From Empty Trails To Traffic Jams, 2020 Was A Year Of Extremes In Big Bend National Park
Since the start of the pandemic, the majority of visitors are first-timers, and people generally new to hiking.
Over the course of the pandemic, the number of people visiting Big Bend National Park has fluctuated wildly — first dropping to all-time lows in the Spring, then smashing records in the final months of last year.
The end-of-year visitor spike is part of a national trend, as thousands have flocked to outdoor destinations across Texas and the country, even as many public health officials advise against travelling.
After closing the remote, 800,000-acre park to visitors in the Spring, park officials have noted an “extraordinary” jump in visitor numbers and “a big pulse” in traffic in the months since reopening.
“I think COVID just stimulated a whole new generation of visitors to seek out these remote places,” said Tom VandenBerg, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services, in a recent interview. “Big Bend, in particular, you know, I think there's a big bull's eye on us as a place to go to get away from everything.”
Before the pandemic, park officials believed they were on track to crack half-a-million visitors in 2020, which would have been a first in the park’s 76-year history.
While the park didn’t reach that milestone in 2020, they did break monthly visitation records on three separate occasions—in February before shutdowns began and again in October and November.
In February, there were 50,584 park visitors; while October and November saw 51,231 and 62,515 visitors, respectively, representing a 19% and 23% increase in traffic over the same months in 2019.
December is also a popular time at the park, particularly over the Christmas and New Years holiday break. Visitor numbers aren’t available for December yet, but park officials believe they likely surpassed the monthly record.
Still, it’s been a rocky year for the Big Bend region’s premier outdoor destination.
Since March, the park has closed on two separate occasions. The first closure, which lasted two months, was a pre-emptive effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The second closure came shortly after reopening, when a resident within the park’s community tested positive for COVID-19.
“We're doing what we can here in the park to keep people safe and keep our employees safe and visitors safe,” said VandenBerg.
After reopening for the summer months, a generally quiet time for the park given the scorching, triple-digit temperatures common during this time, a steady stream of visitors set their eyes on Big Bend National Park for fall getaways.
“I like it out here, because I like the isolation or like an oasis in the middle of nowhere,” said Sarah Tollemache, who visited Far West Texas in September.
“You would have no idea that the world's on fire when you're out,” said Tollemache, who traveled from New York to Texas where she met up with family to hike in Big Bend National Park. “It feels nice. You're with nature.”
Since the pandemic, VandenBerg says the bulk of visitors are first-timers, and people generally new to hiking.
Although it’s rewarding to see hikers enjoying Big Bend National Park, VandenBerg says there is “a weird mix of feelings” with increased visitation.
While it’s seemingly easy to practice social distancing in a national park with over 800,000-acres of sweeping vistas and open trails, the majority of visitors are gravitating toward the same spaces in large numbers.
“One of the highlights of Big Bend is just a place where you can go and still get away from it all,” said VendenBerg. “But people also need to realize that when they're coming here from all over that they're all using the same restrooms, they're using the same little grocery stores and our communities.”
As visitation has skyrocketed in recent months, health officials say there hasn’t been any definitive data to point to tourism as a factor behind the spread of the coronavirus. Although without robust contact tracing throughout the region, it’s hard to say if there will ever be enough information to understand how travel has impacted the COVID-19 situation in West Texas.
For the park, VandenBerg says they’re sticking to their reopening plan, which bases some decisions on the capacity at Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, the nearest hospital.
If the hospital’s COVID-19 caseload swells beyond its 25-bed capacity, then the park could begin to scale back.
“If the services in our area would be completely overrun, which could happen fairly quickly, since we don't have a lot here, that might dictate some sort of change in our operations,” said VandenBerg.