After another summer of handling record-breaking crowds, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and dealing with extreme weather and wildfires, park officials across the country are preparing for some much-needed downtime. But in popular snowbird spots like Southern California, peak season is just getting started.
Rangers and others who work at popular destinations like Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County are preparing for many of the visitors who spent the summer at nearby mountain parks to make their way down into the desert, while also waiting on other guests looking to avoid cold climates.
“It’s a privilege because we have two mountain parks, then we have the desert park,” says Ray Lennox, the District Superintendent for the Colorado Desert District, which covers multiple parks in the most southern part of California. “And so as one season is starting, the other winds down, so there’s always something going on.”
Visitors to Anza-Borrego—the largest state park in California—will see fewer restrictions than they did last fall and winter as many health guidelines have been relaxed. California State Parks is now allowing increased visitor numbers in the park and even permitting special events. But since the pandemic is continuously in flux, Lennox says it’s important for people to stay updated by visiting the park’s website.
“We’re constantly monitoring the California Department of Public Health and San Diego COVID-19 guidelines,” said Lennox. “Anytime there’s any kind of reduction or we have to close something down because of COVID-19, that goes onto the website.”
This means visitors need to be willing to change their plans and have backup ideas or places to go in case new regulations dramatically decrease visitor numbers. Guests are advised to do the necessary research to understand park regulations and what to expect when arriving. On many occasions, park officials have seen a boost in inexperienced visitors lead to an increase in rescues and other efforts.
COVID-19 is not the only concern of outdoor professionals. Similar to many areas on the West Coast—and especially in California, which shut down all national forests last month due to fire concerns—park staff wants guests to be aware that the dangers of wildfires are still a real concern. Many fire crews that are typically based in the southern part of the state are currently fighting fires burning up north.
At Anza-Borrego, fire season is just about to start. Historically, the park has seen some of its worst wildfires in the fall after the extreme heat of the summer begins to die down. Visitors need to be aware of this and act responsibly while enjoying everything the park has to offer. Lennox says it can be as simple as checking on current restrictions and guidelines for information such as whether or not a fire ban is in place, and Lennox and his team are focused on getting these details out to visitors.
“We’re always trying to get out information ahead of visitors about the outdoors and to educate people early before they visit the park or desert,” he says.