What Happens When Social Distancing Meets 'Social Trails'
North Carolina residents hit the outdoors in record numbers last year as COVID-19 spread throughout the state — and it impacted state parks in new ways that environmental officials are still managing.
The state park system welcomed a total of 19.8 million visitors in 2020, which is 400,000 more than the system’s previous high in 2017.
“That is because during the pandemic, when a lot of other venues for recreation were closed, people were seeking something that they could do that was active, that was away from their house, where they felt safe during the pandemic,” said Katie Hall, public information officer for the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.
North Carolina is home to 34 state parks, covering 250,000 acres of land and water. Most saw a jump in traffic from 2019 to 2020, according to an analysis of state park data by the Queens University News Service. Overall, there was a 6.5% increase in visitors among all state parks in 2020. Some notable increases:
- A 91% increase in visitors at Mayo River State Park in Rockingham County. That was the largest increase in the state.
- 79% increase at Carolina Beach State Park in New Hanover County. Visitors there topped 1.5 million last year.
- 30% increase at South Mountains State Park in Burke County, about an 80-minute drive from Charlotte.
- 10% increase at Jockey’s Ridge State Park on Nags Head, in Dare County. The park saw the highest number of visitors — 1,933,976 — out of all 34 parks this year.
More Visitors Mean More Problems
But the increase in visitors brought also problems. The parks were not designed to host such a large amount of park-goers, Hall said. And social distancing guidelines affected park ecosystems. Hiking trail widths, for example, are not built to accommodate people spreading out at least 6 feet, she said, and this can result in unintended damage to wildlife.
“There are a lot of species of plants and animals that are barely visible that live just off the trail, and the trail is the width that it is for a reason,” Hall said. “And that is to protect the species. A lot of our parks have rare, threatened or endangered species. So when we're talking about having impacts on species, sometimes that's really significant.”
That's why as park attendance increased, so did the need for maintenance.
“We have seen a large increase in trail maintenance needs, particularly on the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail,” said Jonathan Griffith, superintendent of South Mountains State Park. The loop is the park’s most popular trail. “We have been repairing steps, hauling gravel to armor the tread, blocking off bushwhack trails and picking up considerably more trash.”
Along the coast, Carolina State Beach Park experienced similar impact.
“We have seen an increase in ‘social trails,’” said Chris Helms, the Carolina Beach State Park superintendent. “These are trails that are created by visitors going off the established trails from one point to another, that becomes used by others and creates unwanted impacts.”
Keeping Up With Repairs
North Carolina State Parks lack the financial resources to keep up with damage that occurs with increased use, Hall said. The state gets some funding to repair trails and build new ones, she said, but the park systems need new places for visitors to go. She said the current parks are already too crowded — but this is not to dissuade visitors from enjoying the parks.
“I do hope that our human visitors, by getting out into the park in large numbers during the pandemic, may have a greater appreciation of the animal and plant species that occur here and the habitats that they reside,” said Helms, of Carolina Beach State Park.
Hall encourages visits to less popular parks and trails to help conserve plant and animal life, and visits during weekdays, when there is less traffic.
“The best thing they [park goers] can do is be thoughtful about where they go and when they go and help us try to disperse the amount of people that are visiting the most popular parks,” said Hall.
Veronika Divis, a student in Charlotte, said her favorite state park is South Mountains because it offers multiple trails to explore. Parks like Crowders Mountain State Park, which is known for a single trail to the mountaintop, often seemed busier because visitors flocked to the same areas, she said.
Crowders Mountain, located in Gaston County, welcomed about 791,810 people last year. It was one of about one dozen state parks that saw a decrease in traffic.
Jordan Grantz is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the Queens University News Service in support of local community news.