After weeks of being stuck indoors, many people are understandably looking for ways to get some fresh air without putting themselves or other people at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Many of North Carolina’s State Forests are still open to the public and remain a safe way to get outside and enjoy the outdoors. Most parks that have remained open are busy, said N.C. Forest Service spokesperson Christie Adams, but are still able to support visitors while promoting social distancing.
“In general, the State Forests that remain open are reporting good news. As of a week ago, they were at sixty to seventy percent capacity, and visitation is two and three times greater than what is typical for this time of year,” she said. “Parking areas can be full during busy times, but in most cases, if parking is full and there is no available space, visitors leave.”
Kevin Pittman, forest supervisor at Clemmons Education State Forest in Clayton, has seen a major increase in visitors recently.
“Right now as far as operation numbers go, we’re somewhere around double to triple the amount, it just depends from day to day,” he said. “Today probably isn’t going to be much, but most of the other days it’s at least double.”
The parking lot has stayed almost full, he said, hovering around the 95 percent mark. Visitors have been good about clearing out when things get busy, Pittman said, and visitors who see the parking lot is near full have been making the smart choice to move on.
“Right as it starts to get full, there will be a group of cars that is heading out. It’s worked out really nice. We haven’t had to put anybody on rush hold, it’s worked out just right so far,” he said. “Even when the parking area was full, you didn’t see a lot of people everywhere. Even in our popular areas, you might have just a few people at one end and a couple at the other.”
Pittman said that social distancing was a concern of his as the virus began to spread, but visitors have done well to abide by the rules and keep themselves and each other safe.
It helps that Clemmons ESF has plenty of room for people to move around. The forest has four main trails within its more than 800 acres ranging from half a mile to three miles long, which gives visitors enough space to comfortably enjoy the outdoors without coming into close contact.
“We don’t have our shelters open, and that’s the main congregation area. I have the river basin deck, and that’s not something I wanted to close off. If I saw people gathering there I would, but it hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “If we go by what my parking lot holds, the people are able to disperse really well.”
While many State Forests are experiencing high traffic, that is not the case for all of them. Carrie McCullen, forest supervisor at Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest in Bladen County, said that her location is more than able to bring in new visitors.
“We don’t get a lot of the busy city traffic that some of our other ESF’s get, specifically in the Jordan Lake area and up in the mountains. We also have several other features around us in the Bladen County area for people to go to – we have State Park right next door to us and several other green spaces for people to go to,” she said. “Our traffic has really been normal, if not even a little lower because we aren’t offering the programming that we normally do. We are quite a stark difference compared to our other educational state forests that are experiencing overloads of people looking for something to do.”
Forests across the state have made similar limits to their programming, as well as which areas are accessible to visitors. Turnbull is still mostly open, and McCullen said that now is a good time to visit.
“We still a lot of the forest open, that’s another difference we have right now. We still have over 800 acres that folks can come and visit,” she said. “We’ve got lots of room to stretch your legs.”
Turnbull usually has a variety of educational resources for visitors to interact with. Some of those are disabled for now – a series of buttons used to play informative recordings is not available – but other signage is still available along with an area dedicated to learning about fire control.
Of course, advocating for more people to come to the park while social distancing is so important might raise some eyebrows. McCullen said that the forest has plenty of room, even if traffic increases.
“We have two primary trails here and then lots of driving paths, so you don’t actually have to leave your car to experience the forest. The driving paths extend pretty far into the depths of the forest itself,” she said. “You can see all kinds of stands of timber, different ages, species, the Longleaf Pines and different types of management that we have.”
Especially while outside, enforcing social distancing is more important than ever as COVID-19 cases continue to climb. Make sure you are prepared, and familiarize yourself with the guidelines for planning outdoor trips. By staying smart and safe, North Carolinians can continue to flatten the curve while also taking advantage of all our natural spaces have to offer.