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Hike the trails less traveled, just don’t get lost or hurt

  • Monadnock State Park staffer Matt Rubino greets hikers at the gates of the park in Jaffrey. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Monadnock State Park Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/7/2020 3:13:20 PM

Emergency orders specify that New Hampshire residents can and should go outside for exercise, but public land representatives are encouraging people to take the trails less traveled after crowds of would-be social distancers swarmed popular outdoor destinations over the past two weekends.

“We’re seeing numbers in the parking area and along the road that are midsummer-like,” Forest Society President Jack Savage said. When people park in a concentrated area, walk along narrow trails, and everybody’s congregating at the peak of a mountain, it can be nearly impossible to maintain the recommended six feet of separation for preventing the spread of COVID-19, he said. 

In addition to crowded conditions, backcountry rescues can needlessly expose both the victims and responders to one another’s germs. It’s not the best time to plan an epic hike or climb with higher potential for getting lost or falling, Savage said, particularly if it’s out of your local geographic range. Emergency responders carried a 60 year-old man off Mount Monadnock on Saturday.

“Hike local,” Savage said, and visit lesser-traveled areas instead of popular destinations, such as Mount Monadnock. “We’re trying to encourage people, if they go and they see a full parking lot, to consider going somewhere else,” he said. 

Parking lots were full at Monadnock State Park the past two weekends, with cars bearing license plates from states all around New England. Monadnock park officials there said that the park has been busier than ever in recent weeks. 

Police ticketed vehicles parked along Route 119 near the Mount Watatic trailhead in Ashburnham, Massachusetts last weekend as hikers swarmed the popular hiking area.It’s always been illegal to park on a state road, Ashburnham Police Lieutenant Chris Conrad said, but the state’s highway department recently posted both sides of the street with “No parking any time” signs.

“We have no choice but to enforce that,” he said. Officers warned would-be hikers as they arrived this weekend, Conrad said, and some parked anyway, saying they didn’t mind the ticket, he said.

Conrad said he believed that the state’s decision to post was partly due to the flood of activity throughout the state’s park system as COVID-19 closures sent people literally heading for the hills. 

“The 60 cars has turned into 260,” he said. “A lot of people have nothing else to do.”

About half of the vehicles parked at the trailhead are from Massachusetts and the other half New Hampshire, Conrad said. “I’m guessing the majority are not from town,” he said, and he understands that some visitors are coming from more urban areas to the east.

Signs or not, the road is a dangerous place for pedestrians, Conrad said. Cars travel at 55 or 60 miles per hour through that stretch, and there have been many close calls over the years with people getting out of their cars and crossing the street, he said. “There’s another small parking area further down towards Ashby that holds 15 or 20 cars,” Conrad said, and he’s heard that people were parking on side streets since the ticketing began. “That’s going to turn into a problem,” he said, if driveways or emergency vehicle access gets blocked.

The parking area, which is maintained by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, had already been under strain as the park saw a marked increase in popularity over the last couple years, Conrad said. “Until there’s a bigger [parking] lot up there… we’re between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

There have been three or four reports of vehicle parts being stolen from the lot at the trailhead this year, Conrad said, such as catalytic converters. Those numbers were typical for this time of year, he said, and that he understood it was part of a more regional pattern of thefts. “Usually every year we catch them,” he said.

In addition to potentially spreading COVID-19, Savage pointed out the damage to parks and trails associated with droves of people frequenting parks when facilities like restrooms are closed down, and trail widening as people step off trail to give others additional space. Land stewards have been advised to limit field visits to true emergencies until at least May 4, Savage said, so oversight is particularly limited. Trail lovers can help most right now by following physical distancing guidelines and emergency orders, he said. Within that, he said that light trailwork like removing trash and clearing fallen branches, and reporting problems are welcome.

Cash transactions have been suspended at Monadnock State Park. The White Mountain National Forest has closed several of its recreation sites and toilet facilities as of March 26. All campgrounds, playgrounds, and indoor venues in state parks are closed to the public as of March 27. State beaches are closed, and many local municipalities have closed their playgrounds.

Properties owned by the Nature Conservancy and the Monadnock Conservancy are still open. For inspiration, Savage suggested the Forest Society reservation guide, or resources from town conservation commissions.

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