterday (3/21/20) on Angels Landing. pic.twitter.com/SXvErSuCu2
— Zion National Park (@ZionNPS) March 22, 2020
Although some parks remain open, I both expect and encourage remaining parks to follow suit and close down during the health crisis – for the health of both the visitors and of the parks themselves. It’s a blow we all feel in the outdoor community right now. And I’m going to ask you to do something that might seem a little strange, in these days of intense self-care and soothing: I want you to remember this feeling.
Remember how it felt when your parks were taken away. Remember what you did when you no longer had your free exercise and mental health routine, when you couldn’t take your children out to show them blooming wildflowers, when your dog had to be satisfied with sidewalks. I say this not because I want you to dwell on the negative – but to work toward the positive.
Let’s face it – too many of us take our public parks and open spaces for granted. We don’t really appreciate or even in some cases recognize how much work goes into keeping them open and functional, and maybe until recently we didn’t really realize how many of them were just scraping by on shoestring budgets and slashed resources.
So when this quarantine is over – and hopefully we will be past the worst of it soon – remember how important your favorite parks and trails were and how much you missed them, and find some time to give something back to them. Donate, volunteer, lead a group hike for your friends, or help an organization working to make parks more accessible to everyone – and most of all, remember to fully appreciate the parks you do have and the time you get to spend in them.
We’ll all be back on the trails soon, and I look forward to seeing you there – happy, healthy, and re-energized.
In the Meantime
- Scott Turner shared this excellent piece on how what we’re feeling right now with these trail and park closures is actually grief.
- If you’re stuck indoors and don’t have decent green in your neighborhood, most public libraries are still issuing eBooks and many, including the LA Public Library, are putting some really fun content on social media. Look through some of our favorite books from the past few years if you’re looking for good suggestions.
- Mountaineers Books (who published my two books) are offering a code good for 25% all purchases right now. They have a terrific library of outdoor-focused titles across the board, from guidebooks to essays and memoirs. Just use code TIMETOREAD at checkout.
- Check in with some outdoor webcams. The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, Mount Wilson, and Yosemite all have great cameras. Here’s a list of some other National Parks webcams to check out, too.