dunes

Children scramble up a sand dune at Bruneau Dunes State Park in southern Idaho. On Saturday, April 18, 2020, the park had more visitors than managers deemed comfortable under COVID-19 guidelines and closed its gates until people left.

Recent pleasant spring weather is drawing people outside in large enough numbers to cause one state park to briefly close its gates.

Other state parks report being slammed with crowds and, in the case of northern Idaho state parks, packed with out-of-state visitors ignoring the governor’s orders to self-isolate for 14 days.

“Pretty much when we get a nice day with lots of sun and moderate temperatures, we’re seeing a big upswing of attendance at the (state) parks,” said Craig Quintana, public information officer for Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation in Boise.

Quintana said the Bruneau Dunes State Park in the southern part of the state closed for about an hour on Saturday after its parking area had 500 cars. Rangers turned visitors away until some cars left.

“Normally they can handle that and more, but we’ve established a COVID-19 carrying capacity for the park,” Quintana said. “The management was of the opinion that it was too crowded to practice good social distancing, so given the current situation they were maxed out.”

Two other state parks in the Boise area were also slammed with visitors, Eagle Island and Lucky Peak state parks, but had the capacity to handle the numbers.

“Lucky (Peak) had a thousand people overall at times last weekend, but they were confident that they could handle it, and they managed it as best they could,” Quintana said. “Eagle Island had more than 500 cars in their parking area. They thought that they were OK, although they were definitely in contact with their counterparts with the management out at Bruneau. They’ve been comparing notes and coming up with their own contingency plans moving forward.”

Northern Idaho state parks have reported an influx of Washington state visitors defying the Idaho governor’s order to self-isolate for 14 days after crossing the border. Quintana said local law enforcement has been “aggressively” handing out flyers to out-of-state visitors informing them of the policy.

“In fact, the majority of plates in the parking areas at Farragut, Heyburn, Priest Lake and Round Lake parks have been Washingtonians,” Quintana said. “We are talking about what we should do about that. As you might expect, some Idahoans have issues with that.”

Eastern Idaho’s Harriman State Park is in its shoulder season with few visitors. The park is reporting about 2 feet of mushy snow over much of its land. Park manager Mark Eliot said Harriman has had 10 to 15 visitors a day recently.

“We’ve seen a few (visitors) from Utah come in,” Eliot said. “I’m just hopeful that people are taking precautions. I rely on people’s good nature and common sense. Here, with so few visitors, we’re not seeing any problems right now.”

Idaho state parks have closed campgrounds, visitor centers and other facilities in response to the coronavirus. All of the parks are essentially day-use only. Quintana said things may change next week on April 30 when the governor revisits the current stay-at-home restrictions. State Parks and Recreation has a tentative date of reopening campgrounds on May 15.

Quintana said his office is trying to balance the benefits of outdoor recreation with the need for safety during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s kind of a funny tight rope that we’re walking,” he said. “We really do want to encourage people to get outdoors and beat the cabin fever that we’re all feeling these days. Outdoor recreation is healthy if done properly. The change of scenery, the change of mood is a good thing to beat that shut-in-itis. But if you’re going to get out you have to do it responsibly. We’ve been really hammering this ‘Recreate Responsibly Idaho’ campaign.”

In encouraging outdoor activities, Idaho Gov. Brad Little said, “People should get outside and get some fresh air. It’s healthy and reduces the stress we’re all feeling these days. But it has to be done responsibly with people protecting their health and the health of the larger community.”

The state’s “Recreate Responsibly” campaign offers a few guidelines:

• Practice social distancing

• Enjoy the outdoors close to home whenever possible

• Stay home if you’re sick

• Check before traveling to see if sites are closed

• Spread out — go to uncongested sites

• Bring supplies to be self-sufficient, avoiding contact with others in the community you visit

• Pack out your trash

• Refrain from high-risk activities