WATAUGA — State and national parks locally are cutting off some services and closing some facilities, but most of the parks themselves remain open as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
According to N.C. State Parks, all visitor centers and restrooms are closed, with park gates closing at sunset each day. Camping facilities are closed as are all events and programs until further notice.
On March 22, N.C. State Parks closed a number of its parks, but Elk Knob State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, Mount Jefferson State Natural Area and New River State Park remained open.
N.C. State Parks’ Katie Hall said the closure of some of the state’s parks was initiated by the local health department declaring them a public hazard.
“We are making these decisions day by day, and the situation is very dynamic,” Hall said. “We expect the situation to get worse over the coming months and cause more closures across the state parks system.”
The closures were due to the declared state of emergency in various counties and what N.C. State Parks called “continued crowding that does not adhere to social distancing guidelines.”
According to information from Hall, visitation to Elk Knob State Park was counted at 432 people the weekend of March 21-22 and 429 in Grandfather Mountain State Park. Compared with other weekends in February and March, the numbers fall in line and are not anomalies. Elk Knob had its highest weekday attendance in the two-month period on March 19 with 177 people.
However, Hall said that several parks across the state have seen double and triple the number of visitors in the last two weeks.
In Boone, the town announced on March 24 that the Boone Greenway Trail would remain open “as long as visitors follow all appropriate social distancing recommendations.”
Watauga County Parks and Recreation Director Stephen Poulos said on March 24 that ballfields and playgrounds they manage are still open. Poulos said that Rocky Knob Bike Park and Brookshire Park will remain open as scheduled. Howard Knob Park, which the county manages, is set to open for the season May 1, but that will be re-evaluated closer to the date, Poulos said.
On March 23, the Blue Ridge Parkway, a part of the National Park Service, announced that all public restroom facilities were closed to the public.
“Park trails and the Blue Ridge Parkway motor road remain accessible to the public in accordance with the latest federal, state and local health guidance, where not otherwise closed,” the Blue Ridge Parkway said in its March 23 statement. “The National Park Service encourages people who choose to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway during this pandemic to adhere to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public health authorities to protect visitors and employees.”
On March 24, the southernmost 14 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, from Milepost 455 to 469, were closed “in a continuing effort to support federal, state, and local efforts to slow the spread of (COVID-19) and in coordination with travel restrictions in place from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Great Smoky Mountains Park.”
Other sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway motor road remain accessible to the public in accordance with the latest federal, state, and local health guidance, where not otherwise closed, the National Park Service stated.
National Forests in N.C. closed all campgrounds on March 23, the organization announced the day before. The closure includes all campgrounds in Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests.
“Campgrounds will be closed until at least May 15, at which point they will be reevaluated,” the National Forests in N.C. statement said. “By closing campsites and group recreation sites, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service is taking necessary measures to safeguard the health of employees and the public.”
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a preservation nonprofit for the 2,000-plus-mile trail, has asked people to postpone their hikes on the trail. A through-hike of the entire trail typically takes five to seven months.
“Please postpone your section or thru-hike,” Sandra Marra, president of Appalachian Trail Conservancy, wrote in an open letter. “Instead, consider alternate ways of connecting to the trail and to the outdoors.
“The practices necessary to support a section or thru-hike may make A.T. hikers vectors to spread COVID-19 — whether congregating at shelters or around picnic tables, traveling to trailheads in shuttle vans, or lodging at the various hostels up and down the trail.”