When Joshua Tree National Park in California was closed to everything but foot and bike traffic Saturday because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brian Rennie knew the trouble was about to begin.
First, Rennie said, the park administration closed the park with no warning to neighboring property owners like himself. Rennie has owned his home in Joshua Tree near the park’s popular West Entrance since the 1990s and lived there full-time since 2013. This story was reported by the Palm Springs Desert Sun, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.
Second, he said, by making the national park’s parking lots inaccessible to visitors, hikers would have to get creative about where to stow their cars while walking into the park for the day.
Saturday and Sunday saw hundreds of cars parked at any given moment along the sides of Quail Springs Road leading up to the park’s shuddered entrance, essentially parked in the front yards of property owners like Rennie.
“I’ve had to patrol my property for the last two days,” Rennie said. “Saturday was the worst.”
Saturday’s chaos came as a large volume of visitors arrived for the weekend and no information had been posted on the park’s website in advance of the closure, he said.
Joshua Tree National Park administrators had closed all of the park’s visitors centers March 17, according to notices posted on the park’s website and Twitter account.
The indefinite road and campground closures, announced by the park’s staff Saturday morning, were meant to help “slow the spread of the novel coronavirus” and keep the park’s staff and visitors safe.
According to a park news release, the park remains open to bicycle and hiker access.
“Displaced car campers can take advantage of open camping areas on public lands adjacent to the park and managed by the Bureau of Land Management as well as local private RV parks,” the release said.
Park rangers gave campers until noon Saturday to clear out and by the early afternoon the paved roads leading into the park were barred by closed gates. Wilderness routes on dirt roads, like Thermal Canyon Road, remain open, according to the park’s website.
Around 10 p.m. Saturday after a day of telling drivers they couldn’t park in front of his home, Rennie said he saw lights in the brush near his driveway.
“I went out with a bright flashlight to check it out,” Rennie said. “The lights were from the headlamps of a couple people trying to make camp in my yard. They had their sleeping bags out and everything. I told them they had to go.”
But for many residents from Southern California’s metropolitan areas who have been furloughed or laid off,taking refuge in the outdoors was too tempting.
San Diego resident Bryant Wei was struggling to book students for tennis lessons as state officials urged stricter guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus. So Wei made abrupt plans a couple of days ago to explore the national park for the first time.
He had parked his camper a short distance from Black Rock Campground and spent most of Sunday afternoon riding his mountain bike. While the campground is closed, the trails leading to Warren Peak and nearby Covington Flats were open. About 20 cars were parked in the overflow parking areas, and hikers were enjoying Sunday’s mild weather.
Wei acknowledged that it was an unusual time to visit the park, given the road and campground closures, but he was still enjoying himself. Wei called it the desert trip he’s been dreaming of and plans on staying for a month if he can.
“It’s awesome out here,” Wei said. “I did some climbing earlier and I’ve been able to ride my bike like 50 miles over the last day or two.”
Sunday saw a greater degree of crowd management, Rennie said, as rangers patrolled the street approaching the entrance gate and instructed visitors where they could park. San Bernardino public works employees also posted parking signs and two trucks patrolled for parking violators.
Dozens of visitors could be seen walking up the road to the park’s entrance late Sunday afternoon as a ranger stood next to the entrance telling drivers who had driven to the closed gate that they needed to turn around.
“People are not following the governor’s recommendation to stay home,” said John Lauretig, executive director of the non-profit Friends of Joshua Tree. “It doesn’t take much to overwhelm our small community’s emergency room and the other infrastructure that we need to keep people safe in times like this.”
Lauretig said it appears that the park is seeing fewer visitors than normal with Gov. Gavin Newsom telling Californians on Thursday to shelter-in-place and limit travel to only what is essential. Still, he said, Joshua Tree’s downtown looked busy over the weekend.
“I understand people love the park and they want to get outside, but now’s not the time,” Lauretig said.