The Transylvania Times -

Officials Watch As Crowds Return To Public Lands -Brevard NC


Last updated 5/19/2020 at 6:12am

Despite being "closed," the Looking Glass Falls recreation area was busy Saturday. (Times photo by Alex Perri)

"We're so excited that things are opening back up," said Carol Doherty, a Pisgah Forest resident, Saturday before her bike ride with friend Bonnie Cauthon at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education parking lot.

Judging by the amount of people on Transylvania County's public lands the last few days, Doherty wasn't the only one glad to see DuPont State Recreational Forest, Gorges State Park and Pisgah National Forest begin a phases reopening

Hiker John Smithson, who lives in the Statesville area, said he and his friends were excited to get some fresh air and sunshine Saturday at the Looking Glass Rock trailhead.

"We just want to get out of the house – get some fresh air," he said. "Outside is where you want to be with this COVID going on. Correct? Rather than inside. We're trying to give everyone their space."

DuPont State Recreational Forest started the first phase of its reopening on Thursday, opening up many trails and a few parking areas, while continuing the closure of the forest's most popular destinations, visitor center and public restrooms. Gorges Sate Park opened trails and restrooms on Wednesday, May 13, and will continue to keep the visitor center and camping facilities closed. Pisgah National Forest announced it would be reopening nearly all of the trails and many of the roads that were initially closed in an April 13 forest order on Thursday, May 14.

Public facilities like visitors' centers and restrooms are still largely closed throughout the county's public lands, but officials say they want to accommodate the public as much as possible.

Many have expressed the desire to use the public lands for exercise at a safe social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, Asheville couple Van and Rachel Rodgers visited DuPont, the first day the forest re-opened its. The Rogers said they were grateful the forest was opening up again and took their children to ride the kids' bike loop near the Guion Farms parking area.

"We've been doing a lot of Hiking in the Asheville area," said Van. "It's good to just get out a little bit. We heard it was opening today, so the kids did the kids' bike loop for the first time."

"We're glad folks are able to come up and see the forest," said DuPont State Forest Ranger Bruce MacDonald Friday. "We're anticipating a little bit of crowding, maybe over the nice weekend. And (we) just really want to remind folks that it's not normal operations. We do have closed parking areas. It' access. So, we just want folks working with us, a cooperative spirit. To have everybody working together on this would be a good thing and allow us to continue to work through the phases of reopening. As visitors show that safe behavior is possible...we can think about increasing access, that sort of a thing."

It's unclear if visitor behavior will impact the next phase of re-opening after there were reports of visitors driving through the fencing surrounding the Hooker Falls Parking area to access the falls despite the area's status as one of the closed areas in the forest. In Pisgah, most recreation sites like Looking Glass Falls, Sliding Rock and the Cradle of Forestry are still closed, as well as all group campsites.

All camping is still prohibited in the Pisgah Ranger District, but dispersed camping is now being allowed in the Appalachian and Grandfather Districts.

In Pisgah, too, many visitors did not let the closure of Looking Glass Falls stop them from visiting the popular recreation site.

At around 2 p.m., Saturday, the falls had cars parked on the side of N.C. 276 for half a mile in each direction, with crowds clearly ignoring the "Area Closed" signs to access the falls.

One family said they didn't know the falls were closed and when asked if they planned to go elsewhere now that they could see the "Area Closed" signs after walking up to the viewing platform, they continued down the stairs.

Cyclists Cauthon and Doherty said they have been sure to keep up-to-date with any Pisgah closures and only ride trails that were open, but, both said they always saw a few cars parked at closed trailheads during the closures. On Saturday, they said they were surprised by the amount of out-of-state license plates lined up at the Looking Glass Rock trailhead, but they understood the appeal of the forest for far-away visitors.

"When we lived out of state, we would come up here and enjoy it, which is why we moved here because it's just so beautiful," Doherty said. "I personally don't want to say, 'Oh you can't come here because you're from out of the state' because I was that person once. I don't want to say, 'I don't want to share' because it's just so beautiful. I want to share with everybody. But at the same time, if you are going to come here, just play by the rules and it will make the land a better land and a better place to be."

Cauthon said she feels very strongly that forest visitors be courteous during the pandemic and that even though many places are opening up, things aren't back to "normal" yet.

"Normally around this time of year, I'd be trying to talk people into coming to visit, because it's so beautiful," she said. "But I think that what I would like to see... is if people are going to get out, to act like, not be like, 'Oh, everything is open' or that 'everything is back to normal.' They should wear their masks. They should be polite. They should stay away from people. They shouldn't pass you 2 inches away. I feel really strongly about that. It's like if you want to keep the trails open, do those simple things that you could do to make things safer for people. It's healthier for everybody."

MacDonald said on Friday that if DuPont visitors cause problems, then the forest might have to regress some of the phased openings.

"We might have to limit access to areas that are causing problems, which nobody wants to do," he said. "Hit the trail. Hike a little bit. And it might not be the waterfall hike that they've usually done here, but it's a chance to see some other nice, new parts of the forest...We're so glad for folks to get that opportunity. We know it's good and, in some ways, a necessary thing for folks to be able to get this time outside. But keep moving and then finish up and free up space for the next folks to come along also.

"We've got the Hooker Falls area closed right now because that's the area where trails have folks close together, where people are in groups, that sort of thing. When groups are showing up... the large groups that the CDC recommendations tell us to avoid, then we're not able to just ignore that. We can't decide we're not going to deal with that. It is on us to manage that. We won't necessarily break up that group. We're having to protect our staff also, protect our people and not get into unsafe situations. It's more going to be management decisions that you know. You might see changes later resulting from those behaviors."


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