Metro Phoenix hiking trails packed despite COVID-19 social distancing

Amid coronavirus outbreak, Arizonans find little social distance on crowded hiking trails

Molly Bohannon and Shaena Montanari
Special to the Republic
Published 8:48 PM EDT Mar 22, 2020

When Gov. Doug Ducey warned people to avoid large gatherings and close contact with others, the state and Phoenix park systems came up with a healthy alternative: Get outdoors, they announced. Come hike our trails.

It has worked. So well that, at peak times in some parks this weekend, avoiding large gatherings and close contact on narrow trails was as challenging as, for instance, finding a parking space — even in a dry stream bed near the Superstition Mountains. 

While hiking trails would be a popular destination on any pleasant day in Arizona’s spring weather, the hiking surge is greater now that bars, restaurants, movie theaters and other destinations are closed. And stuck-at-home parents and kids flock to hiking trails on what was once the workday or school day.

MORE: Many Arizona parks are open during coronavirus outbreak. Here’s what to know before you go

Also drawn to Arizona state and local parks are visitors from New Mexico and other states, where parks and campgrounds have been shut down — out of fears open parks would fuel the coronavirus spread.

This weekend, thousands of people shared trails with one another on popular Phoenix-area trailheads.

Phoenix trails packed with people 

“A lot of people were passing each other on the trail. There was almost nowhere to sit at the top,” said Adam Nivinski, an Arizona State University student from Tempe, who had just finished the Piestewa Peak trail Saturday with two friends. 

At the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, managed by Phoenix Parks and Recreation, cars overflowed from parking lots and were left on the side of the road anywhere they could fit at the Piestewa Peak and Dreamy Draw trailheads.

MORE: Meghan McCain calls out Arizonans for not social-distancing 

An officer wrote parking tickets for illegally parked vehicles at Piestewa. Among those legally parked, there was a black Jeep Wrangler in the parking lot adorned with a custom gold window decal, complete with a skull, gun, bullet and anti-COVID-19 slogan.

“We tried our best to stay as far apart as possible,” Jonathan Keenan said after exiting the Cholla Trail at Camelback Mountain with his wife and children Sunday. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to have some time outside as a family.”

Just a few miles south, Papago Park proved to be another Sunday refuge for those with cabin fever. Packs of adults and children filled every hilltop.

“I’m young,” Jack McCaffrey said while sitting next to his friend at the top of the park’s largest hill. “I’m not too worried about getting it or passing it on to someone who would be high risk.”

People gather at Hole in the Rock at Papago Park in Tempe, Ariz. on March 22, 2020.
Patrick Breen/The Republic

Hiking trails, like Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak and others in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, fall under the guidelines of Phoenix Parks and Recreation. Parks that fall under the purview of Arizona State Parks, like Lost Dutchman State Park, are listed on the state website.

City of Phoenix parks have a cautionary coronavirus warning posted on their website and are conducting regular cleaning of “high touch surfaces,” according to City of Phoenix park’s spokesman Gregg Bach. 

Before the weekend swarm, Bach said the biggest increase on Phoenix trails has been during normal business hours, likely because of the modified work schedules people now face.

“We certainly feel that is a great way for people to get out and get exercise and still be responsible in terms of social distancing because you’re not inside and in an enclosed area with a big group of people,” said Bach.

Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department posted on Facebook Sunday that its parks are experiencing overcrowding. And that wasn’t their only concern: They also warned patrons to stop stealing the toilet paper or else there will “not be enough for everyone.”

Open trails, campgrounds attracting people from out of state

The Arizona State Parks system says it has taken precautions, canceling events and closing its gift shops. Historic parks, like Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff and Tombstone Courthouse, have closed.

But its 120 miles of trails and 1,500 campgrounds remain open with no plans to close. Other states, like California and New Mexico, have closed part or all of their state parks. California has closed campgrounds as of March 17 at state parks but non-campground areas of the parks, like hiking trails, remain open to visitors.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Grisham ordered state parks to close indefinitely, effective March 16. The decision was made with the hope of reducing public, face-to-face interaction.

Some New Mexico residents quickly found an alternative: They were calling Arizona State Parks to see if they’d fare better by crossing the border, according to Michelle Thompson, the spokesperson for the Arizona Parks.

“People are really happy we’re still open and available,” said Thompson.

By the weekend, however, the wide-open trails didn’t feel as spacious, or social-distancing friendly, as officials and hikers alike had anticipated.

“We have asked our rangers to keep an eye on groups, but it is difficult to monitor everyone,” Thompson said. Even if trailheads and parking lots are crowded, though, she said “once you get into the park, there are just miles of trails. There are a lot of opportunities to be spread out.”

At Papago Park, hiker Angelia Sivertson said she found no problem keeping her distance from others.

“I feel like it’s a good place to get outdoors and be able to participate in something with people without getting too close to them,” Sivertson said.

Wilderness areas still open, too

To be sure, the upsurge in hikers was predictable nationwide. But Arizona state and local park officials have encouraged it, using social media.

Trails farther afield from Phoenix were not spared from the crowds. The small trailhead parking lots branching off Service Road 78 in the Superstition Wilderness overflowed as hordes of hikers funneled into the trails.

Wilderness areas run by the U.S. Forest Service appeared to remain open through the weekend, with the federal website offering this update: “In coordination with state and local health and safety guidelines, National Forests remain open however recreation services at our facilities may be changed.”

Dutchman’s trailhead, normally quiet and nearly empty, had a waiting line for parking spots. The three-mile, rough, dirt road became a maze of cars and people — leaving some to wonder if gold had finally been found in the Superstitions.

Mackenzie Shuman and Ryan Vlahovich contributed reporting.

This content was originally published here.

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