ALTON — Nicole Hicks and her brother had just finished a hike up Mount Major, one of the Lakes Region’s most popular hiking venues which offers panoramic views of Lake Winnipesaukee and the Ossipee Mountains beyond.
Nicole, who is in her first year of medical school, and her brother, Brendan, a college student, both decided to travel up from their home in Bedford on Wednesday morning and go on their first hike of the season.
Given the guidance from medical experts about social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicole understood the danger of being around crowds.
“When we pulled into the parking lot [at the trailhead] and saw there were only a few cars, I said, ‘OK, this is all right.’”
Last Saturday, with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-50s, hikers flocked to the mountain in droves — so much so that there were more than three times the number of cars parked along Route 11 than there were in the 66-space parking lot.
That there was such a crowd on the first day of the governor’s stay-at-home order shocked Jennifer Fielders of Belmont, who drove past Mount Major on Saturday morning and again early in the afternoon.
The sight along Route 11 prompted Fielders to take a video of the lines of parked cars, which she then posted on her Facebook page. The posting received thousands of views and dozens of replies.
“I was shocked at the attention the post received. I’ve never had that much reaction before to anything I’ve posted,” Fielders said.
Most of the comments were from people who were angry that hikers were ignoring the advice from health experts designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. She said she was further upset when Gov. Chris Sununu said he would not close state parks because of last Saturday’s crowds at Mount Major and some state parks.
Sununu said that, while the parking lots at some outdoor recreation spots were crowded, the hiking trails were not, and that the hikers were adhering to social distance guidelines.
Jack Savage, the president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests — which controls the trailhead access to Mount Major and owns most of the land where the trails leading to the 1,785-foot-summit are situated — sees it differently.
“If you have overflow from the parking lot, then the mountain and trails are going to be crowded,” Savage said.
Putting it more bluntly, he said, “This is not a good time to go hiking on Mount Major.”
He said that, when he drove past the trailhead parking lot late Saturday morning, he counted 104 cars parked along the highway. However, when another Forest Society staff person went by around 2:30 p.m., there were more than 200 cars out on the shoulders of Route 11.
“If you figure that there are two people to a car, that means 400 to 500 people on the mountain,” Savage estimated. Given that the trail is narrow in spots, it’s difficult to maintain safe social distancing when there are that many people hiking up and down the mountain, he said.
Savage said his organization will have signs up by this Saturday, warning people not hike up the mountain if the parking lot is overflowing. He said issuing stern warnings is the best the Society can do.
While the Society controls the parking lot (it leases it from the state Department of Transportation), blocking it off would be futile, Savage said. “If we close off the lot, the people will just park on the highway.”
Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath said his department will be taking steps in conjunction with State Police to cut down on the number of motorists who park along the highway.
"We will be shutting down the westbound breakdown lane," Heath explained. He said that section of the highway will be posted with no-parking signs soon.
The chief said he received numerous calls last Saturday from people upset by the large number of hikers.
"The town is concerned about the people flocking to our area, many of them from out of state, where the coronavirus is more widespread than it is here," he said.
Savage said there are more than enough spots around the state for people to go without having to get into a crowd.
“It’s time to stick to family walks,” Savage said. “This is not a good time for epic hikes.”
Aside from the social distancing considerations, people also need to think about the burden they could be placing on already-overtaxed first responders if someone gets injured on a rugged hike and needs to call 911 for medical aid, Savage pointed out.
Steve Zimmer, a member of the Belknap Range Trail Tenders, suggested that, instead of taking mountain hikes, people ought to think of walking in the woods or along old logging roads, where there are apt to be far fewer people.
Told about the situation at Mount Major last Saturday, Zimmer said, “If you see lots of cars at a trailhead, go someplace else.”
He said that, as people begin to experience cabin fever because of the stay-at-home order, they are even more anxious about getting out.
“The problem is that they know of only two or three places to go,” he said.
Groups like the one Zimmer belongs to are urging people to think locally when it comes to going out for exercise.
Zimmer said a map showing the various trails in the Belknap Range can be accessed at https://belknaprangetrails.org/belknap-range-trail-map/.
Information about trails throughout New Hampshire and Vermont that are good for hikes or walks during this COVID-19 crisis is available at https://www.trailfinder.info/trails-and-covid-19.