Hiking trails crowded with virus escapees

Trails and parks provide recreation during shelter-in-place time, but overuse causes damage

Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, which closes gyms, theaters, live music venues and amusement parks but leaves open state parks and beaches, may increase the pressure on such recreation areas.

In late March, as Atlantans were being urged to stay put and the mayor was drafting a stay-at-home order, the parking lot at Tallulah Gorge State Park in Rabun County was bursting at the seams.

Some 1,700 visitors paid to park that weekend to see the spectacular waterfalls and walk across the swinging bridge. They were lined up cheek by jowl to descend the 750-step staircase that drops to the bridge from the rim. It was on a par with a July 4 weekend, said Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for Georgia’s State Parks and Historic Sites.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, which closes gyms, theaters, live music venues and amusement parks but leaves open state parks and beaches, may increase the pressure on such recreation areas. On the day of Kemp’s announcement, Sweetwater Creek State Park was bustling, with some visitors ignoring the “six feet of separation” rule.

The decree also may inadvertently promote more travel. Georgians are being encouraged to stay close to home, but past experience shows that might not happen.

After North Carolina’s governor ordered residents there to stay at home last week, plenty of cars with North Carolina tags continued to cross over the border to recreation spots at nearby Clayton, Georgia.

Last week Rabun County resident SarahRuth Owens was headed to a fairly secluded spot near Warwoman Dell, and “there were three cars with North Carolina tags, plain as day,” she said. “They started pulling all their camping gear out, and I thought, what are they doing here? Aren’t they supposed to shelter in place?”

The Great Shutdown has left us with a lot of time on our hands. People tired of watching “Tiger King” have flocked to hiking trails in state and national parks in unprecedented numbers.

“We went down to Panther Creek last week, and saw at least 80 to 100 cars parked along the road,” said Owens, “and there was a sign up that said they were closed.”

The crowds are pushing people to lesser-known spots, and even those are crowded, said Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “These are the unrecognized consequences of suddenly millions of people being home from school or work.”

Recently Cloudland Canyon was maxed out. “I have never seen so many people on that trail,” visitor Billy Rosenbalm told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “There was no way to keep yourself safe in that place.”

A map published by The New York Times analyzed anonymous cellphone data from 15 million users to demonstrate the travel patterns of the country. The map showed that much of the country had heeded advisories to stay close to home, and had stopped traveling more than 2 miles a day — except in the Southeast.

“It’s going to keep happening,” said Marra.

The parking lots were full at Sweetwater Creek State Park over the weekend, as house-bound Atlantans sought a diversion from sheltering at home. Jenni Girtman for The AJC

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On March 16 the Conservancy warned its section hikers and through-hikers to think twice before getting on the trail. Then, at the end of the month, it plainly asked all hikers to stay away.

The U.S. Forest Service closed most access trails to the Appalachian Trail, along with developed campgrounds, group recreation sites and restrooms.

"Despite these limitations, large gatherings of visitors continue to congregate in dispersed camping corridors, Day-Use Areas, and trailheads," wrote Steven Bekkerus, public affairs officer for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. "This level of public use and non-essential travel is outside the current CDC guidelines."

Bekkerus said Kemp’s order would not compel the Forest Service to open sites that had been closed, as it has some beaches.

The over-use presents problems for rangers who are charged with managing these Forest Service sites, which, though closed, are still being visited by recreationists who leave garbage in the overflowing trash bins. Rangers aren’t going to clean restrooms or empty the trash without protective equipment. “We have to assume the trash cans are filled by somebody who’s infected,” said Bekkerus.

The state said it would send rangers to enforce social distancing at parks and lakes that draw crowds.

With the metro area parks already crowded and some National Forest sites closed, there is likely to be more demand on state parks.

Kim Hatcher, state parks spokesperson, said rangers intervened to maintain social distancing at Red Top Mountain State Park on Lake Allatoona this past weekend, closing off some parking and roads.

Some recent visitors to the closed Panther Creek site had their cars towed, but not by Forest Service personnel. Lt. Matthew Wurtz with the Habersham Sheriff’s Department, said cars that were towed had their wheels in the roadway, on the wrong side of the solid white line.

But Wurtz understands what draws the visitors. “People are confined to their house, can’t go to work, and everybody’s getting cabin fever,” said Wurtz. “I hate it; it’s gotten to me too.”

Ironically, the explosion of interest in hiking hasn’t benefited local outfitters, who have had to shut down their retail facilities.

“Our revenue has fallen off overnight to the tune of about 80-90%,” said Josh Brown, co-owner of Wander North Georgia in Clayton. Wander is trying to make up for it with internet orders, but that’s producing only a “trickle” of income.

Eric Champlin, co-owner of Trailful, in Hiawassee, said after the Appalachian Trail Conservancy asked hikers to get off the trail, he saw a 75 percent drop in traffic.

Though their businesses depend on people who love the outdoors, the outfitters were concerned that the current rush to the trails could be unhealthy to people, as well as damaging to the parks.

“What I hope people realize too, is that it’s not just standing in the middle of a river fishing. Or having a picnic in front of a waterfall,” said Brown. “It’s the stopping for gas. Or stopping for fishing bait. Or stopping for food. Getting outdoors and staying six feet away from someone is easy. The ecosystem of what is needed to get outdoors and to a location is the hard part.”

Hikers should understand that the trail is not a magic refuge. “The trail is not a separate safe place protected and removed from the rest of the world we live in,” said Marra, of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “Whatever can happen to you in Walmart can happen to you going on the trail.”