After weeks of getting creative to stave off cabin fever — backyard grass skiing, living room campouts, retaining wall rappels, neighborhood trip reports — Washington’s outdoor adventurers finally have some good news. On May 5, some state parks and public lands will reopen for day use, with a list expected by the end of this week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced at a Monday news conference, where he also signaled that hunting, fishing and golf can resume.
“Outdoor recreation is one of the best things people can do to promote their health, both mental and physical, during this time of isolation,” Inslee said.
But as hikers lace up their boots and mountain bikers pump up their tires, this early experiment with resuming everyday activities in the midst of a pandemic will look and feel different. For starters, outdoor events and camping remain prohibited. Don’t expect to roast s’mores over a fire at Deception Pass State Park or compete in a trail running race at Moran State Park for the foreseeable future.
There were also no new announcements Monday about national forests and national parks, where most of Washington’s most prized outdoor destinations are located.
Catherine Caruso, a spokesperson for the Pacific Northwest unit of the U.S. Forest Service, said, “We don’t have a timeline we can announce today” but indicated that Inslee’s announcement would allow the federal agency, which oversees most of the hiking terrain in the Cascades and some in the Olympics, to begin putting in place its own plans to reopen trailheads that have been closed since March 27. (Gifford Pinchot National Forest closed so-called “developed sites” on April 9.)
Washington’s three national parks also closed shortly after Inslee’s March 23 stay-at-home order. “Decisions on a phased resumption of operations will be made on a park-by-park basis and regularly monitored,” said North Cascades National Park chief of visitor services Denise Shultz. Olympic National Park spokesperson Penny Wagner referred The Seattle Times to President Trump’s Opening Up America Again plan but offered no specifics. Mount Rainier National Park officials did not immediately return a request for comment.
On the county level, “We have been working through phased-in reopening scenarios for some King County Parks locations, likely starting with natural lands and regional trails,” said Logan Harris, a spokesperson for King County Parks, which include popular trail destinations like Rattlesnake Mountain and parts of the Issaquah Alps.
Staying safe while enjoying the outdoors
How should hikers, bikers and equestrians behave on the public lands that will soon open? Largely the way we were asked to behave in March, when public health measures like physical distancing were brand new. On Monday, Inslee encouraged Washingtonians to stick with day trips with household members and not to meet up with hiking buddies.
“Be prepared” has never been more important: Pack extra hand soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Don’t expect bathroom facilities to be open. Skip the après-hike brewery stop and bring your own food and drink to avoid visiting businesses far from home. That recommendation is a bitter pill for local economies, but another public health necessity to minimize the risk of viral transmission between communities. The face mask — or at least a bandana that can be pulled over your face — may become the 11th essential on the trail.
The Washington Trails Association (WTA) was out in the lead during the confusing days of late March when state residents struggled to parse how they should apply Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order to their everyday lives. With the impending reopenings, they are ready to lift the lockdown rule of thumb that if you have to drive to the trailhead, it’s too far.
“The real challenge is going to be showing that we can use our trails safely and responsibly,” said WTA director Jill Simmons.
Overcrowding on trails, once just an annoyance, is now a public health liability that could lead to public land access being shut down again.
The good news, Simmons said, is that “we now have a much better understanding of the importance of social distancing and what that looks like than we did early on.” Expect to see downhill hikers stepping aside — when it’s safe to do so without trampling fragile vegetation — to allow uphill hikers to pass at a 6-foot distance and for hikers to pull bandanas over their faces when passing. Above all, Simmons said, communication is key. Now more than ever, verbally signal to another party how you intend to pass on the trail.
“I’m hoping folks will get the hang of what it’s like to hike with social distance,” she said. “It’s going to be a tough balance.”
WTA hopes its extensive trail library will encourage hikers to get creative beyond the usual, crowded suspects.
“If you’re walking down the road quite a ways to get to a trailhead, that’s probably an indication the trail is too full,” Simmons said, adding that personally, she is anxious to return to Dosewallips State Park and eventually the Olympic National Forest, to get lost in mossy dales far from the crowd.
Crowding at the few remaining outdoor recreation options drove Bellingham-based professional mountain biker and Olympic medalist Jill Kintner indoors to train. She curtailed her riding in nearby Galbraith Mountain Bike Park, which did not close, to off-hour sessions solo or with her husband.
“Opening more land access to keep people apart will be great,” she said. “It was a bit of zoo, [everyone] flocked to the very few things that were open.”
Kintner has been sticking to easy trails. “I’ve dialed it back because some of my favorite trails are pretty aggressive and technical, but it’s not worth having to go to the hospital,” she said. “I don’t mind keeping it chill for a while.”
That same mindset will apply at higher elevations for Tom Vogl, CEO of The Mountaineers, who was eager to make a ski ascent of Mount Baker this summer but is prepared for that goal to be off the table. “Under normal conditions, if the weather and overall conditions were good, you might take some additional risks to meet a given objective,” he said. “This is one of the times where stepping back our level of risk is more prudent.”
The Mountaineers had to cancel all in-person classes and trips and restrict use of its well-equipped Seattle Program Center. The 114-year-old outing club continues to adjust its offerings — holding knot tying seminars via videoconference — and will continue to incorporate safety measures — for instance, individual tents instead of share tents on overnight trips — when in-person activities finally return.
“We’re going to try and be as creative as we can while maintaining our focus on safety,” Vogl said. “We’re all going to have to be patient with our land managers and government officials.”
Similar adjustments will be necessary for trail work, which takes advantage of spring, summer and fall to maintain existing trails and build new ones.
The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance is already a month behind on planned work to build new trails at Port Gamble Heritage Park, Tiger Mountain State Forest, Raging River State Park, and No. 2 Canyon outside Wenatchee. The statewide organization hopes to restart these volunteer efforts next month with smaller crews of one to two people.
“How we introduce that back in a sustainable and safe way has taken some thought,” executive director Yvonne Kraus said. “Engaging volunteers for work parties is no doubt going to look different than how it has been in the past, from group size to shared food to carpooling.”
Among the most controversial outdoor-activity restrictions lifted Monday was a statewide ban on recreational hunting and fishing, which prompted “Let Us Fish” rallies across the state, including one Sunday on Lake Union.
Twisp resident Carmen Vanbianchi, a board member of the Washington chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, was more patient. “It’s been disappointing for people to have those activities restricted,” she said. “Everyone has to make sacrifices in this weird time.”