What’s Happening at the Crags During the COVID-19 Closures

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An eerily empty Carriage Road at the Shawangunks, New York.

An eerily empty Carriage Road at the Shawangunks, New York.

A coyote ambles past Smith Rock’s Five Gallon Buckets, one of the most popular 5.8s in the West. A golden eagle floats in a clear sky, eyeing the ground for squirrels. A snake slithers past sagebrush to find a warm spot on a volcanic rock. It is a warm spring day at Smith, and the Morning Glory Wall sits empty, its only companions the low hum of the Crooked River and the animals who call this place home.

According to Park Manager Matt Davey, a typical spring day in the park would see a couple thousand visitors heading in to hike and climb, especially on the popular Morning Glory Wall. But this spring is different: COVID-19 has swept visitors into their homes. Major crags, including Yosemite, Smith Rock, the Gunks, Hueco Tanks, Red River Gorge, Joshua Tree, and Red Rock, have been closed. The closures also mean events have been put on hold, like Smith Rock’s Spring Thing, an annual volunteer event that began in 1993. Davey hopes to be able to have the event after the park reopens, even if it has to be reorganized to happen over several weekends due to social-distancing protocols.

But while we’ve been stuck inside, what has been happening out there? Park staff are still working, quietly laboring to maintain the crags. And wildlife is thriving without our presence. For now, Smith Rock has delayed heavy-lifting projects like trail maintenance, tending instead to front-of-house projects that typically require multiple years due to constant visitation (a million people visit Smith’s 700 acres per year, says Davey)—things like re-staining picnic tables and benches, painting parking lots, and replacing water valves put in when the park opened in the 1960s.

Davey says that reopening will be the real challenge. In early May, Oregon State Parks began to reopen some low-use areas, and Smith reopened on May 14. But, “How do we open Smith Rock and yet try to discourage people coming from Portland for a day trip?” asks Davey. “We don’t have the big hospitals like Portland.” The parks will open with a phased approach, opening some day-use areas first while keeping campgrounds and areas where it’s difficult to practice social distancing closed. Precisely how it will go when climbers return to climbing nubby, runout volcanic tuff above the Crooked River remains uncertain.

At Texas’s Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, Ruben Ocampo, park superintendent, says reopening has involved a unique method of limiting traffic: 70 people are allowed in per day, not the usual rotating 70 people at a time. Groups of over five are not allowed, and face coverings are strongly encouraged. Ocampo says that, so far, visitors are following guidelines. He is unsure how many non-local climbers have been visiting.

On the other side of the country, in the Gunks, spring wildflowers are blooming, white trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit growing unhindered by the footfalls of the typical spring crowds. According to Mohonk Preserve Communications Director Gretchen Reed, a warm spring day will bring 500 climbers, most of whom walk along the Carriage Road to the Trapps, the preserve’s most popular climbing area.

Elizabeth Long, an avid climber and the preserve’s director of conservation science, says that the closure has given staff a rare opportunity to work on removing invasive Japanese knotweed. They first discovered it last year, but struggled with removal since it grows along the Coxing Kill, a popular swimming area. The time of year to go after a plant like this also matters, as it is most vulnerable in the spring.

Megan Napoli, the park’s research ecologist, says she enjoys having the preserve empty while conducting her research, which has recently consisted of counting the amphibians spawning at vernal pools. From May until August, Napoli’s work will consist of driving and hiking around searching for the first blooms of various flowers, and listening for the bird calls of migrating species. She has also noticed an increase in some spring wildflowers, such as red columbine and pink-corydalis.

Napoli and Long have both noticed an increase in wildlife, although both were quick to disclaim that it might just be luck that has led to rare red fox, mink, and fisher sightings. Napoli also saw wild turkeys on the Carriage Road—a sight you’d never see on a busy day. As of May, the preserve is eyeing a reopening that will prioritize visitor and staff safety, working with Access Fund, the Gunks Climber’s Coalition, and other regional climbing areas to plan how best to reopen climbing safely.

Animals get a vacation. Plants stretch out. Staff takes a breath. But for Long, the empty preserve is more bittersweet than she’d have guessed. “I thought it would feel like a wonderland, but it makes me sad because I see how many people are missing out on this experience,” she says.