Vehicles are parked along both sides of the road recently at a trailhead for hiking Tumbledown Mountain. The parking lot is full. Credit: Courtesy of Charli Cummings

Some of Maine’s popular hiking trails, campsites and other outdoor destinations are experiencing major overcrowding early this season, and the people who maintain those recreational resources are seeking solutions. The trend has been attributed to the fair weather this spring, paired with the theory that people are spending more time outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

Such an increase in the use of outdoor resources could cause a multitude of problems, from damaged natural habitats to public safety risks, especially at a time when people are practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve seen some really high numbers of visitors in places, a lot of overflow parking at trailheads and really high use at some of our campsites,” said Rex Turner, outdoor recreation planner for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Tumbledown Mountain, a popular but challenging hiking location in western Maine, has recently been a prime example of this problem.

“There have been times over the past few weeks where there have been over 100 cars lined up at the base of the mountain,” said Andy Cutko, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. “We just want to get the message out about being smart when you go outside. If you get to a place and it’s crowded, then go to your plan B.”

Other places that have experienced overcrowding this spring include Great Pond Mountain in Orland, Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport, Donnell Pond campsites in eastern Maine, Witherle Woods in Castine and a number of hiking trails in the Kennebec Highlands.

A handful of places have become so overrun that landowners and management have been forced to temporarily close the locations. They include (but aren’t limited to) Mount Pisgah in Winthrop, Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham and Mount Agamenticus in York.

“Overall in the land trust community everyone has been making an effort to keep as much open as possible — and that’s mostly everything,” said Jane Arbuckle, director of stewardship for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. “In some cases, people are reporting that visitation peaked earlier this spring when we had such mild weather and now it’s not quite as busy. But a big thing none of us know is how many people will be visiting Maine this summer and what impact that will have.”

Planning outdoor adventure while avoiding crowds

Peace and quiet can still be found in the great outdoors, even when there’s a particularly high demand on outdoor spaces. Maine is home to a multitude of public trails, boat launches, campsites, beaches, publicly accessible islands, picnic areas, bird watching sites and more. You just have to do a little research to find a spot that isn’t as well-known and popular as, say, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.

“I think it really behooves people to put in a little prep time before spending a day outdoors or however long they’re going,” Turner said. “Try to have a plan and build some flexibility into that plan.”

In addition to conducting research about where you’d like to visit, choose alternative locations nearby as a plan B, C and D. That way, you’re almost certain to find a spot that isn’t crowded.

“[Your plans] don’t even need to be the same activity,” Turner said. “You may have an expectation of hiking but then have to switch gears and go bird watching or something if you roll up to a trailhead and it’s just mobs of people.”

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If your heart is set on visiting a popular destination, try planning your trip during off-peak times. Outdoor locations are usually most busy on the weekend during fair weather. In addition, most people tend to visit late morning to early afternoon. Therefore, you may have the best luck avoiding crowds on a weekday in the early morning or later in the afternoon — or on a gloomy day.

If you aren’t sure about the popularity of a location, see if you can contact the landowner or manager. They could offer advice about when to visit and offer options for nearby adventures.

“There has always been a great discrepancy between the available resources and what people tend to know about,” Turner said. “Hopefully people are getting enough information so they’re able to spread out and find their own opportunities to get outside.”

Wherever you choose to visit — and however busy or quiet the location — be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles. The seven chief principles are: plan ahead and prepare; travel and camp on durable surfaces; dispose of waste properly; leave what you find; minimize campfire impacts (where campfires are permitted); respect wildlife; and be considerate of other visitors.

The impacts of overcrowding outdoor spaces

Overcrowding of trails and other outdoor resources can lead to many issues. One immediately obvious problem is the congestion that can be caused when parking lots overflow and people park alongside a road. This can be a safety issue if there’s not enough room for emergency vehicles, such as fire trucks, to pass. It can also be a nuisance to neighbors.

Increased foot traffic in natural areas can lead to damage of the natural resource. For example, people might accidentally trample delicate and rare plants in an effort to spread out. Furthermore, if visitors aren’t mindful of Leave No Trace practices, overcrowding could result in more litter being left behind.

Human waste could also become a problem, especially with many public restrooms closed in an effort to reduce people’s risk of spreading COVID-19 by touching the same hard surfaces.

“Thankfully so far I haven’t seen a lot of signs of human waste outside of the privies,” Turner said. “But it can be a concern in a lot of places.”

A trail’s structure can take a beating as increased traffic contributes to erosion and the displacement of cairns, which are rock piles that mark trails. In the past, this has been a problem in Acadia National Park.

“There are also some places where we try to manage not just the natural resource but also the recreational experience,” Turner said.

Too many people on a certain trail or at a particular outdoor destination can take away from the overall experience. A crowd can easily block views, scare away wildlife and create noise that drowns out the sounds of nature.

In addition, in some outdoor destinations, overcrowding can be a public health concern, especially as people practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In places where space is limited — such as boardwalks, overlooks and observation towers — people could have difficulty maintaining 6 feet of space.

So this summer, consider seeking out lesser-known outdoor destinations. Do a little research and extra planning. And if you arrive at a full parking lot, leave that particular adventure for another day.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...