“It keeps you from going insane,” Caci Inners, a laid-off day-care worker from York said last Monday afternoon while walking with many others on the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail near Washington Boro in Manor Township.
Inners, 24, and her boyfriend, Levi Cabrera, had driven across the Susquehanna to sample the trail for the first time because they were going stir crazy staying at home so they won’t spread — or get — the coronavirus.
They were not alone. On a weekday afternoon, an uncharacteristic 31 vehicles were in the trailhead parking lot for the rail trail and the Turkey Hill Trail.
As the freedom to leave home gets more limited, engaging in outdoor activity with social distancing has become a massive outlet and stress reliever permitted by the state stay-at-home order. Consequently, trails, parks, nature preserves and state game lands in Lancaster County are seeing unprecedented use.
“Our philosophy here at Manor Township is parks are the one place everybody can go to enjoy the outdoors. We want to give people some release,” says Ryan Strohecker, township manager.
Adds Fritz Schroeder of the Lancaster Conservancy, which has 44 nature preserves sprinkled throughout the county: “At this critical time, the Lancaster Conservancy views the opportunity to get out in nature and explore our natural landmarks as an essential quality of life service that we are proud to provide for our community’s mental and physical wellbeing.”
Despite its high population, Lancaster County is blessed with ample trails and natural areas from the efforts of local government and nonprofit groups.
Still, the swarming of local spots by residents seeking solace outdoors is causing its own stresses. As heavy use only increases, land managers worry that getting away from it all may pose harmful impacts on fragile lands and a coronavirus safety risk of its own.
The conservancy, for example, shut down parking at two preserves in Tucquan Glen after it was overrun. Tucquan, along with Chickies Rock, is one of the county’s most popular natural areas. Some 160 vehicles showed up at Tucquan Glen on a single day, and too many visitors left behind litter, let their dogs off leashes and were otherwise disrespectful of the land and neighbors.
On Friday, conservancy President Phil Wenger issued this statement:
“For the first time in our history, our message is shifting — today, we implore you to explore and celebrate the nature in your own backyard instead of joining the crowds at our preserves. Explore the green spaces immediately around you. Fall in love with the wonderful and minute details of your home ecology.”
And in Holtwood, Exelon’s Muddy Run Recreation Park, a popular hiking spot, has been closed to the public indefinitely.
Closings, curbs and cancellations
Conservancy staff members are posting signs at trailheads in preserves instructing hikers not to pass within 6 feet of each other.
Schroeder said conservancy members are noticing more and more license plates from surrounding states as parks are shut down in those states.
At the 1,105-acre Clarence Schock Memorial Park at Governor Dick, the popular observation tower has been closed to keep people from close proximity to each other. Also closed is the parking lot, restrooms and environmental center. But all 16 trails are open dawn to dusk.
Groups such as the Lancaster County Bird Club, Lancaster Hiking Club and the Lancaster Bicycle Club have canceled organized outings until further notice. The hiking club hopes to resume organized hikes in May. As for trout season, plans are to hold the opening day statewide on Saturday, April 18.
At the nine county parks with about 35 miles of trails, visitors are encouraged to avoid crowded parking lots and to stay at least 6 feet apart as they pass other park users.
“The parks are here. We’re just trying to keep people dispersed and practicing good social distancing,” says Paul Weiss, county parks administrator.
Some municipalities around the county have closed local parks, and officials are urging families not to use playground equipment. With restroom facilities closed in many parks or along trails, users are urged to go to the bathroom before visiting. Going to the bathroom outside and leaving tissues or toilet paper behind is considered a coronavirus risk.
The six state game lands in Lancaster County, including Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, purchased by money from sportsmen, are open to the public for multiple uses. However, from April 11 to May 30, because of turkey hunting season, bicycle and horseback riding not used for hunting is prohibited. There are no restrictions on hiking, however, during the period.
“There’s benefit to getting outdoors in the fresh air. There’s a lot of room to stretch out on game lands,” says Travis Lau, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
New rules of engagement
Land managers are coming up with new rules of engagement for public recreation. But they generally include these recommendations:
— Don’t hike or recreate in groups — go with those under the same roof, and adhere to social distancing (stay 6 feet apart).
— Take hand sanitizer with you and use it regularly.
— Avoid touching your face, eyes and nose.
— Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or flexed elbow when coughing and sneezing.
— If you are sick, stay home.
— If a parking lot is full, drive to another one, or a different park.
— Keep dogs on a leash at all times.
Ad Crable is an LNP | LancasterOnline outdoors writer. Email him at email@example.com.