Laurel Demkovich

(Washington State Standard) The start of the summer outdoor recreation season is here in Washington. With it comes crowded trailheads, filled campgrounds and congested park roads.

Land managers are preparing for the rush as state and national parks are still recovering from a visitor boom during the pandemic. And some agencies are beginning to rethink how best to deal with crowds. That can prove to be a balancing act between maintaining wide access and other concerns, like land conservation and ensuring visitors don’t have a frustrating experience.

“We ask that you pack your patience,” State Parks spokesperson Meryl Lassen said. “Have a plan B and know it before you go.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic closed many parks and campgrounds in 2020, visitors packed state lands in 2021, as people sought refuge in the fresh outdoor air from the spreading virus.

In 2021, Washington State Parks saw roughly 11.5% more visitors than in 2019. Around 26.1 million people visited state parks in 2021 compared to 23.4 million in 2019, Lassen said.

Those numbers leveled off a bit last year but were still up by more than 4 million compared to pre-pandemic years. It’s hard to predict visitation for the rest of this year, as most of it comes in the next four months. But Lassen said campground availability at state parks is already slim, with the top ten parks fully booked on weekends through the summer.

Visitation to two of Washington’s National Parks – the North Cascades and Olympic – didn’t see spikes in visitors in 2021, according to data from the National Park Service.

Mt. Rainier National Park did see an influx. About 11% more people visited the park in 2021 as compared to 2019, according to National Park Service data. The number of visitors to the park remained elevated around that 2021 level last year as well.

Many state park visitors during the pandemic were new to the outdoors, Lassen said, and many needed education on how to recreate safely and without damaging the landscape.

Crowds bring traffic, full parking lots and the potential for added tension among visitors. Demand for infrastructure like toilets and dumpsters also rises.

To help ease congestion, some popular national parks, like Arches in Utah and Rocky Mountain in Colorado, have turned to timed reservations for day-use visitors.

Mount Rainier National Park is looking at options to do the same.

It’s in the process of rethinking the flow of visitors in the Nisqually entrance to Paradise corridor during peak visitation months. Visitation to the corridor increased by 75% between 2015 and 2021, according to the National Park Service. Most visitors come between July and September.

According to the Park Service, the rise in visitors has led to waits of more than an hour to enter the park at times.

“The majority of comments that we received were related to traffic congestion, parking shortages, and crowding,” Superintendent Greg Dudgeon said in a statement last month. “That is exactly what we are hoping to address with a timed-entry reservation system.”

Several plans involving timed reservation systems for entry and parking, as well as possibly providing shuttle vehicles, are currently up for public comment, which will close June 11, 2023. A decision on a final plan is expected by the end of summer.

Mount Rainier is also shifting to a cashless system for entrance fees and campgrounds and, beginning May 26, will only accept card payments.

State Parks is not currently proposing timed entry reservations at any of their sites.

Lassen noted that state parks are often a gateway to the outdoors for people because they are easy to get to and don’t necessarily require a lot of expensive gear to enjoy. State Parks hopes to keep the parks as accessible as possible.

Still, visitors this summer should plan to be flexible with their trips. Lassen encouraged people to be aware of closures, have a backup plan in case parking lots or campgrounds are full, or try visiting on weekdays when parks are less crowded.

As for those who may have just discovered the state park system in the past couple of years, Lassen said: “We’re hoping that people found something for themselves in the outdoors and will continue to use the outdoors.”