As stay-at-home directives become status quo, US residents are looking for outdoor escapes – often on protected lands in remote areas that lack the proper infrastructure to support them. Now, in an effort to protect the health of their communities and minimize the impact of COVID-19, organizations operating on behalf of the country’s best-known trails are asking people to stay away. 

A young man hikes through colourful larch trees in the Pasayten Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Washington.
In mid-March, the Pacific Crest Trail Association asked hikers to stay home © Modoc Stories/Getty Images

On March 13, the Pacific Crest Trail Association posted a statement on its website, requesting that hikers postpone or cancel their PCT trips. “Because no one can travel long distances on the PCT and be certain of avoiding any exposure to the coronavirus, and because anyone at any time can be a carrier of the virus without knowing it, it is clear that anyone traveling the PCT and resupplying in communities along the trail represents a serious risk to others on the trail and people in those communities – particularly high-risk individuals for whom the virus could be deadly,” the statement reads. 

Read more: Should you visit the national parks during the coronavirus pandemic?

“In recognition of the increasing burden that healthcare and other vital services in trail communities will bear in treating their general populations,” it continues, “the PCTA asks all those who are already on the trail – as well as those waiting to start – to cancel or postpone your journeys. The choice is no longer only personal, but one of social responsibility. We all must do everything we can to get beyond this pandemic as quickly as possible.”

Because the PCT’s primary administrator is the US Forest Service, not the association, the trail is still open, except when it traverses parkland that’s closed, like Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and Yosemite National Park in California. Nonetheless, the PCTA hopes the public will comply. 

The continental divide, as seen from Flagstaff Mountain outside of Boulder, Colorado
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition has issued a similar request © jhayes44/Getty Images

“We recognize that many have planned their PCT journeys for years and made major life changes such as quitting jobs or selling homes. We also understand that some have traveled to the PCT and have no clear option aside from starting your trek,” the statement says. “But these circumstances should not justify putting other lives at risk. Limiting the spread of the virus – and the associated economic fallout –requires sacrifice from everyone.”

A few days later, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition made a similar, albeit less extreme, request. “If the CDT passes through or within a short distance of your community, and local trail conditions and your own skillset are such that you can safely access the trail, it continues to be a great place to practice social distancing, enjoy our public lands, and get some exercise and fresh air. Otherwise, we urge you to stay home and enjoy your local trails and outdoor spaces,” an alert on the organization’s website reads. “We are especially concerned for the safety of those who live and work in trailside communities. These communities are home to vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those without health insurance, and many have limited medical facilities that could become easily overwhelmed.”

Hikers take in the view of the Appalachian Mountains from McAfee Knob on Catawba Mountain, Virginia
Sections of the Appalachian Trail, like Virginia's McAfee Knob, "have seen day use reach record-breaking levels" in recent days, the head of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says © Joel Carillet/Getty Images

And just this week, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy followed suit, saying that given the trail’s popularity in recent weeks, it’s “no longer a viable space to practice social distancing,” with trailhead parking lots overflowing, overnight shelters at full capacity, and group trips continuing apace. In an appeal titled “Please Stay Off the Appalachian Trail”, ATC president and CEO Sandra Marra made the case for keeping away. 

“Popular spots along the Trail like Blood Mountain in Georgia, the McAfee Knob area in Virginia, and Annapolis Rocks in Maryland have seen day use reach record-breaking levels,” Marra writes. “These same crowds accessing the A.T. may not know how a simple half-day hike can spread COVID-19. While hiking, they may have eaten lunch at a picnic table, taken a break in a shelter, used a privy, or shared a map or food with someone unknowingly infected with COVID-19 and carried this highly contagious virus back to their communities at the end of the day. They may not have realized that ATC staff and Trail volunteers have been recalled from the A.T. and cannot maintain the footpath, trailheads, shelters and privies that may be heavily (or permanently) impacted by increased visitor use. And, they may not be aware of the rural communities adjacent to the Trail that may not have the healthcare resources to help a sick hiker or volunteer or manage a COVID-19 outbreak should a hiker transport the virus in from the Trail."

“The A.T. is not a separate reality from the communities in which hikers live,” the notice continues. “So, until the risk of spreading COVID-19 has reduced significantly, hiking on a heavily-trafficked trail like the A.T. potentially increases rather than reduces harm. The ATC does not want to do too little, too late. We cannot close the Trail. We cannot physically bar access to trailheads or connecting trails. We can and do, however, urge everyone to please stay away from the Appalachian Trail until further notice.”

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