More than a dozen CT state parks closed on Memorial Day as temperatures drove crowds to lakes and beaches

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More than a dozen of Connecticut’s most popular state parks and beaches were forced to turn away additional visitors on Memorial Day, after parking lots reached capacity on the “unofficial” day of summer.

The Ministry of Energy and Environmental Protection, which manages the park system, sent 24 alerts about park closures over Memorial Day weekend, as temperatures hit the 80s and sunny skies drove winter-weary residents to the shore, lakes and hiking trails.

Four of the state’s largest coastal parks — Hammonasset, Rocky Neck, Silver Sands and Harkness Memorial — reached their parking capacity limits around 1 p.m. Monday, according to DEEP. This meant staff were forced to close lots to extra cars, but visitors were still allowed to arrive on foot or by public transport.

Further inland, the state was forced to close parking lots at Squantz Pond, Miller’s Pond, Wadsworth Falls and Kent Falls on Sunday and Monday.

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, said the number of closures was not atypical for a Memorial Day weekend, especially given the scorching weather.

“It’s been the trend for a few years, (parks) fill up on holiday weekends when the weather is nice,” Hammerling said. “It was of course the perfect time to go to the beach.”

After Connecticut lawmakers made state parks free to all residents in 2018 — paid for with a $15 fee on vehicle registrations — system visits to more than 110 parks and beaches began to spike. Visitation numbers then skyrocketed in early 2020 as residents sought refuge outside their homes and self-quarantined at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Growing interest in parks has also strained DEEP’s ability to accommodate crowds, leading to the closure of hundreds of parks in the last two years of the pandemic.

As part of an effort to expand access to parks, Governor Ned Lamont’s administration launched a pilot program last summer to provide free shuttle service to several parks and beaches from transit centers existing. The program has expanded to include seven parks this year, including Hammonasset and Silver Sands, with the first shuttles running on weekends.

Neither DEEP nor the Department of Transportation provided immediate estimates of weekend ridership Tuesday morning.

“Memorial Day weekend is one of the busiest beach weekends of the year, and when it coincides with warm, sunny weather, it brings heavy crowds of visitors to coastal parks and potential for capacity-related closures,” DEEP spokesman Will Healey said in an email Tuesday.

Healey recommended that visitors planning a trip to one of Connecticut’s state parks check with DEEP’s Twitter account and the Connecticut State Parks Twitter Account for displays on the last closures. Visitors should seek out the state’s least-used parks to avoid crowds, he said.

The largest state beach to remain open throughout the holiday weekend was Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, according to public notices posted by DEEP.

The park official notes that the majority of closures during the summer are limited to small, inland parks, but proponents of beach access say the tendency for state beaches to reach capacity on hot weekends and Sunny weather increases the need for towns and villages along the coastline to make their beaches more accessible to non-residents.

Efforts to cap municipal beach fees for nonresidents, which can run up to several hundred dollars for the summer, have so far failed to gain traction in the state legislature. .

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