Large parks seem like a natural fit for social distancing, right? After all, it should be easy to stay six feet away from other people in the woods — in theory. But a growing number of outdoor destinations are shutting their gates and telling visitors to take a hike as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.
Now, one of America's most iconic natural resources, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is joining that list. Visitors were ordered out as of noon Tuesday – something park staff says is for the safety of both guests and employees. The park, which straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border, had already closed campgrounds and bathroom areas, but over the past few days, droves of visitors clogged parking lots and even entrances to hiking trails.
"Last year in March we had on average about 25,000 people a day in the park, and this year in March so far we had about 30,000 a day in the park," said Jessie Snow with the park office.
Snow says park visitation, in general, has gone up lately – 12.5 million people last year – so the uptick isn't necessarily tied to people seeking respite from quarantines in the great outdoors.
As of now, the park is closed to the public through April 6, with the exception of two roads commonly used by commuters.
"We're looking at decreasing the numbers as much as possible, so the access will be highly limited," Snow said. "There will be closures at the park entrances, so people won't be able to get into the park easily."
The sprawling park – the most visited in the U.S. – is only leaving two commuter roads open, Foothills Parkway and the Spur. People can't stop and hike or camp, though.
One potential challenge for rangers: Notifying the folks who are already deep in the woods. Snow says there's a permit system for campers, so staff can try to reach people via phone and hope they're in range for cell service.
"We are sending out text messages to people with permits, and a lot of people are still able to receive some text messages in areas throughout the park," Snow said. "In addition to that, we have some staff that are going to backcountry locations and verbally giving people information and giving people time to exit the park in an orderly way."
Several North Carolina state parks — including the popular Crowders Mountain State Park in Gaston County – announced plans over the weekend to cut off visitor access. On Tuesday, North Carolina officials announced they were blocking access to DuPont State Forest and Holmes Educational State Forest in Henderson and Transylvania counties, too.
“Closing state forests to the public is a decision I do not take lightly, and much consideration has been given to this decision,” North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a statement. “The bottom line is that these sites are beautiful and treasured places in our state where families and visitors can make positive, lasting memories. These state forests have experienced what many state parks and beaches have, too — unsafe and overcrowded conditions that tax these resources. This temporary closure to the public is necessary, but rest assured, it is temporary.”
Like in the Smokies' case, DuPont State Forest officials cited large crowds at trailheads.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in North Carolina and upwards of 300 in South Carolina. In South Carolina, five people have died due to complications from the virus.
So far Mecklenburg County hasn't shuttered its parks, though public facilities like park restrooms are closed. In fact, late last week, county officials encouraged folks to enjoy the parks while keeping a safe distance from others. Even when issuing a "stay at home" order Tuesday, the county didn't specifically restrict access to parks.
Some smaller counties have taken more restrictive measures. Buncombe County, for example, closed its parks March 17. As of Tuesday morning, Buncombe was reporting five confirmed cases of the coronavirus, while Mecklenburg was reporting 142 – far more than any other county in the Carolinas.
South Carolina's state parks, meanwhile, are restricting access for two days this week to decide how to best move forward amid the pandemic.
South Carolina's park system says cabin and camping reservations will be honored, but that sites will be closed for day use on Wednesday and Thursday to "help our staff recover from the additional workload that has been required and give us an opportunity to make decisions on how to operate parks while keeping our employees safe."
Additionally, South Carolina state parks aren't taking new cabin reservations until May 7, and many facilities are closed to visitors.
That impacts several South Carolina sites near Charlotte, including the Kings Mountain, Andrew Jackson and Landsford Canal state parks.
The trails at Lake Norman State Park, another large North Carolina state park near Charlotte, remained open as of Tuesday evening.
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