How to practice safe distancing while enjoying Ottawa County Parks

The Ottawa County parks system is open to visitors wanting to maintain their physical stamina and emotional well-being during the COVID-19 crisis.

But a spokeswoman for the Parks and Recreation Department cautions that continued access to the 28 parks is feasible only if visitors practice the 6-foot spacing guideline for safe social distancing.

“We are doing everything we can to keep parks open to the public,” says Communications Specialist Jessica VanGinhoven. “However, if it becomes evident that visitors are not practicing social distancing, we will have to consider park closures for the safety and health of the community.”

The use of public parks for outdoor recreation is one of the exceptions in the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order issued by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in response to the devastating spread of the coronavirus.

Visits skyrocket

Not long after the order went into effect, Parks and Recreation noticed that the number of park visitors skyrocketed as other options for activity dwindled.

The influx at parks with trails to Lake Michigan — such as Tunnel, Olive Shores, Kirk, and Rosy Mound — prompted Parks and Recreation to recommend that visitors seek a park offering more open area.

The Upper Macatawa Natural Area is one of the parks listed as family friendly.

“Because the lakeside trails are straight out and back, and not looping, the two-way traffic on boardwalks and stairs can make it difficult to keep the appropriate safe distance from each other,” VanGinhoven says. “We recommend visiting a park with more open area. We feature more than 7,000 acres across 28 parks and 12 open-space areas, so there should be room for everyone.”

Dog park concerns

VanGinhoven says the Grand Ravines Dog Park is another spot of particular concern as the number of dog owners and their companions grow rapidly.

The park has always been a popular place for owners to congregate while their dogs play. Unfortunately, some visitors are still gathering too close to each other, VanGinhoven says.

“Congregating there has always felt natural. While dogs play, their owners watch and chat. But we cannot stress enough that it should be avoided at this time. The good news is that the dog park is 21 acres, so there is plenty of room to spread out.”

Ease congestion

To ease congestion, the Parks and Recreation Department suggests that visitors check out parks that regularly experience lower attendance, such as Stearns Creek, Eastmanville Farm, Connor Bayou, and Crockery Creek Natural Area.

Other spots with lower attendance include the open-space areas that are less developed than park properties, which typically feature more directional signage on trails. VanGinhoven favors Hiawatha Forest, Port Sheldon Natural Area, Eastmanville Bayou, and Van Buren Dunes for open-space exploration. 

Visitors are encouraged to check out open-space areas, such as Eastmanville Bayou, that are less developed than park properties.
“If you are comfortable going off-trail and don’t need a paved path, the open-space areas are excellent places to explore. Dogs are allowed off-leash at open-space properties, so visitors should be prepared for those types of encounters.”

Parks for all visitors

For families, VanGinhoven advises the following parks: Hemlock Crossing, Upper Macatawa Natural Area, Grand River, Pigeon Creek, North Ottawa Dunes, Stearns Creek, and Eastmanville Farm.

Especially family-friendly are Hemlock Crossing, Upper Macatawa Natural Area, and Grand River Park, which contain wide paved paths to accommodate strollers and bikes. These paths also offer accessibility for wheelchairs.

Congregating is prohibited, especially in heavily used parks like Grand Ravines South.

For hikers, VanGinhoven lists the following parks: Pigeon Creek, North Ottawa Dunes, Riley Trails, Stearns Creek, and Eastmanville Farm. 

Pigeon Creek, North Ottawa Dunes, and Upper Macatawa Natural Area are also popular parks for runners because their paths stretch for miles.

Buildings closed, events canceled

In keeping with the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, Parks and Recreation closed park buildings, restrooms, and playgrounds.

Park programming has been canceled. The equestrian trails are open at Pigeon Creek but closed at Eastmanville Farm. Those with access to the internet can link to online programming offered by the Parks and Recreation Department on Facebook and YouTube.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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