Regarding COVID-19: Please recreate responsibly and practice social distancing. Closures and travel restrictions are changing rapidly, always check and respect local regulations.

Reservation Permits Needed To Reopen Trails Responsibly, Says Steve Gerhardt

As trails in Los Angeles (and across the country) start reopening, it’s more important than ever that we use them responsibly. That includes, of course, leave no trace principles and common trail etiquette, but goes a step further in this continually changing time.

I got the chance to chat with Steve Gerhardt of Walk Long Beach this week. Steve’s passion for the outdoors is undeniable when you hear the way he talks about trails, hiking, and accessibility. His nonprofit is dedicated to increasing the walkability of Long Beach, and he’s one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve met on the subject of trails in the greater Los Angeles area.

- - - - -

Aaron Rickel: I want to have a conversation about what happened when the trails closed down here in LA, what we need to do to keep them from closing again, and what getting outside responsibly in the era of Covid looks like. So, first off, were you surprised by the trail closures?

Steve Gerhardt: I completely saw it coming. As the rollout of the lockdown was starting to happen, especially as it got more and more concentrated, there were only a couple of logical places for people to go. You had the people who were regular users of some of these facilities—Runyon Canyon is a good example to me—there’s people who do that every day with their dogs and their friends, and then there’s people who do it on the weekends or a couple times a year. Add to that all the people who had nowhere else to go, and you start to see the problem. 

In places, [that trail] is plenty wide. In other places, it’s not as wide. You can’t have people going out and back on a trail like that without compromising social distancing—and almost all the trails around here are out and back, that’s the real issue. You’ve got people coming at you all the time. So to me the closures were pretty inevitable if we’re trying to keep six feet apart.

AR: When popular trails close, there are fewer places for people to get outside. What is the importance of having access to outdoor spaces, especially in a time like this.

SG: People who are used to regular activity needed to do something. Lots of home fitness equipment quickly sold out, even from online retailers, so people were trying to do stuff at home, but they still want to mix that in with some outdoor activities. A lot of people started walking. Lots of people who walked occasionally but didn’t do it in any sort of regiment started feeling the need to do something—anything. Part of it is not having that go-to-work, come-home dynamic during the day. People are trying to add some routine or structure to their weeks, so they started getting outside.

Then there’s people who just transitioned what they normally did to other places—people exercising in parks. People I know who are regular runners are saying they’re in the best shape they’ve ever been in! [laughter] You know, they’re not gearing up for the Boston Marathon, but they could be! This [pandemic] has definitely made our need for outdoor spaces glaringly obvious, though.

AR: What is the most common reaction to trails closing?

SG: My wife used to live right near Topanga State Park—we could walk into the park through a side entrance that was in her neighborhood. We wouldn’t see people that often right at first, but as you got closer to the trailhead, parking lot, or some of the main trails, you’d see more people. I think most people go the path of least resistance—it’s convenient, they know about it, or someone takes them there. This situation forces people to be more creative and the social dynamic of hiking went away, so a lot of people had to figure out how to do it themselves or with the people they’re quarantined with.

One positive thing about this is that it’s shown what a huge need there is for activity. People who were fairly sedentary but had a little bit of activity during their day running errands have now lost it, so even that small change has motivated them to try and get outside. I think it shows how much desire there is. It’s like most things, once it’s taken away you realize how important it is. Even if you don’t do it, now that you can’t, you really want to. 

AR: In a place like Los Angeles, a place that isn’t particularly known for access to outdoor places, is this signaling some sort of change that needs to take place?

SG: Absolutely, and on a couple levels. We mentioned Griffith Park earlier—there you’ve got a huge space that you can get to from several directions. There’s room for horseback riding and cycling and walking, you name it. But then you’ve got these smaller pockets of open space that people are appreciating a little bit more. To me, one of the issues is how to link together these small pockets of outdoor space. This happens in cycling as well, you can be riding along in a bike-lane network then suddenly hit a sign that says “end bike lane” and have no direction for where to go next, you’re just done.

