EDITOR’S NOTE: We urge you to keep public-health guidelines in mind when deciding whether to head outdoors: wear a mask, observe social distancing, stick with your household. For the latest updates on the coronavirus pandemic, check https://doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/Coronavirus

Visitation to Washington’s Enchantments has gone “berserk” in the wake of coronavirus lockdowns according to Carly Reed, an Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest ranger who oversees the scenic Cascades spot in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Leavenworth.

In the first week of August, one of her rangers counted 999 people on a single Saturday at Colchuck Lake, while other workers buried 200 piles of poop and toilet paper. “And we have four toilets up there,” Reed says.

On the weekend, parking winds a mile and a half down the road from the trailhead. Visitors bring loud music and flotation devices like stand-up paddleboards to the lake. “It’s not your normal wilderness experience,” Reed says.

A common refrain among public lands staff: Monday is the new Friday; weekends are now like holiday weekends.

Staff are struggling to keep up with numerous violations, like backpackers without permits. Visitors have started bringing their dogs in droves, which four signs at the Enchantments trailhead and one at the beginning of the road make clear are not allowed.

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“People ignore them,” Reed explains.

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Dogs can introduce disease to wilderness areas and are dangerous to wildlife, said Tracy Swartout, Mount Rainier National Park deputy superintendent. Earlier this summer, a dog managed to kill a marmot in the national park, which bans dogs from all trails.

Many of Washington’s public lands are feeling the crunch over surging visitation this summer, as Washingtonians seek natural respites from COVID-19 restrictions. Several land management agencies that spoke to The Seattle Times said their districts feel busier, opportunities to educate trail users are slim and many visitors seem to be new to public lands.

On sunny days like this Saturday in early August, the shore and Deep Lake are full of families at Nolte State Park. (Courtesy of Connie Spangler)
On sunny days like this Saturday in early August, the shore and Deep Lake are full of families at Nolte State Park. (Courtesy of Connie Spangler)

Some of this strain has fallen on volunteers like camp host Connie Spangler, a retired nurse who works at Nolte State Park, a 117-acre day-use park outside Enumclaw, King County, that envelops Deep Lake. Her typical day includes sweeping bathrooms, stocking toilet paper, replenishing hand soap (which people have been using at much higher rates of late), checking on visitors, and picking up dog waste and trash left behind. Warm weekends are the busiest time for the park, best known for the lake.

Spangler mostly works in the evenings, when cleanup can take her until 9:30 p.m.

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“It becomes a pig pen depending on the number of people available to clean it and how bad people are at respecting ,” she says. The dumpsters have been overflowing this year, as they have in years past. Ideally, people would be bringing all their trash home. “The cleanliness of the park is dependent on users picking up after themselves,” she says. She’s grateful for the visitors she’s seen picking up garbage just to help out. But she’s often the only person in the park wearing a mask, Spangler says.

It’s the sheer number of people that shocks Cesar Ramirez, another ranger with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest who is based near Yakima. He’s worked in public lands near large population centers like Sacramento, California, and still has never seen so many people. Visitors are double-parking along the road to Rimrock Lake, blocking lanes of traffic in the middle of the forest. Graffiti has also increased, Ramirez says. “It’s almost every paintable surface other than the trees.”

In addition to traffic being above normal, several representatives said seasonal staff numbers are down for numerous reasons, including applicants fearing for their health and limiting how many workers live in park housing in case of necessary quarantine.

Seeking distance outdoors

To get away from busy areas, some experienced trail users have been going farther afield. Lace Lawrence in Fall City pulled out a map of her area when popular access points closed and ended up on an off-trail adventure with her partner in national forest land. They followed a GPX route they’d been given by two local hikers familiar with the area, climbing over talus fields and dodging devil’s club in pursuit of a backcountry lake. But they didn’t make it. They ran out of sunlight and instead set up camp on a small, flat boulder before heading home the next morning.

Lawrence says the experience was a good one — she would never have thought to explore the area if not for the pandemic — but that people should be realistic about their skills. “You need to have survival skills, you need to have map-reading skills,” she says. “This is not the type of area you can just go and think it’s going to be easy and OK.”

That’s true in more established areas like Mount Rainier National Park, too, which has seen similar levels of search and rescue missions despite the pandemic, putting rescue workers at risk.

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Even the backcountry may not have as much solitude as you’d expect. Mount Rainier volunteer Lloyd Brodniak said he counted at least twice as many people near the remote Cataract Valley area during a recent patrol this summer. (He estimated 26 people contrasted to the norm of six to 10.)

“We’re in the backcountry where day hikers can’t get to and they’re mostly backpackers, so that’s a lot of people,” he says. “I was surprised.”

But the hikers he encountered were friendly, masked and happy to have a physically distanced conversation later at camp, Brodniak said.

