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Hike Local During Pandemic, Say N.H. Conservation Groups

Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests

Despite Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order, which takes effect at midnight Friday night, New Hampshire residents are still allowed -- and encouraged -- to go outside to exercise.

But not every hiking and walking spot is available or safe to use during the coronavirus pandemic, according to conservation groups

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"We still have the freedom to move about the state, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily wise to do so,” says Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests president Jack Savage.

What’s closed? 

Some high-traffic areas are already shut down -- including Rumney Rocks, one of the Northeast’s premier sport climbing spots in the quiet mountain town of Rumney. 

The site only recently became part of the White Mountain National Forest, which on Friday announced the closure of several toilet facilities at trailheads and campgrounds, as well as some cabins, in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Find a full list of those closures here.

Madeline McElaney, a board member of the Rumney Climbers Association, says people had been flocking to the cliffs in recent days, “as other states around New Hampshire shut down.”

Credit Sean Hurley / NHPR
Climbers scale a cliff at Rumney Rocks, which is among the White Mountain National Forest sites that will close due to coronavirus.

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“When you have a pandemic going on, and when you have people coming from all across the eastern seaboard -- and then, you know, say somebody gets hurt while they're climbing -- that's one less hospital bed that's available if somebody gets sick,” she says. 

Forest Service officials say visitors will not be arrested or have their cars towed if they park at closed sites -- but they ask that people be respectful of the restrictions and avoid unnecessary coronavirus risk. 

In general, they say most bathrooms that can be closed will be, and those that remain open will not be maintained for the time being. 

Hikers are also urged to stay off the Appalachian Trail as the pandemic continues, and some specific sites along the route are shut down, including in some closed national parks.

“The Appalachian Trail, given its ever-increasing popularity over the past weeks, is no longer a viable space to practice social distancing,” the trail conservancy said in a statement earlier this week.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has also closed its shelters, including White Mountain huts that are popular with trail through-hikers, until at least mid-spring. 

What about state parks? 

All of New Hampshire’s state beaches and beach bathrooms will close Friday night, in accordance with the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Crowds were seeing at Seacoast state beaches and on Route 1A in the final hours before the parks closed Friday night, March 27.

The closures include the parking area at the Odiorne Point boat launch, though recreation areas and trails in the park there remain open. People are asked not to park on Route 1A. 

Other, inland state parks remain open -- details are here. At Monadnock State Park, officials are suspending cash transactions where possible and encouraging people to use the online day use reservation system and self-pay stations. 

The state’s Cannon Mountain ski area is closed, as are most resorts like it. And the state’s snowmobile trail network closed for the season Thursday night.

What kind of places should I avoid, even if they’re open? 

Jack Savage’s group manages conservation land across the state. One of their most popular properties – and the kind of place they do not want people hiking right now – is Mount Major, in the Lakes Region. 

“At least 80,000 people a year hike that mountain, and now is not the time to do it,” Savage says. “I’d say you should hike anywhere but Mount Major.”  

The mountain will stay open for now, but could close if it gets too crowded, Savage says.

The trails on the peak funnel hikers to a single location -- the summit -- and it's hard to keep the recommended six feet away from other hikers on steep, narrow sections of the path, Savage says.

He says hikers should avoid having to take unnecessary risks on the trail for the sake of social distancing.

“We’re looking for people to be responsible and understand that this is for their safety,” Savage says. “It’s going to be a beautiful day on Saturday, and the temptation is going to be strong to go to these places. We are at this point, simply asking people not to go.” 

Credit Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests
Mount Major's summit can be packed with hundreds of people on a busy day.

In line with the governor's stay-at-home order, Savage says this is not the time to drive across the state for a risky, bucket-list adventure – one that could coincide with crowds, or prompt the need for medical attention at a time when hospital resources are strained.

And he says out-of-staters should reconsider any near-term plans for a day in the New Hampshire mountains, even at sites that remain open.

So where should I go instead? 

“Family walks, local,” says Savage. He recommends that people choose hiking locations within close driving distance, where it'll be easier to keep a distance from other hikers.

Find some quieter, less-used, more family-friendly trails near home, he says – and come prepared with a few backup plans. 

“If you arrive at a place that you thought would be empty, and it’s clear that there’s a lot of cars there or a lot of people there,” he says, “move on.” 

Responsible hiking, say groups like Savage’s, will make it easier to keep trails open as the virus runs its course. 

“This is a tough time for those of us who would be outdoors as opposed to anywhere else,” says AMC president John Judge in a statement. “But the more closely we work together to follow public health guidelines, the more quickly we can return to the natural places we love.” 

Click below for details on conservation lands and trails near you: 

  • The Forest Society has details on its website of trails to avoid and hidden gems to try for social distancing. See more resources here, or explore a full map of conservation areas
  • New Hampshire Audubon has closed its indoor facilities in Concord and Auburn until early May, but trails remain open.
  • The Nature Conservancy’s New Hampshire properties are also open
  • Check with your municipality or local conservation group for more information on nearby trails.