Too Much Traffic: When a Park Gets Too Much Love

I’ll start with my conclusion: if the parking lot at your intended trailhead is full, keep driving. Please.

What’s happening in my own town is surely happening elsewhere. A recent online meeting of the conservation commission, normally an under-the-radar board, drew plenty of viewers and plenty of questions (submitted in advance by email). Topic: what’s to be done with Wildcat Falls?

Wildcat Falls is one of the main conservation lands in town with a trail network. It’s along the Souhegan River, not far from where I live. In ordinary times – will I have to say “former times” eventually? – the small parking lot is ample for the number of people who come to walk their dogs, birdwatch, or enjoy sunning themselves by the falls that give the area its name.

Then came the pandemic. The neighboring state of Massachusetts has been hit much harder than New Hampshire, and accordingly has had more restrictions on recreation. So did Massachusetts residents stay home and wait for things to clear up? No, they did not. (And neither would I, in their place.) They headed over the border and discovered some of the little southern New Hampshire parks I’ve been raving about for years.

That has meant a lot more action in Wildcat Falls. Combine our visitors with the locals who already love the place, and Wildcat Falls is being loved to death.

Like many local parks, Wildcat Falls is adjacent to a residential area. The parking lot for the trails is meant to hold maybe a dozen cars, though a few more can squeeze in with creative parking. What happens when the visitor census explodes? The visitors park on the local streets, blocking driveways and fire hydrants, and narrowing the streets to the point where emergency access – say, by a fire engine – could be impossible.

The conservation commission meeting was specially scheduled to give people a forum to vent about the parking, noise, and public health problems created by the additional visitors. No decisions were made that evening. There were plenty of suggestions, though, ranging from “tow the cars” to “close the park.” I’m not sure from what direction a solution will come, but for now, I am avoiding the area and taking my walking shoes elsewhere.

The Forest Society is coping with the too-much-love phenomenon at Mount Major, one of their properties that is extremely popular anytime but has become a major (no pun intended) draw for people whose other recreational options have been limited. Aerial footage of the road leading to the parking lot has made me wince, with cars parked along the road as far as the eye can see.

The Forest Society, blessed with numerous properties statewide, has responded by publicizing some of its less-visited reservations as alternatives to the hot spots. Good solution.

New Hampshire State Parks have resorted to a reservation system for popular spots like Monadnock and Pawtuckaway. It’s a little grating to me have to go online for a parking pass in advance, but not as grating as having the parks closed altogether – which was the situation for awhile.

In larger parks with an extensive trail network, a full lot doesn’t necessarily spill over to local streets, and doesn’t necessarily rule out social distancing on the trails. Little residential parks are different.

I have put serious mileage (for me, anyway) on my walking shoes since COVID-19 began affecting our health and blowing our routines to pieces. Getting outside has been absolutely essential to keeping me on an even keel. I get it: a lot of my neighbors, including my neighbors south of the nearest border, are in the same position.

But, please…when a trailhead parking lot in a residential neighborhood is full, let’s find someplace else to go. Quite aside from public health concerns, the neighbors will be grateful.

Update: in late June, a month after I wrote this post, the Merrimack Town Council voted after lengthy consideration to close the Wildcat Falls conservation area temporarily.

Related: I wrote Keeping It Local with some ideas for finding less-traveled trails in southern New Hampshire.

Close to Home

One of my town’s conservation properties is practically next door to me, yet I hadn’t been there for more than a decade. I made up for that today, walking to Wildcat Falls on a warm spring day.

Wildcat Falls Apr 2017

Wildcat Falls on the Souhegan River, NH

The Souhegan River runs through my town, and I live only a couple of hundred yards away from it. The river wraps around my neighborhood. On the other side, a stone’s throw away, is the Wildcat Falls conservation area. I show my age, or at least that I’ve lived in town awhile, when I call it 80 Acres.

80 acres was the unimaginative name for – wait for it – an 80-acre parcel of undeveloped land along the north side of the river, near Wildcat Falls. Thumbs-up to whomever renamed the parcel to reflect its most remarkable natural feature.

Wildcat Falls is the reason there’s a canoe take-out upstream where the river crosses Turkey Hill Road. Way too much granite and way too many fallen trees make the falls a spot that’s pretty to look at but lousy to navigate.

There are a couple of miles of trails winding through the conservation area and the adjoining state property. All I was interested in today was the falls: pleasant, very close, and too long neglected by me.

The walk to the falls from the parking lot goes through a sandy, pine-y area that reminds me of where I grew up in flat southern Florida, where rivers looked like canals and where waterfalls were pure fiction. Today’s sandy pines led me instead to the Souhegan, a modest river in the greater scheme of things, but quite a fine one to me.

woods at Wildcat Falls

Near the parking lot for Wildcat Falls conservation area in Merrimack NH, sandy woods belie the river and falls that are only a short walk away.

The Wildcat Falls stop was an oh-by-the-way that I added to my travels as I came home from a couple of hours on the trails at Beaver Brook Association in Hollis. Beaver Brook features several parking lots and trailheads around its property, so that on sunny weekend days like this one I’m not likely to be deterred by a full parking lot there. The one lot at Wildcat Falls was nearly full today, but the residential street nearby is probably fine for overflow parking. (Don’t tell the neighbors I said that.)

I tried visiting the Andres Institute trails today, but parking was impossible. Save that one for a weekday.