When it came to hiking, Jordan Bishop always wondered what the fuss was about. A Toronto native, he didn’t grow up with much nature close at hand, at least not as glorious and as alluring as the natural landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.
Bishop, 29, now lives in Portland, where hiking and camping are sewn into the cultural fabric, and communing with nature is essentially religion. But it wasn’t necessarily nature that finally drew him outside; it took peer pressure and a pandemic to get him to the trail.
Oregon outdoor recreation areas saw a huge flood of visitors in 2020, many of whom were new to outdoor recreation, public land managers said. And while most people have been respectful and responsible in nature, the sheer size of the crowds has inevitably led to a rise in trash, trespassing, and search and rescue missions.
For the uninitiated, outdoor recreation can appear to be an easy enough way to spend an afternoon. Those whose outdoor experience is limited to places like national parks, where safe pathways often guide visitors to natural attractions, might assume it’s similarly safe and easy to visit trails in national forests or wilderness areas.
Ben Watts, a recreation program manager for the west side of the Mount Hood National Forest, said that while you can’t always look at someone and know they’re new to hiking, there are certain telltale signs that rangers see.
For example, there are people who hit the trail wearing flip-flops, with no backpack or water, he said, or cars that show up to busy trailheads at 11 a.m. on a weekend, hoping to find a place to park. While there are always people making those rookie mistakes, there were far more on Mount Hood this past summer.
“Definitely a big portion of those people were first-time hikers,” Watts said. “I think people think this is like a state park or something with more development, something with help around every corner.”
While there are plenty of safe places for inexperienced hikers to get outdoors, many people are drawn to marquee destinations that show up on social media, which can require more effort to get to. That also means more precautions are necessary, including day packs with items like first aid, maps and water.
On his first outdoor excursion, a group backpacking trip in the Coast Range, Bishop said he was surprised at all he didn’t know. He hadn’t thought to pack things like rope, a flashlight and trekking poles that his more experienced friends brought along, and he hadn’t fully prepared for discomforts like bugs and blisters.
He was lucky to have the expertise of more experienced hikers, he said, which helped keep him safe and comfortable, allowing the experience to be profoundly transformative.
“This wasn’t just a hiking or camping experience for me, this was really an eye-opening experience for me in all aspects of my life,” Bishop said. “I thought, wow, if I’m missing this in my life there are probably many other aspects in my life I’m missing out on too.”
It’s awesome experiences like Bishop’s that help make up for the challenges that new hikers may face, public land managers said. But while the benefits of more people enjoying nature are clear, keeping the growing crowds safe and nature untrampled is an immensely difficult challenge.
Trailheads and campgrounds were empty this spring, after virtually all outdoor recreation areas closed to the public as COVID-19 spread across the Pacific Northwest. When most reopened by the end of the season, they were immediately greeted by an influx of crowds.
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which won’t release crowd numbers until 2021, said park sites around lakes, rivers and ocean beaches were the busiest this year, with parking lots and dumpsters overflowing as people sought to escape their homes for a breath of fresh air.
Crater Lake National Park saw record crowds in July and August, after reopening at the beginning of June, and continued to see big numbers of visitors into the snowy season. Cars waited at park entrances for up to two hours, park officials said, while short-staffed rangers were kept busy rescuing stranded hikers and keeping pool toys out of the pristine lake.
National forests were swamped as well. The U.S. Forest Service said in a December news release that forests saw record numbers of visitors in 2020, and while the agency didn’t offer any hard data, local forest officials said the overflowing parking areas spoke for themselves.
Crowding on Mount Hood was overwhelming this year, forest officials said, despite two forest-wide closures due to the pandemic and intense late-summer wildfires. Parking issues got so bad that the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office began towing cars parked illegally.
“I think to say it was unprecedented is not an exaggeration,” Watts said of the crowds. “Where we would [normally] see 40 vehicles or 60 vehicles, we would see 160.”
The Mount Hood National Forest also saw an uptick in litter and vandalism, he said. During the forest’s closure of all developed recreation areas in the spring, people shot signs with guns, damaged gates on closed roads, spray painted buildings, and in one case stole a portable toilet.
Yet forest rangers’ bigger concerns were with the rookie hikers and campers, Watts said, especially those who showed up completely unprepared.
There were the hikers wearing flip-flops, those who didn’t have proper parking passes (required at most U.S. Forest Service trailheads in the region) and the many people who parked cars dangerously along the side of the highway or pitched tents illegally when campgrounds were full or closed.
What might seem like small oversights can lead to very real consequences. Scott Lucas, the statewide search and rescue coordinator for Oregon, said rescue crews received a higher volume of calls this year, many from people who were unprepared for the outdoors.
There were 1,165 search and rescue missions in Oregon this year, which is extremely high given recreation closures due to the pandemic and wildfires, Lucas said. The annual number of rescues began to trend upward in 2018 when search and rescue teams were called on 1,065 times, according to state data, peaking in 2019 with 1,317 missions.
