In a year of dislocating pandemic and destructive wildfire, it’s nice to get out into nature and take a break from the news.
But even the ancient redwood groves of Calaveras Big Trees State Park have not been immune from the events of 2020.
For about two months beginning on March 26, the park was completely closed to vehicular traffic in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, though walking and biking into the park were still allowed.
“We did this mainly to reduce the visitation surges that we would normally see,” California State Parks Spokeswoman Adeline Yee said. “We had to reduce large crowds and destination travel, which is still not encouraged right now. Because of the stay-at-home order, we were asking people to stay local.”
Day-use areas reopened the first week in June, and camping areas reopened on June 22.
“The park is still partially open, but the group campsites are not open,” Yee said. “In addition, special events are still not allowed at this time.”
The closure resulted in reduced hours for seasonal staff at the park, Yee said.
“During the temporary park closures, there were less seasonal staff on duty,” she said. “But once the park reopened, all seasonal staff returned to normal work.”
Yee said that park rangers and other staff noticed an upsurge in visitation this summer.
“Compared to previous summers, visitation seemed to be higher once the park reopened, especially on weekdays, because people were home more, and people were able to go out to the parks not only on weekends, but also during the week,” she said. “While we don’t have specific data to corroborate this, visitation may have been higher due to limited or non-existent entertainment options because of the pandemic.”
Like many recreational areas, the park saw an increase in littering this year.
“There was a slight increase in littering in the park,” Yee said. “Fortunately, it was nothing detrimental. We will continue to encourage all park visitors to utilize the provided trash containers and Dumpsters throughout the park, and just to remember, if you pack it in, always pack it out.”
Beginning in March, the park enacted a series of safety measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Staff are required to wear face coverings, signs are posted to educate the public on safety precautions, and mask-wearing is encouraged.
The North Grove Trail, the most popular in the park, is now a one-way trail to help visitors to maintain social distancing. Employee and visitor facilities are cleaned multiple times a day, and the park is encouraging visitors to bring their own soap and hand sanitizer. In the visitors center and museum, visitors are required to wear face coverings, and only 10 people are allowed in at a time.
“Because of these unprecedented times, state parks will continue to adapt our operations across the system to make sure that we are still complying with state and local public health orders to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Yee said. “And because COVID-19 is a dynamic situation across the state, we’re going to alter these guidelines as we see needed.”
The closure of the surrounding Stanislaus National Forest from Sept. 7 to Sept. 19 had little effect on visitation levels to the park, Yee said.
“We did have some campers stay with us because of the closure, but the visitation has slowed down since,” she said. “This could be due to a number of factors – due to the poor air quality that we had recently, and also due to schools starting back up and people going back to work. … Usually after Labor Day is when things slow down a little bit.”
Like the national forest, the park recently enacted fire restrictions due to dangerous conditions. Campfires, briquette barbecues and all ignition sources are currently prohibited throughout the park, with the exception of propane stoves, which are allowed only in developed campsites.
“According to Cal Fire, the length of the fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierra, due to warmer spring and summer temperatures,” Yee said. “We also have a reduced snowpack, and an earlier spring snowmelt. This has created a longer and more intense dry season. … The Stanislaus National Forest has temporarily banned campfires, so it only makes sense to make sure that we are consistent with the national forest.”
The park increased its online presence this year on Facebook and Youtube in order to bring the park to people who couldn’t visit in person. California State Parks also expanded the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS) program, which provides virtual field-trip experiences for kindergarten through 12th-grade students.
“PORTS takes you to parks all around California, and it’s a really great program,” Yee said. “We did a lot of that too, and that was really helpful for parents and kids who were stuck at home.”
Despite challenging circumstances, the park ran smoothly this year, Yee said.
“All the Calaveras Big Trees staff really did a fantastic job when it came to overcoming the park closure and adjusting to the new COVID-19 parameters, while providing park visitors with the best possible customer service and safety in regards to COVID-19,” she said.
Yee said that most visitors had a positive attitude when visiting the park.
“The majority of visitors were happy to get out and recreate, and they were really understanding and appreciative of all of the employees’ efforts and the park standards on COVID-19,” Yee said. “I think everyone was pretty compliant, and they were just really happy with the staff and the way that things are running at this point.”
Yee encouraged visitors to the park to plan ahead and visit parks.ca.gov for the latest information.
“We encourage people to recreate safely, continue to maintain that six feet of distance from those outside of your immediate household, and stay covered when you can’t maintain that distance,” she said. “Come prepared, bring your soap and sanitizers, pack out all of your trash, and have a great time. … I know that it’s been challenging for all of us – for everyone – during the pandemic, and I know more people are seeking to be outdoors, so I’m glad that we can provide an avenue for them.”
For up-to-date information, visit parks.ca.gov.
For more on safety guidelines, visit parks.ca.gov/flattenthecurve.
To learn about the PORTS program, visit ports-ca.us.