COPAKE FALLS—Is it possible for a place to be too popular for its own good?
That seems to be the case with Bash Bish Falls in Massachusetts and by extension the Taconic State Park in Copake Falls through which the falls can be accessed on the New York side.
Taconic State Park is in the South Taconic Mountain Range on the Connecticut/Massachusetts border of New York.
Bash Bish Falls in Bash Bish Falls State Park in Mount Washington, Massachusetts, is the highest single-drop waterfall in the state. The Berkshire’s official website https://berkshires.org/ says it’s “The state’s most dramatic waterfall. Cascading water tumbles through gorges and drops over 80 feet into a sparkling pool.”
Sounds like an idyllic place, except when you add hundreds of people packed in like unruly sardines all over the trails and rocks and in the water ignoring all restrictions and trashing the place.
The influx of people dates back to Memorial Day weekend, Taconic State Park Manager Chris Rickard told The Columbia Paper this week.
The Taconic State Park was open just for day use and all parking lots were closed except for the lot connected with the picnic area, yet some people snuck into the falls in violation of the rules.
Then in June, “the uptick of people coming to the park and Bash Bish Falls was something we had never seen before, the park was overwhelmed,” said Mr. Rickard, the park manager for the past eight years.
He suspects the reason has to do with closures and cancellations brought on by the pandemic. People have “nothing to do” this summer—with no sporting events, camps, concerts or movies.
There were two main issues, he said, first the sheer number of people not wearing masks or social distancing. The second was their non-compliance with any of the rules. They were using the falls like party central—picnicking, grilling, swimming in the falls and throwing litter all over the place.
Mr. Rickard described groups of 30 and 40 people, including family groups of all ages. Some were having catered parties, with tables and chairs, giant speakers like a wedding DJ would use, hookahs (and broken glass from hookahs) playing games with oversized dominoes in the stream. “They were bringing everything but the kitchen sink to the falls.”
“It’s a new demographic,” he said, not just the hikers that walk to the falls and back and leave, but people who want to stay and picnic in all the wrong places.
Photographs posted on Facebook July 21, show there were easily 1,500 people at the falls at one time, according to Mr. Rickard’s estimates.
Then came the complaints from Copake Falls residents. When park visitors could no longer find a parking spot in a parking lot, they parked along State Route 344 and secondary roads on property that belonged to residents.
Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Lieutenant Louis Bray said by phone Tuesday, the overcrowding had a “ripple effect.” It led to traffic congestion and complaints of trespassing, loitering, public urination and blocked driveways. The visitors were not only parking on private property, but unloading their grills and lawn chairs, having picnics and settling in—creating “quality of life issues” for residents, he said.
Park police from New York State and park rangers from Massachusetts joined in an effort to increase patrols.
In an emailed background statement, Olivia Dorrance, press secretary for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation DCR), wrote that “additional DCR Park Rangers have been deployed and the agency has requested additional law enforcement details…. Furthermore, starting on Thursday, July 23, 2020 and until further notice, DCR implemented a parking area closure at Bash Bish Falls State Park to manage park capacity. The park remains open to visitors and as a reminder, the following activities and items are prohibited at Bash Bish Falls State Park: swimming, picnicking, alcohol, coolers, and glass containers; and grilling.”
‘To simply shut down access fails to address a problem which is not going to go away.’
Robert A. Mathews, Sr.
Depot Deli owner
Park police on the New York side enlisted the assistance of State Police and Sheriff’s deputies to initiate a similar plan.
When designated parking lots are full, usually by 10 a.m. on the weekends, Mr. Rickard said, both the north and south entrances to the Copake Falls hamlet from State Route 22 are blocked off by police.
Visitors are redirected to other parks such as Rudd Pond in Millerton. They try not to send them to Lake Taghkanic, because that also fills up quickly, he said. Those determined to stay and meet up with family or friends are directed to a holding area north on Old Route 22. As parking spaces open up during the day, Mr. Rickard says he personally goes there and escorts several vehicles at a time to the available parking spots.
Trails are now monitored to prevent visitors from hauling in coolers, grills, bags, towels. Visitors are allowed a backpack and some water and that’s it.
Mr. Rickard said visitors who want to picnic are made aware of the picnic area in the park for that purpose.
Many of the visitors he has spoken to tell him they have traveled three and four hours to get to the falls from Long Island and New Jersey. He said they show him photographs of the falls posted on social media and say, “show me how to get here.”
Mr. Rickard said he has a “fairly decent-sized staff” but they are all multi-tasking by performing regulatory duties and keeping the place clean.
Copake Falls business owner Robert A. Mathews, Sr., who owns the Depot Deli, wrote a July 27 letter to the Town Board asking for assistance. In the letter he said the parking issues in Copake Falls are having “an extremely negative impact” on his business.
He said 55% of his business’ annual revenue is generated by summertime visitors to the falls and park and without that income, his “business will struggle to survive in what has already been a difficult climate due to Covid-19.”
He said, “to simply shut down access fails to address a problem which is not going to go away.” He called it a “draconian” response.
Mr. Mathews asked that he be included as a stakeholder in a public discussion about solutions and a plan for how to deal with the numbers of people drawn to the falls, the park and the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which is also accessible in Copake Falls.
Another Copake Falls business owner, Grant Hermans, who owns and operates Bash Bish Bicycle, said by phone, he does not condone the littering and other bad behavior of visitors and is glad the police brought some control to the situation. “Things weren’t very good until they showed up. If we didn’t have them, we’d be in trouble.”
Copake Supervisor Jeanne Mettler said in an emailed statement, “I am quite pleased at how the Columbia County Sheriff, the New York State Police and the Taconic State Park have coordinated efforts to address the influx of visitors to Copake Falls. Since tourism and hospitality are important components of Copake’s economy, I hopeful that the issues of overcrowding can be discussed in the months to come, and that perhaps other long term solutions can be suggested. But in the short term we had an urgent situation and it has been resolved.”
She thanked Superintendent Rickard for controlling the parking and for the park’s “efforts to accommodate those wanting to visit our beautiful area.”
It’s not just Bash Bish Falls and the Taconic State Park that are seeing unprecedented numbers of visitors, said Mr. Rickard, it’s statewide. Kaaterskill Falls, the Adirondack Wilderness and Minnewaska State Park Preserve are all dealing with similar situations.
And while the boost in visits is generating revenue, said Mr. Rickard, the resource is suffering because it can’t handle the burden.
The Bash Bish Brook is a sensitive protected trout stream, he said. “People are damming up the stream to make pools, they are changing the environment.”