“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra
For the past three months, nature has been an important refuge for many Americans, providing exercise, fresh air and a relief from the stresses and uncertainty of COVID-19 and quarantining. However, with more and more people taking to the trails, overcrowding has become a problem in many areas, leading in some cases to parks being shut down. It’s a drag to drive all the way to a trail head and find it crowded with cars, or even worse, closed. While it’s impossible to tell how crowded a trail will be, this post will describe five things to look for when researching a trip that can be tells that a hike is less likely to be packed and thus social distancing friendly.
The hike isn’t heavily represented on social media
While social media has had a controversial role in the outdoor community – credited by some with inspiring more people to explore nature; criticized by others for leading to mob scenes on popular trails – one advantage is that it can be used to get a sense of how heavily a park is visited. On Instagram, you can look up a location and see the most recent posts from that spot. On Yelp and Facebook, you can read reviews which may mention crowding; the reviews are also time/date stamped, providing a rough estimate of how many people have recently visited a trail or park. While there is no way to tell what percentage of visitors tag themselves at a location, you can guess a locale’s popularity by seeing how many check-ins or reviews it has relative to other trails in the area. Apps such as All Trails allow users to track and review their hikes. While the lists might not be comprehensive, as with social media, they can provide a good suggestion of a trail’s popularity. For a list of hiking apps, click here.
The hike isn’t on Google Maps
Google Maps is a wiki-based platform that is constantly expanding with information submitted by users. If a trail head is NOT on Google Maps, that’s a good sign – it means the trail has not been heavily searched. You can still locate the trail head by coordinates (provided on websites such as Summitpost) but not having a trail head listed by name on Google Maps is usually a good tell that it is not heavily visited.
If you do find a trail head on Google Maps, there may be additional information provided by users, such as reviews or photos. While Google is not as popular a reviewing platform as Yelp or Facebook, it can still be a good source of intelligence about the area you are researching. Photos are dated, giving a feel for how popular the trail’s visitation has been.
The hike is a loop (not and out-and-back)
Out and back hikes are more vulnerable to bottle-necking. Even before the pandemic, much was made about over-crowding on popular trails such as Half Dome and Mt. Whitney. Loop hikes are less likely to bottleneck (especially if they have been designated as one-way). Ideally, a destination will offer several possible loops, allowing more room for hikers to disperse.
The hike includes fire roads and pavement
For some hikers, pavement (and even fire roads) means a hard “no.” Everyone has their preferences, but if you have avoided pavement and fire roads, now might be a time to consider them in your hiking itineraries. By design, they are wider than single-tracks, allowing for more natural social distancing. Consider too that not all fire roads and paved paths are created equal. Many paved roads within parks are off-limits to cars, except service vehicles. Fire roads sometimes deteriorate to the point of feeling more like a single-track; if a map or guidebook lists a route as a fire road, conditions could have changed since the publication.
The hike recently re-opened from a non-COVID closure
Many trails have been closed, re-opened and in some cases re-closed in the last few months due to COVID-19. However, trails can and have been temporarily closed for any number of reasons: fire damage, water damage, renovation of facilities and local ordinances, to name a few. When these trails re-open, it might not be a big news story, especially compared to the pandemic. Thus, depending on the trail and the community, the route might be off the radar of local hikers.
Hopefully, we will soon be able to hike without having to keep social distancing in mind and when we do, these tips can still help discover some of nature’s best-kept secrets.