For those looking to the Western North Carolina mountains for solace during the first months of COVID-19, efforts to hit the trails often ran into a dead end. Initial local, state and federal responses to the pandemic restricted access to many of WNC’s most treasured outdoor spaces, including the Pisgah National Forest and Blue Ridge Parkway.
Most of those restrictions have since been relaxed. Gov. Roy Cooper’s “Safer at Home Phase 2” order, which went into effect on May 22 and has been extended through at least Friday, Aug. 7, allows parks and trails to operate and permits outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have continued to surge, both in WNC and across the state, with Buncombe County interim Public Health Director Dr. Jennifer Mullendore calling recent local increases “alarming.” Despite this rise, many involved with the area’s outdoors industry say enthusiasts, novices and businesses alike are eagerly returning to newly available trails, rivers and campsites.
Jennifer Pharr Davis, owner of Asheville-based Blue Ridge Hiking Co., says there’s a simple reason behind the pent-up demand for outdoor recreation: In a world where many activities are either unsafe or unavailable, going for a hike is very appealing. “There is a surge of people looking for relatively safe adventures and vacations,” she explains. “Outdoor recreation is a low-risk way to exercise, see new places and benefit from the therapeutic benefits of time spent outdoors.”
Debby Jones, president of the Carolina Mountain Club, has also seen a recent increase in outdoor users. But she notes that trail crowding, especially on weekends, has actually lightened up since the start of Phase 2.
While areas such as the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests saw widespread trailhead closures, other public lands, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, never completely shut down. As a result, Jones says, crowds concentrated on the few trails that were open at the time. She observed significant buildups of trash in parking lots and along trails due to the closure of restrooms and trash cans at the trailheads. Many trail users also failed to practice proper social distancing, she says, discouraging others from hiking.
Most trails are still more crowded than usual, Jones says, with easier, more accessible trails seeing the most use. But Paul Curtin, the CMC’s Appalachian Trail supervisor, says the Appalachian Trail is far less crowded than it has been in previous years. He explains that many thru-hikers left the trail at the start of the shutdown and haven’t come back.
Back to work
As users navigate the evolving status of public lands, WNC’s recreation sector is working hard to keep the outdoors a safe option during the pandemic.
Kevin Howell, who owns Pisgah Forest-based Davidson River Outfitters, is happy to be back up and running after being shut down for six weeks during Phase 1 of COVID-19 restrictions. Now that public lands are available for his guided fly-fishing trips, he’s returned to the river with some additional safety precautions.
Howell enforces a strict limit of two guests per trip, with the anglers driving their own cars to the river and bringing their own lunch. Additionally, each client and guide must wear a buff or face mask. The simplest social distancing measure, he says, “is staying at least one fly rod (9 feet) apart.”
Pharr Davis, whose Blue Ridge Hiking Co. has resumed guided hikes, says that taking social distancing precautions on their trips hasn’t required much change. ”There is very little that we do beyond administering necessary wilderness first aid that requires us to break a 6-foot boundary with our clients,” she says.
When 6 feet cannot be ensured, the company provides face coverings for clients and guides. Most importantly, Pharr Davis continues, clients are made aware of what is expected of them on the day of the trip so that everyone feels safe and there is little confusion.
Both Pharr Davis and Howell report that they’ve gotten little to no pushback from clients regarding their COVID-19 precautions. They both agree that customers generally seem to be happy for the opportunity to be back outdoors and regard the precautions as a small price to pay to enjoy those spaces safely.
In need of repair
Trail safety, adds Pharr Davis, also depends on making sure trails are clean and clear for adventure. And for WNC’s trails, maintenance during the pandemic has been a mixed bag.
“Some trails have not been as well maintained due to COVID, but they are typically the lesser-traveled trails,” Pharr Davis explains. On many routes, trees have blown down and vegetation has occasionally overtaken the path. This makes some areas more difficult to access, especially for people of more limited ability.
Curtin with the Carolina Mountain Club agrees that area trail maintenance has suffered from the shutdowns. Volunteers with his club and other groups, not the government, are primarily responsible for keeping trails in good working condition; the CMC alone is responsible for 94 miles of the Appalachian Trail and 150 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Due to public land closures, about 2,500 hours of maintenance work just didn’t happen.
Catching up on these lost maintenance hours is a daunting task. Curtin says trail crews have picked up where they left off, working five days a week to reclaim footpaths out of the wild overgrowth, but the backlog remains substantial — especially with new limits on work group size and a prohibition on tool sharing to avoid COVID-19 spread.
One of the pandemic’s few upsides, suggests Howell, is that people are choosing to head outdoors instead of partaking in other activities. Many new fly-fishing clients have come from urban centers like Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh and Birmingham, Ala. “Everyone that can drive to the area is planning on it,” he says.
Pharr Davis has seen similar trends with her clients, many of whom are choosing guided trips to ensure a safe experience. For those choosing to go it alone, she recommends hiking either early or late in the day to avoid both crowds and the worst of the late summer heat. She also suggests exploring less popular trails to promote social distancing but reminds hikers to bring plenty of water, check frequently for ticks and practice “Leave No Trace” principles in those more remote locations.
And Jones with the CMC is encouraged by the new interest in the outdoors. “I think there are people outside now that would have never been on a trail,” she says. “I think there are people camping now that wouldn’t have otherwise. We want to see people out. I think this is a positive thing — as long as they follow the rules.”