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Popular trails prepare for massive crowds over Memorial Day weekend

Highway 33 winds through the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

As California continues to ease restrictions on stay-at-home orders prompted by the coronavirus, officials have warned against overcrowding outdoor spaces.

With the lure of a three-day holiday weekend, some destinations are making more room for Memorial Day revelers, while others are clamping down.

Unlike some trails that were shuttered under Ventura County orders, the popular Santa Paula Canyon and Punch Bowls Trail in Ojai Valley never closed. But in recent weeks, crowds have been gathering in droves, filling the parking lots and leaving behind trash, said Los Padres National Forest spokesman Andrew Madsen.

“People have been drawn to that particular trail over the past few weeks,” he said.

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Madsen said he expects the forest will issue an order to temporarily close the 7-mile trail Saturday. The closure could last up to two weeks.

Forest officials have stressed the need for visitors to share space while maintaining a six-foot distance and avoid gathering in groups. Campgrounds have been closed for the past eight weeks and will remain shuttered until at least June 1.

The hiking trail is a frequented destination in Ventura County, which was one of the first counties in Southern California to reopen its golf courses, parks and beaches. Residents from neighboring areas like Los Angeles County swarmed the open spaces before their own restrictions were lifted.

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In San Bernardino National Forest, officials will take a more drastic approach by closing the 2.5-mile stretch in Deep Creek in the Lake Arrowhead area for roughly a year after overcrowding. The creek’s swimming holes, especially at Aztec Falls, have drawn crowds in past years that have created growing traffic and parking issues on the narrow roads.

In the past month, there have been at least two occasions where crowds prevented fire units from accessing an area, authorities said. During the first incident, an injured visitor had to be rescued by air. In the second, a firetruck was stuck in traffic for hours.

“The crowds at Aztec Falls and nearby swimming holes have reached a tipping point,” Mountaintop District Ranger Marc Stamer said. “We need to take a pause for the safety of everyone and protection of the river so we can come up with a plan for visitors to sustainably recreate.”

The closure starts Friday and covers the creek going north from Splinters Cabin Trailhead to Devils Hole. The picnic area and Splinters Cabin Road will also be closed, but hiking the area on the Pacific Crest Trail will be allowed.

Elsewhere in San Bernardino, Snow Valley Mountain will reopen Saturday to a limited number of visitors. The area is currently reporting a snow base of 24 to 40 inches.

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Despite COVID safeguards, it’s pretty much business as usual for Southern California marinas. Some rental services are impacted but the docks are open.

Other popular outdoor destinations are also prepping for an influx of crowds.

The Angeles National Forest has been inundated with visitors over the past few months, reaching crowd levels typically seen on the July 4 holiday.

The best way to judge the crowd size is to look at the amount of trash left behind, public affairs officer John Clearwater said. So much has piled up around the trash bins that about a dozen forest volunteers have been working on their off-hours to clean the area and prevent animals from spreading the debris throughout the forest.

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“We’re trying to keep the forest clean,” Clearwater said. “It’s like being hit by a tsunami of visitors.”

When Los Angeles County closed its beaches, those seeking the outdoors took refuge in the mountains. Clearwater said that many of the 10 million residents who had not previously visited the area have since become regulars. As the holiday weekend approaches, officials anticipate another surge.

Campgrounds and restrooms remain closed, but trails are open. Visitors are asked to pick up their trash and take it with them and to maintain social distancing. Forest personnel will work with local law enforcement to manage capacity if the parking lots fill up or the roads begin to clog.

To help prevent overcrowding in popular areas like San Gabriel Canyon, Clearwater suggests that visitors explore higher elevations that might not be as packed but still offer fresh air and clear views.

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In the nearby Santa Monica Mountains, park rangers are encouraging visitors to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing on newly reopened trails.


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