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Visits to state parks, including Patapsco Valley, up sharply, as gyms and most recreational facilities remain closed

Gaithersburg resident Melanie Barber, left, and Patricia Targete, of Silver Spring, chat on a sandy shore of the Patapsco River in Patapsco Valley State Park's Avalon area on May 27.
Gaithersburg resident Melanie Barber, left, and Patricia Targete, of Silver Spring, chat on a sandy shore of the Patapsco River in Patapsco Valley State Park's Avalon area on May 27. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

Mike Stirratt had planned to celebrate his 50th birthday in Santa Fe on a getaway trip with his husband, David Johnson, and their 6-year-old son, Prescott.

As the coronavirus pandemic upended the U.S., those plans were no longer feasible. Instead, the Washington, D.C., resident, donning a plastic birthday crown, took his family on their first visit to Patapsco Valley State Park. He enjoyed the Cascade Waterfalls, the swinging bridge in the Avalon area in Halethorpe, and skipping rocks in the Patapsco River with his son.

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“It felt like coming out here on this gorgeous day helped to make it very special,” Stirratt said.

“We thought maybe there’d be less people because it’s a Tuesday afternoon,” Johnson said. “Seems like a lot of other people had the same idea.”

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Maryland state parks have seen an increase of 182% in visitors in March and April compared with the same period last year, amid orders from public officials that closed businesses and required residents to stay in their homes except for essential travel to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even as Gov. Larry Hogan has replaced the stay-at-home order with a “Safer at Home” advisory and paved the way for localities to begin reopening some parts of the economy, outdoor exercise has been among the few recreational activities available to residents, with gyms and recreational centers remaining closed.

“It’s the only thing we can do,” said Columbia resident John Sigmon, pausing as his children, 11-year-old Eliana and 9-year-old Benjamin, observed a snake under a fallen tree in Patapsco’s Avalon area.

On May 27, Hogan announced outdoor pools would be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, and youth sports and camps may reopen with capacity limitations. He also said restaurants may open for outdoor dining, but it’s unclear how many counties will follow his lead, or how many employees restaurants will be able to bring back on.

Jimmy Deal, 15, left, Caysen Grega, 15, and Melissa Greg walk along a paved path in Patapsco State Park's popular Avalon area in Halethorpe Wednesday, May 27.
Jimmy Deal, 15, left, Caysen Grega, 15, and Melissa Greg walk along a paved path in Patapsco State Park's popular Avalon area in Halethorpe Wednesday, May 27. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

For many, hiking and biking at Patapsco Valley State Park has been a recreational respite, despite the closed bathrooms and bathhouses, the park’s prohibition on grilling and certain restrictions on camping.

“We have nothing to do. We don’t know when we’re going back to work,” said Sandra Whitt, walking on a trail with her daughter, Kelly Newsome. Whitt, a bartender, and Newsome, a dental assistant, have both lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic.

Trail use at Baltimore County’s 215 parks has increased by an estimated 30% based on staff reports from the Department of Recreation and Parks, although the county department does not use counters to measure park attendance.

“In some way it’s challenging because you can’t go to gyms and so forth,” said Towson resident Joe Earley. “But people are out walking more than you’ve ever seen before. And we’ve done more of that.”

“I feel like I’ve been inside too often my whole life — this [pandemic] has kind of brought that to my attention,” said Earley’s 18-year-old son, Alexander, as he waited for assistance at Race Pace Bicycles in Towson. The Earleys plan to bike along the Northern Central Railroad Trail stretching from Hunt Valley to the Mason-Dixon Line.

“People are finding ways to be active,” Joe Earley said. “Even in some cases I would say non-active people seem to be out and about more. So maybe this is raising awareness for health and everything else.”

At Patapsco Valley State Park, regular users have noticed the increase in visitors. On a Tuesday afternoon, a line of cars stretched past the Avalon entrance in Halethorpe, slowly filing into the park.

Laurel resident Japheth Bruce spent four days a week fishing at Patapsco prior to the pandemic.

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“We have to just deal with the crowd now,” Bruce said. “You’re used to having nature to yourself, basically, as selfish as it sounds.”

In March, the 53 parks managed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources saw 258,576 visits, compared with 64,101 visits in March 2019 and 46,153 in March 2018, according to statistics from the department.

In April, state parks saw 182,657 visits, up from 113,340 in April 2019 and 95,117 in 2018, based on data collected from traffic counters and estimates from spot counts, according to Natural Resources.

Aurora McClain, 7, and Samantha Parlaman walk across the swinging bridge in Patapsco Valley State Park's Avalon area May 27.
Aurora McClain, 7, and Samantha Parlaman walk across the swinging bridge in Patapsco Valley State Park's Avalon area May 27. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

Attendance has grown so much that parks were filled to capacity 20 times before Memorial Day weekend, meaning parking lots could not accommodate more vehicles. In 2017, Natural Resources recorded parks were filled to capacity just 12 times the entire year.

The Avalon area of the Patapsco park has been the most popular in terms of capacity-related closures, and has been at capacity 12 times this year, with its 391 parking spaces filled.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of visitation during the week that we don’t normally see,” said Rob Dyke, park manager. “For the most part, [visitors] are doing what they’re supposed to be doing” to socially distance, he said.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, few visitors wore masks — not required by state or county officials when one is outdoors — but gave other park users a wide berth as they walked past. Clusters of families sat and enjoyed picnics on the edge of the Patapsco River. Visitors paused on the swinging bridge to take pictures before shuffling along.

“I just feel like people are more cautious with not being too close to each other,” said Laurel resident Jacqueline Menjivar.

Although cabins are unavailable for rental in the Hilton area, and the Pickall area, with its large picnic shelters, is closed, Dyke said the Hollofield area of the park is open to recreational vehicles, and the Hilton campground is open to primitive camping-only for those who wish to use tents.

Park management is not accepting walk-ins for open campgrounds, Dyke said. Those who wish to camp are required to make a reservation.

“We’re trying to limit the interactions we have with the visitors,” he said. But as the Hogan administration continues to roll out the state’s Roadmap to Recovery plan, guiding the state through phased reopenings, Dyke said the park will consider “slowly lifting and opening up the things we can open up."

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