Washington, Oregon Struggle To Address Crowded Parks

By Anna King (OPB)
May 17, 2020 1 p.m.
Palouse Falls State Park is home to Washington's official state waterfall -- and large crowds in the spring runoff season.

Palouse Falls State Park is home to Washington's official state waterfall -- and large crowds in the spring runoff season.

Producer: Tom Banse / NW News Network

On Mother’s Day at Palouse Falls State Park in southeastern Washington, massive RVs sped down the gravel washboard of Palouse Falls Road. They kicked up drifts of dust. In all, the park, with its modest parking lot and viewing area, saw hundreds and hundreds of visitors last weekend.


Similarly, Cannon Beach on Oregon's north coast saw so many out of town visitors last weekend they had to be told to go home. Hundreds were enjoying the sun before officials swept through.

Northwest state officials are struggling to contain crowds in parks in the time of coronavirus. Washington opened most parks on May 5, Oregon started to reopen some on May 6. Now, the states are trying to fine tune their response for future sunny-day crowds.

Palouse Falls

“I think the public themselves have probably learned some lessons after they got out and about a little bit this week,” said Audra Sims, who manages Palouse Falls and other Washington parks. “The agencies that are providing public spaces are learning some things from going through this week. And so I think as we go into week two, and then week three we just need to refine our approaches.”

Most Washington state parks are now open, with exceptions along the coast and popular hiking spots in the Columbia River Gorge.

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Sims said some parks were sleepy last weekend, so upcoming changes to policies will vary by location.

“It really does fluctuate depending on what the park is, what it is offering, what’s beckoning people to come to visit. [That] really shaped the attendance that we saw throughout the entire state,” Sims said.


According to Sims, two things have also increased visitation at Palouse Falls: social media, and the park’s designation as the official state waterfall. Managing the waterfall overlook has always been challenging in the spring, but it’s extra hard in this time of coronavirus safety measures.

Oregon: Long lines, angry visitors

Oregon’s favorite spots were also a problem, said Oregon State Parks spokesperson Chris Havel. He said there were long lines, parking issues and some angry visitors.

“We appreciate the cooperation we’ve gotten from visitors, and we hope that will continue,” Havel said. “We’ve seen some people get upset at each other. We just need people to chill a bit and maybe come back when it’s less crowded.”

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Havel said efforts to open up parks are largely hampered by money, since the parks department isn’t fully state funded. It largely depends on user fees and the Oregon lottery, and those funds have been diminished with park closures and fewer sales of lottery tickets. Where usually the agency would hire upward of 400 seasonal employees for the upcoming summer, it’s only hired about 70 so far.

“People are expecting some version of service at a park when they go visit, and to get back to camping eventually,” he said. “But that’s all really difficult when you don’t know what the revenue looks like.”

Harvel said coastal Oregon parks are gradually reopening, starting along the southern coast. It will largely depend on when the communities near central and northern Oregon beaches deem they are ready.

Smith Rock State Park

near Bend and beaches in


are also opening soon.