Anyone who wants to visit Kilgore Falls at the Falling Branch area of Rocks State Park on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday this summer will have to make a reservation beginning at the end of June, park officials said.
The pilot reservation system is the latest in a series of steps the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and Maryland Department of Natural Resources have taken in recent years to reduce the amount of traffic congestion at the increasingly popular waterfall in Rocks State Park in northern Harford County, Park Manager Andrew Hangen said.
“Our goal is to reduce the number of people down there,” Hangen said. “When you have 300 people in a 1-acre parcel, you trample the vegetation, you compact the soil and when you have large groups walking down the trail, the trail gets wider.”
Chantal Schreck’s property is at the corner of Clermont Mill and Falling Branch roads.
“Traffic had gotten just totally out of control,” Schreck said. “Hundreds of cars were up and down the road — pretty much a one-lane road — every day. People were parking everywhere and anywhere they could.”
Most of the people who visit the falls on the weekends are first-time visitors from outside Harford County, Hangen said. They’re coming from places farther away like New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia and northern Virginia.
When Hangen began at Rocks State Park five years ago, the parking lot would fill up — it holds 30 vehicles — and another 100 cars would park across the street, where the property owner was charging for parking.
“At the time, that was OK to do. It was not our authority to tell him he can’t,” Hangen said.
The county, however, shut down the parking citing a zoning violation.
“People were still coming, and they started parking illegally on roads, in driveways, the church,” Hangen said.
St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church is about a half-mile away from the Kilgore Falls parking lot.
Sgt. Ken Layman, the Natural Resources Police district supervisor for Harford County, likened the area to “a food court at a mall on a rainy Saturday.”
“You were pretty much elbow-to-elbow with people and it was almost senses overload,” Layman said.
It also creates other problems when so many people are crammed into a small area, he said.
“You have a lot of people in a tight space, in the heat of the day, that generates enforcement issues at that point because tolerance goes down,” Layman said.
Trash has also been an ongoing problem.
The park is cleaned once a day, but after the busy weekends, rangers would pick up enough trash to fill a garbage truck, Layman said. But since trucks can’t get down the half-mile trail to the falls, all the trash has to be carried out.
A few years ago, the county installed “no parking” signs along Falling Branch Road and other nearby roads, as well as at St. Mary’s church, and park rangers and Natural Resources Police were given authority to issue citations to anyone parked illegally, Hangen said.
Last year, rangers began turning people away from the park.
“At the request of police, we stopped allowing people to walk in. That was new for us,” Hangen said. “It was a challenge at first. It really worked solving problems in the park, but it didn’t solve the problems outside the park.”
People still kept coming and many of them got upset when they were turned away after waking up early, packing their cars and driving several hours, Hangen said.
“It kind of ruins your day,” he said. “So we’re trying to ruin fewer people’s days. If they know they’re not going to get in before they leave the house, they can do something else for the day.”
On a sunny weekend day last year, 300 to 350 cars were being turned away, he said.
“I think they hear waterfall and probably picture something far more significant. Not to take anything away from the area, but it’s not Niagara Falls,” Layman said.
The park rangers who have been manning the gates every day felt the brunt of visitors’ anger when they’re turned away, Schreck said.
“I feel bad for them, they’re just doing their best,” she said. “People are being mean to them and it’s not their fault.”
Reservations can be made beginning the Monday prior to the upcoming weekend or holiday — that’s to minimize the number of no-shows, Hangen said.
“We don’t want people reserving a parking place a month in advance and not showing up while turning others away,” he said. “That would be even more frustrating.”
A parking pass will be issued for each vehicle making the reservation, up to 30 vehicles at a time. The pass will be based on the license plate, so it can’t be sold, Hangen said.
Thirty vehicles will generate about 75 people in the park at a given time, 60 to 65 of them at the falls. Some will be hiking the trails, Hangen said.
The pass will be for any type of vehicle up to an 18-passenger van and will be emailed to the person making the reservation.
Visitors can make a reservation for one of two shifts on a given Saturday, Sunday or holiday — 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to sunset. The park opens at 8 a.m. and closes at sunset.
The busiest time at the park is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and with the two shifts, park officials are urging people to come earlier and stay later. A park ranger will make an announcement at the end of the first shift that visitors must clear out and leave the parking lot, Hangen said.
Reservations will be limited to one person per week, so visitors could not make a reservation for both the morning and afternoon shifts of the same day.
The parking lot is manned by at least one park ranger seven days a week during the summer.
To give people a chance to learn about the new reservation system, the new program won’t go into effect until June 29 and 30 (visitors can begin calling June 24 for reservations).
Until then, the park has updated its website and social media outlets with the new information and in early June, they intend to put the information out on sites that market the falls as a destination, Hangen said.
“We know this is an education year,” he said. “We will evaluate it as we go, we will evaluate it at the end of the season and tweak it if we need to meet our three goals.”
Those goals are natural resources management, visitor and customer service, and staffing efficiency, Hangen said.
No other parks in Maryland have such a system, and Kilgore Falls’ is being watched closely. People will travel long distances to other venues like Elk Neck Lighthouse and a new ATV-oriented park being created in Western Maryland, which could implement similar measures.
‘Locals will start coming back’
Reaction to the new reservation system has been both positive and negative, Hangen said.
A lot of the local community has given up on going to the falls on the weekends in the summertime because it’s so crowded, Hangen said.
“If there’s a simple way to have a positive experience by making a phone call, maybe the locals will start coming back on weekends,” he said.
Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents northern Harford County, said residents near the park “have been dealing with an awful lot.”
“By registering online, you know when you get there you have a spot at the park. You’re guaranteed to be able to enjoy the park with your family,” Shrodes said.
Residents also support it.
“They’re in favor of it,” he said. “They’re desperate at this point to get some relief.”
Like anything, time will tell how well it works, he said.
“I hope it will alleviate some of the issues that have been occurring in the area surrounding the park and those neighbors, especially those adjacent,” Shrodes said.
Schreck, who moved to her house in 1997, said the half-day pass should be “more than ample time to look at the falls.”
“I do believe this reservation system will relieve a lot of people trying to come and those who can’t get in from driving around and around,” she said.