Outdoor activities remain more popular than ever this winter with many COVID-19 restrictions still firmly in place across Washington.

The state’s winter recreation program manager, Pamela McConkey, said they sold 4,408 daily Sno-Park permits in November and December, compared to just 772 during the same time period in 2019. Season permits for non-motorized Sno-Parks saw a similar increase, from 1,236 in 2019 to 5,568 in 2020.

Early snow at high elevations and fewer people traveling in big groups have contributed to overflowing parking lots, especially along the I-90 corridor. McConkey urged travelers to expect big crowds, be patient and always have a “Plan B.”

“What we’re really seeing is a lot of people just want to get outside and find a place to play,” McConkey said. “Build a snowperson, sled, snowball fight, that kind of stuff.”

She believes COVID-19 remains the top reason for more people going outside, and it could be part of the reason why online sales are up so dramatically. However, she noted many vendors are also selling out of permits and the state’s already ordered more to ensure it doesn’t run out.

The bigger crowds and full parking lots along I-90 and Blewett Pass represent trends seen at winter recreation areas throughout the state, including in the U.S. Forest Service’s Naches Ranger District.

Accomplished ultrarunner and local Cascadians member Jeff Hagen said it’s a similar story at along US Highway 12, where a lot more cars than usual can be found at non-Sno-Park spots like Maintenance Shed Road near White Pass. Many people appear to be coming over from the more populated west side of the Cascades, which could explain why Sno-Parks along State Route 410 don’t seem to be as crowded.

Kim Pedersen and Camille Bennett from Naches pulled up in one of only five cars parked at the Hells Crossing lot next to 410 last Saturday morning. Even fewer vehicles could be found at the other three smaller lots next to the road heading up to Chinook Pass, which closes for the winter at Morse Creek, five miles east of the summit.

A few miles off of 410, skiers and snowshoers can find popular trails at Bumping Lake, where Pederson and Bennett said they typically snowshoe in the winter. But inspired by colder temperatures and recent snowfall, Saturday was the first time they’d gone beyond the trails near Tieton during this unusual winter with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting recreation opportunities.

“It doesn’t feel that different,” Pedersen said. “Just the extra preparation, I guess. Gotta remember your mask.”

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John Baranowski, the chair of the non-motorized Sno-Parks advisory board and local liaison from Yakima, said reports from the Central Cascade Winter Recreation Group indicated large crowds along I-90. A Department of Transportation blog from earlier this week advised drivers to avoid parking illegally on the side of highways.

The Kittitas County Sheriff responded by putting out extra patrols and officers wrote dozens of tickets last weekend as recreational pressure on the county’s public lands continues to be at an all-time high, according to a Facebook post. McConkey said the state’s enforcement officers have also been spending extra time at Sno-Parks to try and educate the public on how to safely park and take care of the trails.

Although some permanent bathrooms at Forest Service Sno-Parks remain closed, staff continue to service portable toilets at most sites on a weekly basis. McConkey said trouble filling some staff positions means less grooming in certain areas, and she urged people to take everything home to combat a growing trash problem.

“We’re the Evergreen State and there’s a reason we call ourselves that,” McConkey said. “We take a lot of pride in being people that want to keep our forest floors clean and we’re really into recycling in this state.

Despite the unique circumstances and higher usage, much remains the same during a snowy winter thus far.

The winter recreation program, which is fully funded by Sno-Park permit sales, didn’t need to make any staff cuts or reduce hours like some other state agencies. Baranowski said groomers started going out to most of the region’s trails in mid-December.

“I think we’re in good shape,” he said. “We have ample places up Chinook between Hells Crossing, Pleasant Valley, Crow Lake Way and Union Creek.”

For those set on heading out to the more crowded areas along I-90, Baranowski recommends planning to arrive no later than 9 a.m. on weekends. McConkey said when those fill up, good alternatives exist further north on US 97, including Swauk and Pipe Creek Campgrounds.

She also suggested it’s possible to wait 30 minutes to an hour before returning, since many non-motorized users won’t stay long. With most forecasters expecting plenty more snow this summer, McConkey stressed the importance of bringing an avalanche beacon and exercising caution, especially for those new to Washington’s unforgiving winter wilderness.

“Check the weather forecast,” McConkey said. “Check the pass. Know what Sno-Park permit to have. Make sure your car and you are prepared for winter weather.”

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