Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie
Shenipsit Forest (Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie)

With fewer indoor recreation options and more reasons to stress out, Connecticut residents have gone outdoors and used the state’s forests, trails and parks in “extraordinary” numbers during the pandemic.

If you live near a state park, you’ve likely seen full parking lots every weekend. If you’ve tried to visit one during peak hours you may have been turned away because the park was already at capacity. If there’s an upside to 2020, it may be that more people are enjoying the outdoors.

“I think it’s been a combination of necessity. Things were closed, so what else do you do? But it’s also that it’s been a very trying year, so people were looking for that respite that nature can provide,” Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Will Healey said Tuesday.

Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie
Shenipsit Forest (Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie)

Park usage is difficult to quantify. Visitors can come and go more or less as they please from most state forests and parks. In the majority of cases, there is no one keeping track of how many people utilized a park on a given day.

But DEEP points to a couple indicators suggesting more Connecticut residents have been spending time outdoors this year than in the recent past. Car counters at Rocky Neck State Park reported double the number of vehicles entering the park between March and April this year as compared to the same period last year. Staff tallied 7,774 cars in 2019 and 15,024 in 2020.

Meanwhile, the state has had to close parks due to overcrowding 519 times from April 1 to September 1 as opposed to 161 park closures during the same period last year. This is far from a direct comparison, Healey noted. Park closures this year are driven in large part by social distancing and public health concerns. In 2019, closures mostly concerned the availability of parking.

“We’re having parks close frequently. Yes, it’s a reduced capacity but we think it’s a good example of the interest people have in getting outdoors during this time. People are taking advantage of them. There were some days when we had upwards of 20 parks close—even more on certain days,” Healey said. “Seeing a dozen parks close was a normal thing, oftentimes very early. A lot of them would be closed by 9 or 10 in the morning.”

Boating was also more popular during the warmer months. According to the department, certificates to operate boats increased by more than 41% over last year while new vessel registrations increased by 45%.

The Connecticut Trail Census is another useful metric for measuring outdoor activity. The census, run by the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture Health and Natural Resources, uses infrared sensors set up on trails throughout the state to count how many hikers pass by. The numbers are up significantly for every month this year where data is available. For instance, the census counted 249,588 trail uses in March of 2020 compared to 105,833 uses for March 2019.

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, said trail use has increased “tremendously.” Hammerling agreed that the surge of people opting for outdoor activities this year was due at least in part to a shortage of other options. Residents who may otherwise have gone to see a movie are now considering a hike. But he said there’s also a mental health benefit to being outdoors.

Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie
Shenipsit Forest (Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie)

“We’ve heard from a lot of people that getting out on trail is an important outlet for their mental health, just to be able to get away from all of the stress and anxiety in our world. That’s a perfect place to do it,” he said.

With more people on the trails, there has been a little more litter and some overcrowding issues, Hammerling said.

“Every now and then we hear about an issue, but I think that’s just the result of a lot of people doing it and a lot of new people exposed to the outdoors. Again, that’s a really good thing but when someone is doing something for their first time they may not know about the ‘leave no trace’ ethics of recreation,” he said.

Healey said the increased usage has also presented some challenges for the department. Bathroom facilities have been closed at some locations and porta potties have been brought in as an alternative. Lifeguards shifted gears to make a daily routine of taking stock of COVID-related medical supplies.

Meanwhile, state Environmental Conservation Police have dealt with a higher volume of calls and in some cases dispersed crowds in excess of the state’s public health guidelines. Between March 1 and Oct. 20, they responded to more than 26,000 calls as opposed to 18,000 calls during the same period last year. For the most part, people have been respectful, Healey said.

Healey said DEEP officials are proud they have managed to keep the park system open, even if there have been some temporary closures and restrictions.

“If there is a silver lining here, one of them that we’ve observed is that huge numbers of people are discovering the outdoors either for the first time or rediscovering the outdoors. Connecticut has so much to offer,” he said.