Parks are becoming crowded

Published 7:23 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2019

in the woods header 

 During a backpacking trip last year, my friend and I were surprised to come upon a family toting not only a couple of four and five-year-olds, but also a toddler less than two years old.

We were hanging out at an Appalachian Trail shelter and it was at least three miles over a mountain to any nearby parking lot.

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But there they were, all in one piece and seemingly happy. The kids, anyway.

Ditto for a recent trip to the pinnacles at Grayson Highlands State Park, where there were at least five children, one or two as young as three, climbing the rocky outcroppings.

At around 5,000 feet, we were all in a thick and misty cloud. It was 40 degrees and the 30 mph winds were blowing steadily — rugged conditions to be sure.

The kids appeared to love it, despite the weather.

I’ve been camping and backpacking fairly regularly for more than 10 years and have seen a change in nature’s clientele during that time.

Maybe that’s because of some recent hiking movies — “Wild” comes to mind — or maybe it’s because it’s the antithesis of staring at a computer or phone screen all day.

Whatever the reason, people have discovered the wilderness.

It used to be the woods had a few 20-something guys or couples or older men reliving their military days. Rarely would I encounter a woman my age, and in 10 years, I can count those on one hand.

It used to be that all those campers and backpackers were white. And for the most part, they still are, but increasingly, there is a more diverse crowd at Virginia’s state parks and public forests. It’s nice to see everyone enjoying the outdoors these days.

The biggest change, however, have been the crowds. It is difficult to reserve a campsite at a state park unless done weeks or months ahead of time or in the very off-season. If backpacking, the tiny parking areas are often nearly full by 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning at any time except the dead of winter. That means leaving at 4 a.m. to get a spot.

On a trip this spring to Devil’s Marbleyard there were in excess of 100 people (I lost count) climbing the roughly three miles up to the site and back. With that many people, a bathroom stop is a real challenge. At Grayson Highlands there were so many people on the balds I could have been in a shopping mall.

Obviously, there is a point where the number of people crowd out the meaning of being in the wilderness and I don’t know what the solution is.

Perhaps more parks, more public lands, better parking and camping in January. When the weather is cold and miserable, you have it all to yourself. Whether it’s worth it is something else.