Opportunities for outdoor recreation in the Methow Valley and beyond are increasing under relaxed coronavirus guidelines.
Under Phase II of the state’s “Safe Start” guidelines, allowable outdoor recreation has been broadened, from the existing trailhead access and day use to include camping on state and federal lands, along with a restart of guided outdoor activities.
State and national parks, which have been open for day use since Phase I, are now in the process of opening overnight camping. Pearrygin Lake State Park opened its East Campground, making 83 campsites available, and reservations for overnight camping have been steadily increasing, with park officials expecting to meet capacity during the weekends.
“We’re pretty close to normal reservations for this coming weekend,” said Pearrygin Park Head Ranger Rick Lewis, who noted that campsites allow for eight people. However, if campers are coming from different households they can only have five or fewer per site, according to the “Safe Start” guidelines.
“We had one site that tried to pack 11 people into it … We required them to reserve and pay for a second site. We’re going to be really strict about that,” said Lewis.
Social distancing signs have been installed around the park, and apart from campsite capacity, Lewis is choosing to trust that campers use the park responsibly and in accordance with social distancing rules.
In North Cascades National Park, campgrounds became available last weekend, according to Park Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich. However, visitor centers and group campsites will continue to remain closed throughout the park.
“We urge visitors to bring all of their own supplies, including hand sanitizer, face coverings, toilet paper, and food and beverages,” Taylor-Goodrich said. She also requested that park patrons “park only in designated areas, pack out everything you bring, and if you encounter a crowded trailhead or overlook, seek another location to recreate.”
“The Forest Service is working to be in alignment with each county as they move into Phase II,” said Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Public Information Officer Chris Bentley. “There might be a couple of week discrepancy, to make sure that campgrounds are safe and ready to go, like clearing hazard trees, looking into water systems, and making sure the restroom facilities are prepared.”
“We’re going to open as many of our campgrounds as soon as we can,” Bentley added. “And we will be opening our campgrounds [in Okanogan County] over the next two weekends.”
Okanogan County’s move to Phase II on July 5 made it possible for a variety of valley activities to expand, from rafting on the Methow River to horse riding to climbing in the North Cascades.
Gov. Jay Inslee released an 11-point COVID-19 requirements list for guided outdoor activities, which covers industry-specific social distancing procedures, cleaning operations (such as sanitizing communal gear like lifejackets or helmets), and staggered tour departures.
Methow Rafting has begun taking reservations for guided raft trips down the Methow River. The company has been running guided kayak tours, which were allowable under Phase I.
“The biggest regulating factor is groups of 12 or less, and the social distancing and wearing masks when necessary,” said Methow Rafting co-owner Dylan Marks.
Marks and co-owner Brandon Bertelsen have decided to keep guided rafting trips to single-household reservations only, while the state’s guidelines allow for a maximum group size of 12 with members from different households.
“Since there will not be mixed households in the rafts, masks won’t be necessary [while out on the river],” said Marks. Masks will, however, be required to be worn in the company’s shuttle vehicles.
While the coronavirus has resulted in a late start for the rafting company Marks is hopeful the season will end strongly. “It really threw off our high-water, white-water raft schedule, but theoretically, I’d say we could have a good second half of the summer,” he said.
“Other rafting guides throughout the state have come together to collaborate on how to move forward,” Marks said. “And, generally it seems like once we get into Phase III, we’ll be able to operate pretty close to normal.”
“In the last week it’s started to pick up,” said Aaron Burkhart, owner of Early Winters Outfitters, whose company has now been able to offer overnight horseback riding trips.
“People are not traveling abroad, and instead deciding to stay local,” said Burkhart.
Reservations are not as full as they were this time last year, but Burkhart noted that the company’s U.S. Forest Service permits are not able to be fully used as the snowmelt continues, and the Forest Service is still in the process of opening up trails.
As far as implementing COVID-19 protocol, social distancing guidelines are taken care of on the rides by the horses, which naturally space themselves 12 feet apart. The company also has hand-sanitizing stations set up for clients. Beyond that, Burkhart said, the company is sanitizing all equipment before and after users including saddles, bridles, halters, and helmets.
North Cascades Mountain Guides is planning to re-open in late June, allowing time to train staff, get feedback from guides and others in the industry, and refine their COVID-19 protocols.
“We are currently allowed to guide under Phase II on our permitted USFS lands, however, both Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park have not yet made a final determination as to when to open commercial guiding,” said co-owner Josh Cole. “They may decide to wait until Phase III, but there is some remaining uncertainty.”
The mountain guiding company has a long list of new procedures including working with smaller groups that in the past, working only with intact groups (single-households), maintaining social distancing by not carpooling and not sharing tents, enhancing hygiene protocols, and wearing masks when 6 feet of social distancing can’t be maintained (like on a small mountain ledge).
“We are being conservative in our return to work planning, but we are fortunate to be able to return to guiding, feeling confident in our planning and practices,” said Cole. “Our industry has done a pretty good job sharing information and trying to work through this challenge in a collaborative way.”
“We canceled our entire European ski touring season, which had a significant financial impact,” said Cole. “[But] I would say that we’ve started to see a significant increase in inquiries and, anecdotally, I think there’s a bit of pent-up demand to get out into the mountains.”