Closed trails: When, and how, will they reopen?

Just as we started wondering when trails might start reopening, they closed even more more earlier this week. 

On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service announced it was closing roads and trails in the 500,000-acre Pisgah National Forest. “It is not a closure of the whole forest,” Forest Service spokeswoman Cathy Dowd told the Asheville Citizen Times. “There’s about 200 miles of road and 700 miles of trails that remain open on the Pisgah National Forest.”

But the closures include some Pisgah hot spots. And it lasts until Aug. 13 (or until otherwise rescinded). Those hot spots include: Looking Glass Rock, Max Patch, Graveyard Fields, Catawba Falls, sections of the Mountains to Sea Trail and the Art Loeb Trail. And it includes some extremely popular trails, including: Mount Mitchell, the Black Mountain Crest, Lover’s Leap, Big Butt, Briar Bottom, several Brown Mountain area trails, several trails in Linville Gorge, and much of Shining Rock. Find a comprehensive list here. 

Four months! 

With Monday’s shrinking of the Pisgah, this may seem an odd time to speculate about when trails may start to reopen. But it does seem appropriate to ask how that might happen. Here’s a look at some of our favorite hiking spots, their current status and what, if anything, we know about their possible reopening.

North Carolina

North Carolina State Parks. Of key interest to North Carolinians is the state park system. Currently, 29 of the system’s 41 parks, recreation areas and natural areas are completely closed. Physical facilities at the remainder are closed, though trails remain open. On Tuesday, N.C. Parks spokeswoman Katie Hall told us: “State parks currently closed will likely remain closed as long as the Governor’s Stay-At-Home order is in place. When it is lifted, we will evaluate a schedule for reopening parks in a way that is safe for our staff and continues to minimize risk of infection in our parks.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s Stay-At-Home order expires April 29. Cooper said at a press conference on Monday that social distancing measures are working, that the spread of the virus has slowed. As a result, he said, a complete lifting of the order could be “catastrophic.” He added that what happens over the next two weeks will determine if the restrictions might be eased come May.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which we share with Tennessee). Has closed all but two small areas “at least through April 30.”

Croatan, Nanatahala, Pisgah and Uwharrie national forests. In addition to Monday’s Pisgah closings described above, various camping and other facilities are closed, though trails remain open. Go here for specific closings.


Virginia State Parks. In Virginia, all 38 state parks remain open for “day-use activities,” including hiking. All other park facilities, including restrooms and campgrounds, will remain closed at least through June 10, reflecting Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 55. Virginia’s stay-at-home order is one of the last statewide orders set to expire.

Shenandoah National Park. Closed as of April 8 until further notice.

George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Campgrounds and recreation areas are closed, as are trailheads with access to the Appalachian Trial. Find a complete list here.

N.C. and Virginia

Blue Ridge Parkway. Trails and most of the parkway itself remain open, all facilities have been closed.

Appalachian Trail. On its 2,193-mile run from Georgia to Maine, the AT runs through 14 states, several national parks and forests, and umpteen smaller jurisdictions. The Appalachian Trial Conservancy, which manages the trail, has asked people not to hike the trail; national parks and forests along the way have closed trailheads, and many of the counties and towns along the way have closed access as well. The AT is likely to return online in segments, one jurisdiction at a time.

When — and how?

So when might they reopen and what might that look like?

It likely will be two weeks, when North Carolina’s stay-at-home order expires, before we have a sense of when our N.C. State Parks trails might start reappearing. So much depends, as Gov. Cooper said Monday, on how the rate of infections fares. If it appears feasible to loosen restrictions, they likely will occur on a rolling basis, with options minimizing human interaction falling first. Large gatherings — concerts, professional sporting events, festivals — aren’t likely to resume this year — with spectators, at least. (Several scenarios beings discussed include events such as baseball games resuming mid-summer, but in empty stadiums.) 

Activities such as hiking, though, where participants can be spread out, should fare better. Granted, the trails closed were closed because they were overrun with hikers. But part of that surge can be attributed to spring, when low humidity, sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s always summon even the most casual of hikers. The impending warm weather will help keep the crowds down. And if restrictions are eased even moderately in other segments of society, getting more people back to work and gradually opening retail outlets, you’ll see even fewer people on the trails.

One strategy that could help minimize hiker interactions: one-way trails. This would only work on loop trails or trails that could be combined to form a loop, and would simply involve posting a sign and arrow at the trailhead with the direction of travel. This concept has already been implemented elsewhere. In Austin, Texas, the popular Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake was converted to one-way travel on Tuesday. Similar action was taken in Oregon, on the South Canyon section of the Deschutes River Trail in Bend.

Publicizing less-popular trailheads could also work, steering people away from the more popular visitor center-oriented trailheads.

There might also be a twist on the system used for years to eliminate interactions between mountain bikers and equestrians on the popular 42-mile Tsali trail system near Bryson City in the Nantahala National Forest. Mountain bikers and horseback riders alternate trails every other day, with details posted at the trailhead. 

Public health is paramount in the decision to reopen trails. Hopefully two more weeks of discipline on our behalf will see further containment of the coronavirus and the prospect of our gradual return to the trails.   

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Explore Your Neighborhood

As we wait to return to the outdoor world beyond our neighborhoods, a reminder that the outdoor world inside your neighborhood is worth exploring. That’s why we wrote “Explore Your Neighborhood: A Guide to Discovering the World Immediately Around You,” a compact, 54-page book that helps you first scout your neighborhood for adventures you didn’t know were there, then shows you what to look for and where to look for it. Available in both paperback and ebook, from Amazon.

Where should we go? Take the survey

When we are able to start leading trips again, where would you like to go? We will likely start with backpacking trips since they involve the least contact with other hikers. Thus, we’re conducting a survey to see where you would most like to go once we get the all-clear. The survey is a quick three questions; take it here.

Morning Walk with Joe

A reminder that every weekday morning at 7:30 (and later on some weekend mornings) we take you along for about 10 minutes of our morning walk, on Morning Walk with Joe on Facebook Live. Check it out on our FB page, here.

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