Closer to home, Brooke Jackson is an endurance athlete who lives in Bremerton and has been getting outside as often as possible. She has noticed the crowds thin the farther out she goes, but says it’s hard to ignore some of the behavior that’s been cropping up. In a local preserve where she runs, she spotted one man dragging a cooler a mile and a half down the trail to a waterfall. “It’s as if they’re treating the trails like their new bars,” she says. She’s noticed an increasing amount of “party trash” like beers left behind.

At Nolte State Park, Spangler echoes that concern.

Under normal circumstances, she spends time trying to eradicate invasive plant species in the park, an underfunded and undermanned effort, Spangler says. These days, she’s regularly cleaning up trash — blown-out floaties from the lakes are one issue — and alcohol containers, which is frustrating because drinking isn’t allowed. “It’s dangerous because they’re near the water. They could drown if they get drunk,” she says.

The trend isn’t limited to Nolte State Park.

Near Eagle Falls in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest (MBS), rangers are packing out 12 bags of garbage a day despite requests that people bring their waste home, said Casey Andrews, interim public relations specialist for the forest. And even what’s trashed within the forest isn’t disposed of properly.

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Take one high-use area where a bear-resistant can was installed — forest users simply piled trash on top of and around the container, according to Brian McNeil, public services manager for the Snoqualmie Ranger District. Even worse, he says: “Once we cleared the trash around the trash cans, we found that the actual trash can was empty.”

And where there’s trash, there are bears.

“Bear sightings in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest have nearly doubled from previous seasons,” according to Andrews. “Baker Lake, especially, has a marked increase in bear encounters. The MBS believes this is due to the combination of snow remaining in lower elevation areas this year and the increase in trash being left at recreation sites.”

Perhaps most disheartening of all, both Ramirez and Reed reported that their staff have been harassed by increasingly aggressive visitors. “We’ve had incidents of verbal abuse, threatening to cough on employees faces,, threatening with a vehicle,” Ramirez says.

“Usually it’s once or twice a season,” Reed says. “[Now] it’s almost every weekend or multiple times a weekend we’re calling for law enforcement backup.”

Mount Rainier National Park’s visitation started slow, but picked up in July. The east side of the park has been particularly popular: On a recent Sunday, traffic into the White River entrance kept backing up onto state Route 410, forcing the park to let people in for safety reasons, even though there was nowhere for them to go — all of the parking was full. Some parking areas fill as soon as 6:30 a.m. on weekends. “We’re seeing a lot of resource damage from people parking into the meadows up at Sunrise because there’s nowhere to go,” says Tabby Cavendish, a park ranger at White River.

Illegal camping attempts have flared up. On a recent Monday, one of the park staff ran into six different parties attempting to camp without a permit at Tipsoo Lake.

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Part of the issue, Spangler believes, is that the state hasn’t kept pace with people’s interest in the outdoors — summer demand for campgrounds outpaces availability and has for years.

“Every summer there is a crisis at vacation time and it hits families the worst,” she says. Not everyone has a job that lets them plan months in advance, so they’re left trying to find last-minute reservations or driving out to first-come, first-serve sites that may or may not be available.

While clearly some places are being pummeled, not all are overwhelmed. Washington State Parks operations manager Ed Girard says that while the state parks seem busy, preliminary data suggests they are less busy than last year. Day-use estimates show a 22% downtick in traffic in March compared with last year, an 81% free fall in April, a 22% drop in May and a 15% dip in June, the most recent data set available. Park workers, however, say traffic surged into July and was similar to a normal summer, if not busier, by August. Staff has managed to shift priorities away from projects and toward maintenance of bathrooms and other visitor-crucial tasks. In the few areas where visitation got out of hand, such as Lake Chelan and Lake Wenatchee, the park put out messaging to the public that seemed to calm the swell.

Despite these challenges, no one who spoke to The Times wished for fewer people to enjoy the outdoors. Agency officials were happy that more people were outside, including new users, and were eager to get education into visitor hands so they knew how to protect these spaces.

“People are coming into the park and telling me it’s nice to have normal again,” Spangler shares. “All people need recreation right now.”

Outdoor sanctuaries, everyone agreed, were vital — when respected, and when enjoyed safely.

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How to get outdoors and protect public lands

Public lands representatives continue to encourage folks going outdoors to observe Recreate Responsibly guidelines. These key ideas include understanding the rules of the trails you’re visiting and having a backup plan (or two) in case your destination is crowded; practicing physical distancing; bringing supplies like lunch, a face mask and hand sanitizer; choosing low-risk activities to avoid injury requiring search and rescue; exploring close to home; following Leave No Trace principles; and making the outdoors an inclusive place for people of all identities and abilities.

Additionally, you might consider volunteer opportunities to help public land managers keep these areas accessible. The Naches Ranger District specifically mentioned seeking volunteers to help dispose of trash; there may be other volunteer opportunities closer to you.

And please, be kind out there, both to park staff and fellow visitors. The more people recreating, the more people who love and advocate for the outdoors. Let’s make sure nature is a place of solace for everyone.