Chris Offer recalls a "magical morning moment" with fog floating above the Fraser River and thick moss dangling from the trees at Surrey Bend Park. It was his first time at the regional park last year.
Offer says the pandemic prompted him and his wife to explore more regional parks in Metro Vancouver.
"Just to get out for a walk for general health ... I think we got some spectacular places in Metro Vancouver," he said.
According to the region, there were 16.3 million park visits in 2021, as people social distanced and avoided mingling indoors during the pandemic — a 37 per cent increase from 2019.
Officials with the region say they are working to expand park space as demand increases as a result of the pandemic and B.C.'s population grows.
"We've seen a huge increase in visitorship at Metro Vancouver regional parks," said David Leavers, a division manager with Metro Vancouver Regional Parks.
Metro Vancouver, a federation of 21 municipalities, one Treaty First Nation and one electoral area, says it kept all 24 regional parks open through the pandemic.
The parks have well-hidden infrared counters that sense visitors entering parks, says Leavers, adding that visitor counts help allocate resources like parkland acquisition to staffing, trail maintenance and amenities.
While total annual visits in 2021 were 1 per cent lower compared to the year before, it saw record-breaking visits to nine regional parks and greenways, with Brae Island Regional Park in Langley and Deas Island Regional Park in Delta counting 344,100 and 446,600 visits respectively, the highest increases.
The region's population is expected to grow from 2.5 million to 3.7 million by 2050, and visits to parks have been growing at double the population growth rate, according to a 2018 report.
Last year, the region added 76 hectares of parkland valued at just over $15.4 million, including 63.4 hectares to the Codd Wetland Ecological Conservancy Area in Pitt Meadows.
Also among the region's future goals are to expand existing regional parks, protect more land, and develop greenways for more walking and cycling trails, according to the Regional Parks Land Acquisition 2050 report.
Distancing and de-stressing outdoors
The increase in park visits can be attributed to public health measures advising the outdoors as one of the safest places to spend time in during the pandemic, says Dr. Melissa Lem, a family physician in Vancouver.
The sights, sounds and smells in nature are also beneficial for pandemic stress, she says.
"When you're stressed naturally, when you feel better outside, you're going to want to do that more and more," she said.
Hannah Nieman, a Port Coquitlam resident and biologist on the Burnaby Lake Park Assocation board, made it a personal goal to explore all of Metro Vancouver's regional parks last year, and has visited 23 so far.
"Everything else was closed down during the pandemic. So might as well do something with my time and be productive."
Nieman says she enjoys learning about new ecosystems and taking photos in nature. She says visiting parks also positively affected her mental health.
She also had a unique way of preserving her park adventures with a passport.
Metro Vancouver hosted a passport program for its 50th anniversary in 2017, where parkgoers were given unique stamps and the opportunity to earn prizes with every park they visited.
Last year, Nieman's husband had asked Metro Vancouver for a passport and stamps for his wife's regional park visits.
"This was a bit of a special circumstance," she said. "It was really cool."
As more residents like Offer and Nieman visit parks, Metro Vancouver encourages carpooling or taking public transit where possible, as parking lots can get packed during peak times.