In a previous post, I suggested some outdoor spots for social distancing in Connecticut. In this post, I wanted to share my tips for finding such places, wherever you happen to be, in any corner of the state. These are the factors I consider when I’m looking for a place to be alone – or as close to alone as possible.
Think locally. If you’re in a densely populated area, you might have fewer options, and you might have to get more creative, than if you live in a rural area. In some city neighborhoods, your block might be full of pedestrians, while your nearest state forest might be totally empty; conversely, in a spread-out suburb, your town beach or nearby state park might be crowded while the sidewalks of your neighborhood feel deserted. Think about where the people will be in your area, and if you’re going to an area you know less well, do some basic research on it first. (One perhaps obvious trick: if you find a park is frequently closed for being at capacity, that’s one to avoid, at least on the nicest days and definitely during the summer season!)
Think boring. Most people, when they head out into nature, look for natural beauty or adventure. (Or both.) This often means seeking out the most stunning destination – which is often the most popular destination as well – or a spot that provides a physical challenge. In these upside-down times, do the opposite: look for the most boring outdoor space you can find. You’ve probably never been there before, or perhaps you have, but found it wasn’t that fun. This place might not have a steep hike, or a waterfall, or glowing Yelp reviews. But it will still offer a place to breathe in the fresh air, to hear the birds singing, and to observe the changing seasons.
Use the Internet and maps. When I’m writing a blog post or travel story, I’m all about the research. But when I’m just trying to go for a walk, I usually fall back on my old habits and go to the nearby spots I know well. This past year, I’ve used those research skills more and more for everyday life, to ensure that I find new and safe places to be outdoors. Some days I look at my map app and identify green spaces near where I live, then I do a search for them to find out more about what they offer. Other days, I look at a town website to see whether the local parks and recreation department has a list of the spaces they manage. I might simply Google “[Town Name] + trails” or “[Town Name] + land trust” and see what comes up. This might sound quite time-consuming, but it’s really not, once you get the hang of it – plus, it helps you make sure your outdoor experience will be safe as well as enjoyable.
Go to the official source for info. The situation in Connecticut and the world is constantly evolving. Any listing of hours, dates, closures, or rules might become outdated tomorrow or next week. Whenever you’re planning an outing to a park, trail, or other outdoor space, take a minute to check the website or social media accounts of the town or organization that manages that space for updated information. (This is especially true if you’re going to a business or event, like a restaurant or farmers market.)
Consider the day and time. The amount of people visiting any park, beach, or trail can vary dramatically depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon, or evening; whether it’s a weekday, weekend, or holiday; and whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or winter. This is true all the time, of course, but it’s even more true now that so many people have discovered or re-discovered outdoor recreation. DEEP itself recommends avoiding popular parks like Hammonasset Beach; I think the advice to find a lesser-known park is very good, especially if that lesser-known park is closer to where you live, but I also think it depends on whether it’s a chilly Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. or a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon. Use your common sense when deciding where to go, even if it requires doing the opposite of what you’d usually do. Think off-season and off-peak timing.
Embrace bad weather. New England weather is famously unpredictable, so we might as well use it to our advantage. One way I’ve been avoiding crowds is by going out when most others would choose not to: when it’s colder, cloudy, damp, or otherwise less pleasant than it will be in a few hours or days. You don’t have to go out in a downpour, but instead of waiting for that sunny 60 degree afternoon, try walking in the morning when it’s overcast and 35 degrees. If wind or mud or the threat of rain usually keeps you inside, try the opposite behavior: put on proper clothing and go out for a few minutes anyway, while everyone else is waiting for the forecast to improve.
Look at the parking lot. Ideally, what you want to see is a totally empty lot, or – more realistically – one with just a handful of cars. Again, this is more likely to happen at off-peak times and on weekdays. Another ideal parking situation can be found at the many trails and other natural areas that don’t even have parking lots, just spaces for one or two vehicles by the side of the road. The significance of a populated parking lot also changes depending on how large the beach or park is. At a very large beach or park, even if there are a hundred cars, there can theoretically be room for everyone – that is, if everyone respects the concept of social/physical distancing. But at a smaller park, anything more than a handful of vehicles would indicate to me that I might prefer to go elsewhere.
Think wide open spaces. Unless the destination is over-crowded (you’ll know from the parking lot, as mentioned above) a wide open area where you can wander freely is a safer bet than, say, a narrow trail where you have no option but to stay in line. That doesn’t mean all trails, greenways, or boardwalks are off limits, because many other factors also apply. But when I’m feeling especially wary, or it’s a perfect sunny Saturday afternoon, I go to a place that’s not only likely to be deserted, but vast and open. Think wide beach or large meadow, as opposed to trail with a narrow bridge over a river, and you’ll get a good idea of what this looks like.
Beware of confined spaces. This is essentially another way to think of the idea just above. I love linear trails, and I do recommend some in my previous post. Just choose your trail wisely. If a particular trail, or segment of a trail, is very well-known, look for a less popular one. Seek out walking paths in more remote areas, and again, go during the colder and quieter times of day. Some of my favorite places to walk are boardwalks, and I’m not totally avoiding them, I’m just being careful. The exception – depending on the day, time, and weather conditions, of course – would be a very wide boardwalk, a boardwalk in a very remote area, or the type of setup where you can step directly from the boardwalk onto the beach or grass to avoid another oncoming walker.
Don’t go by place names alone. If you’re looking for green splotches on your map app, or Googling “parks near me,” remember that a park can mean many different things. Within a few minutes drive from my house, I can find several parks that consist of children’s playgrounds; state parks with beaches that can be packed or deserted, depending on the weather and time of day; city and town parks that range from postage-stamp sized patches of grass to vast open fields; and beaches, one that attracts dozens of walkers a day and one that’s usually nearly empty. The same goes for “trail,” “forest,” and so on. You might have to do a little extra research to find a place that works for you.
Look for the “undiscovered” places. Find a nearby land trust property or local trail you’ve never heard of before, then Google it and type it into Instagram. If you find little to no published information about it, and if nobody has geotagged its location yet, excellent. You’ve found a place that’s highly unlikely to be crowded.
Look for less developed areas. Those additions we consider amenities, like playgrounds, picnic areas, and bathrooms, are also indications of which outdoor areas tend to get the most visitors. Forests, nature preserves, and land trusts are usually lacking these amenities, as are some beaches. This makes them good bets for near-solitary adventures.
Of course, we all want things to go back to “normal,” but for a little while, we still have to be more careful than we were before. Luckily, in Connecticut, there are many places where it’s still possible to do this while enjoying time outdoors. And who knows, perhaps when whatever the new normal is does emerge, we’ll all have grown to love that feeling of exploring lesser-known places and having them all to ourselves.
(Photos taken at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, CT.)