Harold Parker State Forest lots overflowing

Courtesy photoThe parking lot near the ranger's station in Harold Parker State Forest was full recently, so many visitors parked on the road. The parking situation has become a problem as people seek the outdoors during the pandemic.

Nothing like a quiet walk in the woods.

Unless there's nowhere to park and the trails are filled with other hikers.

Such is the case at Harold Parker State Forest, a 3,300-acre park that straddles Andover, North Andover, Middleton and North Reading, and which is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

According to the Friends of Harold Parker, a local advocacy group for the popular outdoor destination, so many people are making their way to the park to escape the confines of home during the coronavirus that parking lots are overflowing with cars.

"With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping people at home, it’s no wonder that folks are looking for fresh air and a little exercise in the great outdoors," the group said in a press release issued last week. "While DCR has closed many parking lots to help keep large groups from congregating, it is still possible to enjoy the forest while maintaining social distancing."

Pat Keck, who lives in a residential area at the edge of the park, said she's never seen so many people on the miles of trails that criss-cross the diverse terrain.

"You can go for a walk in downtown Boston and run into fewer people than on the trails of Harold Parker," said Keck, a frequent hiker who now spends outdoor time in her yard to escape the crowds. "I've never seen it like this."

Andover police spokesman Sgt. Edward Guy said the department got a call about a month ago from the state police asking for some help with signs on Harold Parker Road, which is the main thoroughfare into the park. 

He said the Department of Public Works set up some "No Parking" signs and that the state police are making sure people aren't parking on both sides of the road, which could prevent emergency vehicles like fire trucks getting through in case of an emergency.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation sent a copy of its statewide guidelines for parks, noting that many parking areas have been closed as a result of the coronavirus. But nowhere in the policy statement does it say where people are supposed to park if they want to go for a walk in the woods at places like Harold Parker.

"To aid in the prevention of spreading the COVID-19 virus by reducing large concentrations of people, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has reduced parking capacity at properties throughout the state parks system, including Harold Parker State Forest."

It goes on to say, "DCR asks park users to visit locations that are within walking distance, a short drive from home, limit excursions to short periods of time, or stay within residential neighborhoods to minimize the crowding of parks and other natural resources."

During one recent weekend, a local resident took a photo of the parking area at the ranger's station on Harold Parker Road. The lot was full and cars had spilled out onto the shoulders of the roadway, parked on either side of the road.

Keck says the park and the DCR in general are woefully understaffed and during a recent Zoom meeting of the board of Friends of Harold Parker a state official said the problem of overcrowding and understaffing is statewide.

"It's crazy everywhere," Keck said she and others were told on the call. Harold Parker, for instance, has only two, full-time employees and they are often overwhelmed by the crowds.

The restrooms at all the state parks have been closed and the hiring of seasonal staff was supposed to happen in April but has been put off.

The Lorraine Campground, which is in Harold Parker, remains closed.




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