Gap closure is a huge issue in open space and active transportation in general. Unfortunately, there’s not going to be any new big regional parks like El Dorado or Wilson Park, so the question is how to utilize the small spaces we have. The LA River is an interesting example, they’re finally starting to stitch together everything from Downtown LA down to Long Beach and all the way up into the Valley. There’s the bike path along the Orange Line. The question is how do we link those kinds of spaces together so that if you want to go 30 miles on a bike, you can [without leaving a network of trails].

Some of those have open space pockets along the way, but we haven’t done a good job of using the sidetrack of rail lines or drainage canals. Ballona Creek, as an example, has a few places you can drop in and ride all the way to the beach which is fantastic, but the trailheads aren’t particularly well marked. If you know to go around the back of a business park, you can get on the trail, but it’s not obvious to someone who doesn’t know.

AR: Open space is important under normal circumstances, but even more so during these times isn’t it?

SG: I think the idea of open space is crucial right now because we’re going to need more of it. It’s pretty obvious we’re going to have to spread out a bit—at least for a while. The natural open spaces simply got inundated. The bluffs in Palos Verdes, for example, are always pretty busy on the weekends, but there were actual traffic jams happening the first few weeks of the quarantine because people were coming from everywhere. All of that shows a huge demand, and I’m not entirely sure how we provide more of that space as real estate prices are so high and there’s not a lot of vacant land just laying around. It’s going to be really interesting to see how all that shapes up.

AR: Now that we see trails reopening it feels like we have a second chance to do it correctly. How do we use this reopening responsibly to ensure trails stay open?

SG:  If you go to a grocery store right now you’re in a line outside and somebody comes out so another person can go in. Health clubs are trying to figure out how to do this too. For example, if you’re a member of 24 Hour Fitness or Equinox you can’t just go there, you have to make a reservation to limit occupancy. I think the same thing is going to have to be done on trails. There are already examples of outdoor places we need reservations for. I think the more popular trails at least are going to need some sort of reservation system. It’s just not fair if you plan ahead, show up, and it’s so crowded that you have to turn around and leave.

Another one is just promoting trails that aren’t as well used. “Hey, you can’t go to X but you can go to these three other places.” The way people work seems like it’s going to change which leads to schedules changing too, which might free more people up to go for a hike on a Thursday instead of a Saturday. In the short term, those are the kinds of adjustments we’re going to have to make, and I think that’s healthy. The weekend warrior thing is actually not very good for you. That’s how people get injured—they do too much on the weekend and not enough during the week. I think that’s one adaptation and the other is being more creative with the stuff that we have, and I’ve seen a lot of this. If you can’t go to a major park, maybe you go for a walk in a neighborhood.

AR: What are some other creative solutions or alternatives people might explore?

SG: 20% of most cities are streets, and we need to make better use of them. They’re by far the biggest public asset we have and we really only use them for one purpose. Huge cities like Bogota or Mexico City close down streets every Sunday for pedestrian use, it’s not rocket science! I love the mindset change that happens when people walk in the middle of the street and notice the buildings and businesses, or even just take note of how wide they are! How different would our cities be if we utilized streets for alternative purposes during off-peak hours?

AR: Introducing a reservation system would definitely require more oversight from government officials, which we don’t necessarily see happening very quickly. In the meantime do you have any tips for people trying to self-regulate and use trails responsibly?

SG: I think the main thing is being very patient. Let people pass. I’ve been on walks lately where there have been very limited opportunities to step off to the side, so when you get one just pull over for a second and let someone pass from either direction. When you’re going out, just be aware that things are going to take a little longer. If a hike normally takes you an hour, plan on it taking a little longer and enjoy the fact that you’re outside. Soak up the views.

- - - - -

A huge thank you to Steve for taking the time to talk with me. If you’re in the Long Beach area, Walk Long Beach has some great resources ranging from route cards to help you get outside to walking ambassador training to equip you to create a walking group. They also have opportunities and resources to get involved with policy and advocacy for creating more open spaces, signage, and development of existing pedestrian areas.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Aaron RickelExplorer

Climber. Cyclist. Hiker. Writer. Currently has base camp set up in Los Angeles, CA. Runs the Los Angeles Field Guide.