Popular Arizona Hiking Trails Are Still Open, but for How Long?

Hiking trails in Camelback Mountain and other Valley parks and desert areas are still open as of April 1.
Hiking trails in Camelback Mountain and other Valley parks and desert areas are still open as of April 1. Ray Stern
Stepping out on Arizona's scenic hiking trails is one way to help relieve the boredom of coronavirus restrictions. Most trails were still accessible as of April 1, the first full day of the state's stay-at-home order.

How much longer those trails will be open remains uncertain.

The question has led to a flap this week on the Phoenix City Council, with Council Member Sal DiCiccio calling out fellow council members for proposing a trail ban, then getting into a spat with Senator Kyrsten Sinema over it.

The council will examine the question of its urban trails in its Thursday meeting, but officials say that for now, it doesn't look like a majority of council members would vote for a ban. Nor does it seem like they could, legally.

Cities seem to be prohibited from closing hiking trails by Governor Doug Ducey's March 23 executive order, which lists as essential "any outdoor recreation area, park, site, or trail that provides opportunities for outdoor recreation with social distancing such as walking, hiking, and biking." Ducey's office didn't reply to a request for comment on Wednesday about trails.

Although it's possible to maintain social distancing practices on many trails, others, like Piestewa Peak's summit trail, are too narrow to allow passing at a length of six feet. Trails have closed across California, Washington, and in other states as restless people flocked to them. Federal authorities have closed some national parks, including Yosemite and its trails. Yet the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada said in a March 30 statement that its trails would remain open as park facilities closed.

"If we're taking people away from parks, we're basically going to push people toward the trails..." Carlos Garcia

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Grand Canyon National Park has closed its two most popular trails, Bright Angel and South Kaibab, but its other trails remained open as of Wednesday. However, a receptionist at the park said no backcountry permits are being issued, and most facilities are closed. Only restrooms and one small grocery store is open, but the store doesn't open until 4 p.m. "Bring your own food," the man said. (Update: Grand Canyon National Park closed a few hours after this article was published.)

The Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau put out an advisory on March 30 to keep out of the area "even if you plan to remain outdoors, hiking, biking, or OHV-ing."

Media reports have noted the overcrowding at popular trails in metro Phoenix, as residents seek to escape their homes and gyms remain closed. In response, Phoenix and other cities limited access to parks and trails. Restrooms remain open, but playgrounds and ramadas are closed in Phoenix and many, if not most other Valley cities. Parking areas are being restricted to keep the crowds down on trails, but the Valley trails themselves remain open.

"Yes — all of our trails remain open, including those in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and in the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt," Scottsdale spokesperson Kelly Corsette said on Wednesday. "There are no impending votes or considerations to change this. However, as you well know, this situation is changing all the time. For now we are advising anyone who chooses to use these amenities to 'recreate responsibly' — stay home if you have any symptoms, and maintain physical distancing on the trails."

On Monday, March 30, the City Council proposed a motion to include trail closures as part of its desired park restrictions. That spurred an outraged press release and social media statement from DiCiccio, a conservative who's often at odds with other council members.

"BREAKING: Instead of Calm, PHX Politicians Pushing Panic," DiCiccio's statement on Monday said. "PHX will vote WEDNESDAY to close hiking trails! Dr. Sunenshine, head of disease control for Maricopa Health Dept, stated clearly that closing the trails is unnecessary & it is critical that people are able to go outside."

Mayor Kate Gallego responded in a tweet that "this is not accurate information. The Council is discussing how to find ways to keep everyone safe while enabling them to still get outside. Staff will be presenting national best practices during an upcoming council meeting."

"This post isn't accurate," Sinema chimed in on Facebook about DiCiccio's post. "There is no proposed vote to close any trail in Phoenix."

DiCiccio's office came back the next day with an excerpt from a video of Monday's City Council meeting proving there had, in fact, been such a motion.

"Yeah, no, this would include the trails as well," Vice Mayor Betty Guardado said at Monday's council meeting, in response to a question DiCiccio asked about trails at 17 minutes, 15 seconds into the meeting video. She added that she wants the issue of trails addressed by Easter, when a "huge spike" of park users is expected.

"We need to figure that out ASAP, and definitely have a plan in place by Easter," she said.

Councilman Carlos Garcia then explained why he wants trails to be closed: "In the parking lots, we're unable to keep people away from each other. And most of the trails have one entry point. And I feel like we're also exposing our staff who's being there and trying to limit things.

"If we're taking people away from parks, we're basically going to push people toward the trails ... We're just going to grow the amount of people on the trails," he said. "And so I feel like if we're going to do this, I prefer we do this uniformly, so we actually encourage the people to stay home, rather than look for other options."

Gallego said the council would meet in executive session and come back for Thursday's public meeting with updates on trails and other park amenities. She also said the council would get "legal guidance" on the issue of trails, apparently in a nod to Ducey's order, which may limit the city's power to close them.

"It's the understanding of the city that the essential order would not allow us to fully close trails," said Phoenix spokesperson Stephanie Bracken on Wednesday. "Council will be discussing ways to limit social interactions tomorrow [at the executive session], based on national best practices."

Guardado's motion was later taken off the parks-restriction proposal made Monday, said Gallego's spokesperson, Annie DeGraw.

"That was taken out because this is not an appropriate time to close down the trails," she said. Restrictions that have been put into place, and which have to be formalized with a council vote on Thursday, have already begun to reduce overcrowding at the city's urban and mountain parks, she added. Notwithstanding Ducey's order, "the appetite to close all of our trails is not there," she said.

Corsette said that in Scottsdale, "We believe the governor’s order does limit a city’s ability to close trails, so it’s certainly an important consideration should Scottsdale feel a need to move in that direction."

Scottsdale is going to "great lengths" to boost Ducey's message to get outside yet maintain social distancing.

"We have signs posted at trailheads and parks, and staff have even (temporarily) painted a grid on the ground at our most popular trailheads to help people visualize the right physical distance," he wrote in an email.

Ducey's current plan may prevent trails from closing, but the governor has ramped up other restrictions more slowly than other governors. His stay-at-home order followed similar orders in 28 other states. Trail users may want to get outside — safely — while they still can.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern