Washington state may have lifted its COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday, June 30, but the crowds of people the pandemic pushed outdoors are here to stay.
State and national parks are bracing for a busy summer — many have already seen above-average visitor numbers and campsite reservations this season. Some staff expect numbers to outpace last year’s as more people get out of the house.
“We have been so busy,” said Ann Grabler, office assistant at Millersylvania State Park in Olympia. “On the upside, we are seeing a lot of different folks who typically would not recreate. Minority folks, people from very urban or rural places.”
There have been more and more days where the parking lot completely fills up at Millersylvania, Grabler said — it used to happen “maybe once a season, and now it is a regular occurrence.” There have already been days this year when the park saw several thousand visitors, she said.
Whatcom County state parks have also experienced increased visitor numbers throughout the pandemic, with Peace Arch Historical State Park seeing the largest jump, said Park Ranger Amber Forest, who also manages Birch Bay State Park and Larrabee State Park.
“At Peace Arch in particular, we have seen five-fold visitor numbers,” she said. “The other parks have also seen an increase in day-use numbers and camping attendance.”
With the U.S.-Canadian border closed since last March, Peace Arch has become a popular meeting place for loved ones on both sides of the border. Entry to the park doesn’t require the same permissions necessary to go through an official border crossing, creating a loophole in the travel restrictions.
At many parks, campsites have been selling like hot cakes this season. Take Kanaskat-Palmer State Park in Ravensdale: weekend campsite reservations began selling out in March 2021, where they usually begin selling out in June, said Park Aide Ryan LaRont. Recently, the park has started to sell out on weekdays as well. LaRont used to refer visitors to Dash Point State Park in Federal Way when Kanaskat-Palmer sold out, but that isn’t always an option anymore.
“Even Dash Point has been selling out, so I don’t know what to tell them,” LaRont said. Kanaskat-Palmer has 25 tent spaces and 19 partial-hookup sites with electricity, and Dash Point has 114 standard campsites and 27 utility campsites.
What individual park managers are seeing matches up with statewide trends — visitor numbers at state parks have been increasing for several years, even before the pandemic, said Meryl Lassen, communications consultant for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. The same holds true for the state’s national parks, said Denise Shultz, chief of visitor services at North Cascades National Park Service Complex. She expects the upward trajectory to continue.
Mount Rainier National Park southeast of Tacoma has seen heavy traffic due to the frequent sunny, clear days the region has been experiencing, said park spokesperson Terry Wildy.
“Is it a nice weekend and can you see the mountain?” Wildy said. “If those two things are true, we are going to see a busy park.”
Mount Rainier staff levels are lower than usual, since employee housing capacity remains reduced, but visitors shouldn’t experience slower reaction times to health and safety emergencies, she said. Wildy also urges park visitors to consider visiting an area of the park other than the highly popular Paradise.
The Paradise area is known for its mountain views and wildflower meadows, but at this time of year, the trails are still covered in snow and slush. Lower elevation trails may actually be preferable on hot days, Wildy said, since they offer shade, which Paradise does not.
“Everyone goes there, and it’s maybe not what you expected this time of year,” Wildy said. “It’s not a great beginner hiking trail right now.”
In the last year, parks have been a haven for those seeking low-risk activities during the pandemic, and not much will change for visitors as the state lifts its COVID-19 restrictions. Park staff will continue to wear masks around visitors in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained. Some parks will allow vaccinated employees not to wear masks around other employees inside, as long as social distance is maintained.
Many park services have resumed, with visitor and welcome centers open. Restrooms are available, and food and drink venues are open at parks that have them. The public can also expect events to begin returning to the parks, Lassen said. That includes the American Roots Concert Series at Deception Pass State Park in Oak Harbor.
Grabler, at Millersylvania State Park, has started to see special activity permits rolling in for events that were paused during the pandemic, such as marathons, cycling events and horseback riding events.
Some services at certain parks, however, remain closed. At Millersylvania State Park, the retreat centers — large venues for events like weddings and summer camps — are closed and likely will be until 2022, Grabler said. At Mount Rainier National Park, visitor center buildings are closed, but park staff will still be stationed throughout park entrances to provide information.