The additional rescues in 2020 weren’t necessarily high-profile events like saving mountain climbers from the slopes of Mount Hood, Lucas said. More often, they involved rescuing people who made simple mistakes.
This summer, seven people had to be rescued after climbing into the caldera at Crater Lake. In September, a man, his young daughter and their dog were rescued from the bottom of a ravine after becoming lost while hiking in the Mount Hood National Forest. In December, a 4-year-old girl and her grandparents needed a rescue after their car got stuck in the snow while driving through the Willamette National Forest looking for a Christmas tree.
Public lands agencies, outdoor organizations and retailers have long advocated for proper precautions, including pushing the Ten Essentials to carry while recreating – a list that first appeared in a mountaineering book in 1974. But as outdoor recreation becomes more mainstream, it’s becoming clear that not everybody is receiving that message.
“They’re just committing rookie mistakes,” Lucas said. “I think they just don’t think about what the consequences can be, and that can be life threatening.”
The crowds in 2020 might have taken some public land managers by surprise, but in the Columbia River Gorge, it was pretty much business as usual.
Clay Courtright, recreation manager for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in the Columbia River Gorge, said crowds primarily descended upon riverside parks like Dabney State Recreation Area and Rooster Rock State Park, in addition to places that reliably see crowds, like the Angel’s Rest Trail and Multnomah Falls.
With parking lots and dumpsters overflowing this year, park rangers certainly had their hands full, Courtright said, but the bigger crowds didn’t necessarily translate to more abuse on the land.
“We saw folks enjoying the recreational experience and doing it responsibly, and for us that’s a really positive thing,” Courtright said. “I have to say resoundingly that we saw folks well prepared, respectful and appreciative to be outdoors.”
The Columbia River Gorge is no stranger to crowds. Oregon state park records show steadily increasing visitor numbers during the last two decades, accelerating in recent years. Rooster Rock attracted a record 945,656 people in 2018, after drawing 409,660 people a decade earlier.
Public lands agencies in the area have spent years finding ways to manage the crowds, from the shuttle bus that connects Portland to Multnomah Falls, to the seasonal hiking permits now required at Dog Mountain.
When Multnomah Falls reopened to the public in August, it required timed-entry tickets to be purchased online in advance – ostensibly a coronavirus precaution, but an idea that forest officials admitted they had considered before the pandemic as a way to stem crowds.
Those upward trends can be found across the Pacific Northwest, from national parks to national forests. And with the population continuing to grow in the Portland metropolitan area, agencies expect to see crowds continue to swell – including higher numbers of inexperienced newcomers.
“I think it was a little bit of a hint or look into the future of what things might look like in years to come,” Watts said of the crowds who escaped to Mount Hood during the pandemic this year. “I think COVID-19 was a little bit of a taste of what it might look like on Mount Hood in 15 years.”
One strategy used by agencies to manage growing crowds has been to encourage people to spread out, highlighting lesser-visited destinations. In recent years that strategy has been hamstrung by wildfires that have shut down campgrounds and parks, forcing more people to recreate in fewer places.
Several areas in the Columbia Gorge are still closed from the Eagle Creek fire in 2017, including the exceedingly popular Eagle Creek Trail where it started. Additional recreation areas in the area remain closed due to COVID-19, like Wahclella Falls and Vista House, compounding the crowding further.
But for all their concerns, public lands managers said they truly appreciate the fact that more people seem to be enjoying the outdoors, especially during a year when nature can provide a much-needed respite.
“I think it’s frankly good for comprehensive health to connect with nature, the fresh air, the scenery, the beauty that nature provides,” Courtright said. “I think Oregon State Parks provides a good experience for folks, whether you’re experienced [or not].”
And there’s nothing to say that a bad experience will necessarily sour new outdoorspeople on nature.
Don Brown, another Portlander who is relatively new to nature, said he tried out camping for the first time this year, after feeling claustrophobic in his Slabtown apartment. He booked a campsite at Cape Lookout State Park on the central Oregon coast, borrowed a tent, rented a car and set off by himself.
“For years I thought, ‘I’m not a camper,'” he said. “I like to sleep and I like a soft bed.”
On his first night out, Brown said he woke up in the middle of the night to gale force winds howling off the ocean, the rain fly missing from his tent and his sleeping bag submerged in a puddle of water. He spent the rest of the night and the next day cramped in the back of his rented SUV.
“It was an adventure, I was alone, but it was fun so I kind of got hooked,” Brown said.
He booked a second camping trip to the Oregon coast in November, and is planning for another for New Year’s Eve. No longer a rookie, Brown has become just as hardy as – if not hardier than – most other tent campers in Oregon.
Just like Bishop, as well as so many others who strike off into nature, Brown’s love affair with nature was immediate and profound. That sense of awe is what drew him outside in the first place, he said, and the desperation for healing during a difficult year helped push him past reservations that previously held him back.
“It was so peaceful, there were no people around, there were sounds of creatures and the water and wind. It wasn’t scary in any way at all,” Brown said. “It felt really healing for me … I don’t quite understand why exactly. It’s just a feeling I get, it’s a sense of peace.”