The Lopez family was up before sunrise to pack up supplies: portable stoves, camping chairs, rainbow-striped mesh hammocks and coolers filled with tortillas, sausages and whole tilapia.
Nearly two dozen family members drove in a multiple-car caravan from Dundalk to Cunningham Falls State Park, an hour and a half away.
They arrived well before the park’s 8 a.m. opening — and found they weren’t the only group waiting to claim a spot in the shade of oak trees near a sandy lakeshore. Recent rains had stopped, and the forecast was sunny and hot — so, as they expected, the line of cars was long.
“I couldn’t see all the way back,” Kevin Amaya said.
Such crowds have become routine at state parks across Maryland. At some sites, on weekends with good weather, they’re filling every picnic table, beach and trail to capacity. Many have become so popular that rangers are shutting down the entrances and turning away latecomers.
Capacity crowds have led officials to close the gates more than 100 times in each of the past three years.
The surge in popularity mirrors a boom in park attendance across the country.
It means more people are enjoying public lands set aside for recreation. But it also means wear and tear on facilities that in many cases are already years behind on maintenance projects, and more demands on rangers to protect ecosystems from human impacts.
“We try to make sure the park experience is not the amusement park experience or the Ocean City boardwalk experience or the state fair carnival experience,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Bushman, deputy superintendent of the Maryland Park Service. “There’s got to be a little bit of nature in between everybody.”
Some relief from the congestion could be on the horizon. More money is flowing into Program Open Space, a state fund used to buy land for new parks and to invest in existing ones, and park service officials say they are eyeing opportunities to expand.
That includes spending $40 million over seven years to address a backlog of delayed renovations and repairs.
Joel Dunn, CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, called the growing popularity “a terrific sign.” But he said the capacity crowds could be keeping some Marylanders from experiencing nature.
“The parks are key to engaging future generations, no matter where they come from, no matter what they look like, in the important need to preserve our natural and cultural resources,” he said. “The more we have of them, the better.”
Rangers say much of the increase is driven by Latino families such as Amaya’s.
The Maryland Park Service manages 72 sites across the state. The most popular ones include forested parks relatively close to metro areas — Cunningham Falls, Patapsco Valley and Greenbrier — and sites with access to the Chesapeake Bay or other water: Sandy Point, North Point, Point Lookout and Assateague.
Crowds flocking to those parks helped drive statewide park visits up by 40 percent since 2009, to 14.5 million last year. And they have caused the number of times rangers shut the gates to more than double over that period — from 54 in 2009 to 122 last year.
Park officials say those numbers are closely tied to the weather. After record-setting rainfall in May and July, there have been only about 50 closures so far this year.
On a nice Sunday, however, the question usually isn’t whether parks such as Cunningham Falls will close — but when.
Mark Spurrier, the manager of the park in Frederick County, said the changes have been stark over the years.
When he started volunteering with the park service 20 years ago — his first job was handling birds of prey, or, as he says, “cleaning up vulture vomit for free” — visitors were fewer, and they would stay just long enough for a quick hike to the falls or a dip in the lake.
Now, the crowds come early and they stay all day. The air is filled with the scent of spices on the grill, and the sound of Latin music.
“Any open area becomes a soccer field,” he said.
Bushman said park officials have adapted to serve their changing clientele, offering bilingual signs and other messaging. Bushman said. They’re happy to have visitors of all backgrounds.
“It’s very gratifying to know that there’s all these people that view us as their No. 1,” he said. “That this is where they want to be on a nice summer weekend.”
National parks have been working for years to manage overcrowding. Officials have at times credited low gas prices and good weather, but haven’t pinpointed a constant factor responsible for the steady rise in attendance.
The National Park Service reported a 20 percent increase in visitors from 2009 through last year. The crowds have led to some well publicized run-ins between park visitors and wildlife, and rising concerns about conservation and preservation.
National parks, including Zion in Utah and Rocky Mountain in Colorado, are considering limiting the number of visitors or what areas vehicles can access.
Maryland officials say they are being similarly cautious. They say the frequent capacity closures are proof of that.
Bushman said officials won’t add more parking to a park if it would mean more visitors than the site could handle.
At Cunningham Falls, Spurrier said, a capacity crowd is 450 vehicles at any one time. That amounts to 3,000 people on a busy weekend.
Only 100 of the park’s 5,000 acres are easily accessible to most visitors. In that “day use” area, there are no trash cans — visitors are expected to take out all waste that they carried in.
Still, human impacts can be spotted. Near the waterfall that gives the park its name, Spurrier points out a bed of bright green grasses along the trail. They’re an invasive species, carried into the forest on hiking socks and boots.
He points to carvings of pairs of names covering one birch tree and spreading to others around it. He said that though he likes to read them, and wonder whether the couples are still together, they’re one more sign of human influence in an otherwise natural environment.
“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” Spurrier said.
Some new state parks are already planned. Last year, the state announced purchase of 2,000 acres in Garrett County for a park to include trails for off-road vehicles. And next year, the state Department of Natural Resources expects to begin roadwork that will allow Bohemia River State Park to open in Cecil County, a department spokesman said.
There are hopes that more will be added soon. Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly approved a law in 2016 to shore up Program Open Space, which uses the proceeds of the state’s real estate transfer tax to buy land for parks and conservation.
The fund has frequently been raided to balance tight budgets over the years. But the legislation provided the program with $60 million over two years, and established a repayment plan for any future transfers. And it provides $6 million a year for seven years to put toward delayed maintenance projects.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Ann Jones, director of Partners for Open Space.
Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina said acquiring new parkland is a long process, and sometimes an unpredictable one, depending on what comes up for sale.
It’s guided by a strategy that emphasizes conservation of areas that are ecologically sensitive, historic or culturally important, while also taking into account popular demand for attractions such as water access and trails. Settina said the state has some acquisitions “in the works,” but declined to elaborate.
In the meantime, the agency has $10 million worth of renovations and upgrades in the works, including new toll booths at Point Lookout and a new playground and renovations to boat ramps and the nature center at Sandy Point.
At Cunningham Falls, work is expected to start in the fall on larger bathrooms, renovations to the nature center and the replacement of 80 of the park’s 100 picnic tables.
“This park is showing its age,” Spurrier said. “It has been loved to death.”
By lunchtime on a recent Sunday, the Lopez family was gathered around one of those picnic tables, feasting on grilled fish and tortillas, rice and the seafood soup known as tapado in their native El Salvador and Honduras.
Amaya said the family stumbled across Cunningham Falls a few weeks earlier, when another park they planned to visit for a regular Sunday family gathering was full. But they liked it because it was less rocky than Patapsco Valley State Park, and more shady than Ocean City. Also, closer.
“It’s just a bit more convenient,” Amaya said.
Though it was one of the region’s first sunny Sundays in what seemed like forever, the park was slow to fill up that morning. Spurrier, experienced in handicapping what might influence attendance on any given weekend, guessed many potential visitors were stuck at home doing yardwork they had to delay during record July rainfall.
But the crowds wouldn’t be denied. Rangers shut the gates that afternoon, just a couple of hours later than they expected — about 1:40 p.m. The park reopened an hour and a half later.