The East Glenwood Open Space Preserve in Scotts Valley.
(Chris Fusco / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Recreation & Sports

‘A little space to unwind’: Santa Cruz County parks see surge in popularity during the pandemic

Visitation to some parks in Santa Cruz County has doubled during the pandemic. Taking advantage of outside recreation is good for everyone’s physical and mental health, but it has also been a stressor on park infrastructure.

As people search for safe outdoor activities during the pandemic, many locals and tourists have flocked to the abundance of public land Santa Cruz County has to offer. Visitation at parks and beaches has increased dramatically, with some trails seeing double their usual traffic.

“Our department generally will see higher visitation during the spring and summer, when more people go outdoors,” said Gabriel McKenna, the public safety superintendent for the Santa Cruz-San Mateo State Parks district. “But what we’re seeing now is that visitation is just more constant.”

As Santa Cruz County inches out of the pandemic, Lookout is chronicling the changes in our lives and the accomplishments of everyday people. “People in the Pandemic” is one of eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of life amid COVID. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here.

McKenna said this pandemic-induced increase seems unaffected by the seasons, weather, or other factors that normally affect crowds.

Though some city park facilities are closed due to funding or safety concerns, he said the city parks that have remained open have seen a significant increase in use. Visitors to the golf course at DeLaveaga Park have gone up 40% in the past year, according to Travis Beck, superintendent of parks for the city of Santa Cruz.

“We’re excited for people to be using the parks and taking advantage of amenities that we have,” Beck said. “During the pandemic with all of the stresses, just having a place to get outside and exercise and breathe fresh air and have a little space to unwind — it’s been critically important.”

Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, a local nonprofit organization that builds and maintains trails, has installed traffic counters that measure usage on a UCSC trail adjoining Wilder Ranch, and the Glenwood Preserve in Scotts Valley. They’ve seen a 50% increase in traffic at Glenwood since the pandemic, and 100% increase on the UCSC trail.

“It’s just really encouraging to see that [parks are] where people have turned for solace and escape during the pandemic,” said Matt De Young, the executive director of Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz. “[It] just reaffirms the importance of these outdoor spaces that we’re super fortunate to have good access to in Santa Cruz County.”

The surge in popularity hasn’t been without challenges. Parking has been one of the biggest stressors on the system, and De Young and Beck both pointed to the scores of people parking along the highway to access Wilder Ranch as a serious safety hazard.

Crowded trails have also been a source of friction, especially among mountain bikers, as new riders aren’t always aware of the proper trail etiquette. De Young says the trend of increased visitation to local parks and more bikers has been ongoing over the past decade, but the pandemic has magnified the issue.

As a local, or a longtime devotee of a particular park or trail, it can be easy to bristle at crowds or tourists in a previously quiet space. The best way to diffuse that tension is just being “respectful, and acknowledging that we all enjoy the same things, and trying to set good examples,” De Young said. “Say hi on the trail. Be respectful, demonstrate that good trail etiquette. That’s the best thing we can do to try to ease the pressure of these increased numbers.”

MBOSC created a series of comics illustrating proper trail etiquette to help address the influx of users during the pandemic.

One of the safety mesages crafted by the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz
(MBOSC via artist Sketchy Trails.)

As the pandemic continues, and hopefully wanes, the trend of more visitors to parks seems to be continuing.

“I’m not seeing visitation slowing down,” McKenna said. Crowds are likely to continue into the summer. A few simple steps can help ease the pressure on the parks, and help ensure a safe and pleasant visit:

  • Avoid driving to access parks whenever possible. Accessing via bike, public transit, or on foot reduces vehicle impact and overcrowded parking lots.
  • Plan ahead: If the park you want to visit is at capacity, is there somewhere nearby you can go instead?
  • Be kind and respectful to your fellow outdoor enthusiasts!

Among other MBOSC safety mesages ...

Mountain bike safety cartoon
(MBOSC / Sketchy Trails.)
Mountain bike safety
(MBOSC / Sketchy Trails.)
mountain bike safety
(MBOSC / Sketchy Trails