Parking on Picture Rocks Road was tough to come by on Sunday, March 22.
Tucsonans can’t go to a concert, a gym or a movie, but those who want to get out of the house while maintaining “social distancing” can still enjoy the myriad trails in the region.
But don’t expect to hang out under a ramada or let the kids climb on a playground.
With so few other options for getting out of the house, people have been flocking to the parks, which must remain open as an “essential service” under the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Doug this week.
Jurisdictions have canceled any group activities or events and Pima County, the City of Tucson and the Town of Oro Valley have had to close playgrounds and ramadas because they encouraged too much mingling among cooped-up children and adults. The Town of Marana has not closed its playgrounds and ramadas, but is monitoring them to reduce crowding.
Federal open space such as Saguaro National Park and Sabino Canyon Recreation Area have closed restrooms, comfort stations and visitor centers, canceled all public programs and suspended fee collection for the foreseeable future. Group campsites in Coronado National Forest are closed, although trails and remote camping areas are still accessible.
Officials advise park users to maintain at least six feet of distance from others and limit group sizes to fewer than 10 people.
Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, echoed the need to practice trail safety and avoid crowding, noting an increase in congestion at trailheads throughout central and southern Arizona.
The Sierra Club has canceled all outings until at least April 12.
“When social distancing started, everyone wanted to go outdoors, but everyone is going to the same trails,” Bahr said. “My husband and I went to Picketpost Mountain [near Superior] and the trailhead was packed.”
Bahr suggests staying close to home and walking in the neighborhood to help “flatten the curve,” but if hikers are compelled to hit the trails, they should consider less-traveled areas, avoid hiking along and “practice good trail etiquette.”
“There is no sense in taking unnecessary risks,” she said. “If people get in trouble out on the trails they’ll be pulling valuable resources from other places. … I know we don’t plan on anything bad happening when we hike, but there is always that possibility.”
Bahr added that it is a particularly tough time for outdoor enthusiasts in Arizona, “since this is the time when we get outdoors before it gets too hot.”
But she encouraged people to avoid outdoor activity. “To the degree we can over the next couple of weeks, we should stay at home,” she said.
Here is where things stand as of Thursday, April 2:
• Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has kept open the county’s 49 parks, 26 trailheads and hundreds of miles of trails throughout Pima County, including The Loop, a crown jewel that spans more than 110 miles of multi-use trails with connections in Marana, Oro Valley and points south.
Valerie Samoy, a special staff assistant for the county’s Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department, said the county parks seeing heavy use. If parks or trailheads are congested, users should “seriously consider going to another park or trail,” Samoy added.
The parks department is monitoring use of the parks and may implement more restrictions if necessary.
• The city of Tucson’s parks remain open but as in Pima County, playgrounds and ramadas are closed.
• The National Park Service has kept open the trail systems at both the east and west branches of Saguaro National Park. Permits are available online for wilderness camping.
A March 24 post on the NPS Facebook page reported “significant crowding in the parking lots,” and advised hikers to go to lesser used areas of the park or avoid peak hours—9 a.m. to 4 p.m.—by arriving early or taking a “sunset hike.”
Andy Fisher, public information officer for Saguaro National Park, said March is the busiest month for park usage, so there is no way of knowing how many more people are on the trails than normal. But she said closing the parking lots helps limit the number of people visiting at any one time.
“While we don’t have the ability to close the park, we can control the parking lots and we do have the ability to write parking tickets or tow illegally parked vehicles,” she said.
• Sabino Canyon Recreation Area has also closed its lower parking lot indefinitely but the overflow parking lot remains available. The cost of parking is $8 and there is a fee tube available. (Exact change is required).
The new Sabino Canyon Crawler tram service has been suspended.
“We realize our communities and our visitors place high value on the recreation opportunities the Forest has to offer,” Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry said in a prepared statement. “The health and safety of our employees and the public remain our top priority.”
National Forest Service officials encourage users to help reduce human impact by staying on established trails, packing out garbage and avoiding high-risk activities as search-and-rescue efforts teams may be harder to call on during the COVID-19 outbreak.
• Oro Valley has closed the town’s playgrounds, basketball courts, volleyball courts, fenced dog parks and ramadas until further notice, according to Town of Oro Valley Parks & Recreation Director Kristy Diaz-Trahan.
Diaz-Trahan says parks and trails help people cope with the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our local parks, trails and open spaces serve as places where people can find peaceful and joyful moments,” she wrote in a recent email. “These spaces naturally lend themselves to social distancing and during this time of uncertainty, these places are needed more than ever.”
• The Town of Marana’s parks remain open. Town staffers have seen small clusters of people utilizing parks, but there have been “no major issues,” according to Town spokesman Vic Hathaway. Staff and the Marana Police Department will continue monitoring parks in order to reduce large crowds.
“Our observation is that Marana citizens continue to enjoy the Marana parks and trail system in a safe, respectful, and courteous manner,” Parks and Recreation Director Jim Conroy said. “We are delighted to see our citizens getting outdoors to safely relax and exercise, and caution everyone to follow the guidelines for physical distancing to prevent possible spread of COVID-19.”