The Trail Less Traveled
Plenty has been said about the pandemic and its effect on our country's trails and parks. Parks have seen such a boom in popularity, that many are reeling from being short-staffed and then slammed with record-breaking visitors during the summer. Any frequent hiker anywhere in the country could see the effects of more people going outside for recreation. Trails eroded, roads washed out, campgrounds were trampled and makeshift overflow parking flattened the shoulders of our nations' scenic wildernesses roads.
More people got on trail to clear their minds and find space, but many found crowds and disappointment from frustrating parking and ques to scenic vistas.
Super-popular destinations are imposing new permits and lotteries to combat the influx of adventurers to ensure everyone has the same experience without the frustration of overcrowding. The crowds have affected wildlife in areas like the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway (the most visited NPs entities, despite how popular Yosemite and Yellowstone may seem), with more negative instances of wildlife/people interactions. There is also the litter that comes with more visitors and fewer Rangers.
What can we do to mitigate the popularity boom’s effect on wilderness? Taking a few steps in research can help you determine when the best time to visit may be.
Take the less traveled trail
Use tools and sites like Alltrails.com to find “moderate” to “light” traffic trails instead of "heavily-trafficked" trails. If you're bent on seeing your bucket list hike; plan to arrive early to the trailhead and pack your patience. Have a Plan B hike nearby in case you didn't arrive early enough to beat the crowd. If you're looking for a less popular national park, check out The Lonely Planet's article on less-visited parks for recommendations (even though a few of my own fav's on the list, I'll share it.)
Parking Lot Roulette
Arriving to a full parking lot is a no-go for me at the trailhead. If I arrive and designated parking is no longer available, I cut my losses and make plans to come earlier (or later) another time. Sometimes for longer trails, they can be reached from other trails and trailheads where parking may be less of a premium; you may just have to hike further or up a steeper grade to get to the same destination, but if you are mitigating the effects of hikers on the more popular trail, it is a rewarding exercise.
Sometimes even arriving early to a trail and empty parking lot can still mean the trail isn't fit to be hiked that day. I’ve hiked to Blood Mountain along the Appalachian Trail in Suches, GA several times - its among my favorite hikes in Georgia. During the winter it can turn into an icy climb overnight and be a slushy, muddy mess before lunch. During the pandemic, the AT saw so much traffic, the trail more closely resembled a mud flow than idyllic path. During our winter 2020 day hike to Blood Mountain, we turned around a mile or so in, as it was the most crowded we had ever seen the trail, even with the terrible weather and I didn't want the obvious erosion happening on trail to be my fault.
Pack Your Patience
In the event you are unable to find a backup trail or your destination is so popular that alternatives aren't avaialble, bring plenty of patience and your mask. Give other hikers and campers their space, much like you would other wild animals in the park, and safely enjoy your visit.
Having to use a plan B isn’t much fun, but other places are cool too. Might even find a new gem of a hike nearby that is secluded. That’s the great thing about hiking in large wilderness areas with features or views - there are usually several options! Wilderness is big and we can share it but we have to do so responsibly. Take your camera and plenty of photos, but leave the river rocks and wildflowers, don't stack rocks and stay on trail. Leaving the wilderness the way you found it for the next person (or cleaner!) to have the same experience is critical for everyone's enjoyment of our Wildernesses.