In a bid to help space out visits to Ontario's parks and prevent overcrowding, the provincial government is providing free day-use permits at 115 parks from Monday to Thursday.
Starting on Monday, visitors will also be able to book a daily vehicle permit up to five days before visiting 17 select provincial parks to avoid long line-ups during peak visitation hours. The newly instituted programs will be in place until September 2.
Sheila Wiebe, park education specialist at Bronte Creek Provincial Park, says with warmer days and public health restrictions still in place, overcrowding at parks is a bit worrisome.
"Provincial parks are set aside to protect the natural and cultural resources of Ontario. And with the increase in visitation, the impact on our environment is evident," she said.
Bronte Creek park, located between Oakville and Burlington, just north of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW), is not immune to these impacts. Wiebe says she's noticed the trails getting seemingly wider as people are trying to maintain two meters' distance from each other.
"So managing people is going to definitely be a top of mind this year," she said.
Capacity limits, respect for nature
Some parks, like Mono Cliffs Provincial Park in Orangeville, have begun using Twitter and other social media channels to alert people that they've reached capacity and new visitors will be turned away.
Wiebe said it's a good idea for people to check a park's social media account for updated information on park capacity before showing up. She also noted that if day passes and vehicle permits are sold out online, that it will not be letting more people in.
"If all of those passes are sold out it means 'don't come'. We're saving you the trouble of not having to travel to arrive at the gate to find out that it's full," she said.
A valid permit is still required for all vehicles within provincial parks, including on free day-use days.
The park specialist also says litter has become "a huge problem in provincial parks."
Wiebe says good Samaritans who would normally pick up a stranger's trash have been put off by the threat of COVID-19.
"We want people to stay on the designated trails. We want people to give each other space and just respect nature. No picking up anything; take pictures, leave only footprints and don't litter."
Overnight camping set to resume with restrictions
Overnight camping in Ontario parks was prohibited under the stay-at-home order, which expired on June 2. Camping is still not allowed until at least June 16 following an extension of orders aimed at helping manage the spread of COVID-19.
Camping was previously set to open when the province enters step one of its reopening plan starting June 14 or earlier, as hinted to by Premier Doug Ford last week.
"We're ready for [campers] when the province provides us with the go ahead," Wiebe said. "When we go through that road map to reopening, then camping will reopen ... with possibly some limitations."
She said limiting the amount of campers and a reduction to some of the camp sites are a possibility, as high-touch areas like washrooms will still need diligent cleaning to keep visitors and staff safe.
"We know everyone wants to get out, get away, camping is amazing for that. Just bear with us. We'll get there."