Mount Katahdin reflects in a pond by the Abol Stream Trail in Baxter State Park on June 20, 2013. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

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Baxter State Park will be closed to camping, vehicle access and travel above the tree line until further notice, with a target opening date of July 1.

This decision was made by the park’s governing body, the Baxter State Park Authority, and the park director in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was announced in a letter to the public on Tuesday.

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The park will remain open for walk-in day use below the tree line, which is the elevation on mountains where trees no longer grow. However, all trails exploring Katahdin and Traveler mountains will be closed at the trailheads.

The park’s two gates — Togue Pond and Matagamon gates — will remain closed to vehicle traffic. Affected camping and day use parking reservations will be canceled. The park will contact all those impacted to transfer or refund reservations.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

While many local preserves and parks remain open throughout Maine at this time, some of the most popular state parks — especially along the coast — have recently announced similar closures. Acadia National Park has also effectively closed to travelers right now.

At a time when practicing social distancing and limiting travel are two of the most important measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, these closures of major outdoor destinations in Maine have been made to reduce crowding and discourage long-distance travel.

“We really are a destination park,” said Baxter State Park Director Eben Sypitkowski. “About 50 percent of our visitors in a given year are from out of state. We draw people from a wide area. So it was important to us to be a responsible community member and not draw people here to an already strained health system.”

Baxter State Park typically draws about 70,000 visitors annually, with the majority of those visitors flocking to Katahdin, the state’s tallest mountain, in late spring, summer and fall. Camping in the park is so popular that people reserve campsites and cabins months in advance.

In addition to protecting visitors with this decision, Baxter State Park management is aiming to protect its staff members. It currently takes 22 year-round and 39 seasonal employees to operate the park. Right now, year-round Baxter employees are working remotely when possible, and those who work inside the park are practicing social distancing and strict sanitation protocol.

“We intend to bring seasonal staff on before visitors arrive to train and prepare the park for visitors,” Sypitkowski said.

The decision to prohibit travel above tree line was made to minimize the chances of people needing to be rescued in the park, Sypitkowski said. Baxter State Park features some of the most rugged, challenging and remote hiking trails in the state.

“It’s a risk that we didn’t want to invite people to take at this time,” Sypitkowski said. “We’re trying to lessen any impact on the public health system. It’s about individual responsibility.”

Operating independent of the larger state park system in Maine, Baxter State Park is governed by the Baxter State Park Authority, which is made up of three people: the director of the Maine Forest Service, the attorney general and the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. This authority operates the park through the park director and administrative staff.

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This decision was a challenging one to make, Sypitkowski said. Moving forward, Baxter State Park management will be in constant discussion about how and when the park can open back up to the public safely.

“We work in parks. We’re people who like to be outside and understand the benefits of that, particularly when there’s underlying anxiety out there,” Sypitkowski said. “And we understand it’s very important to do that [spend time outside] close to home and without that same level of risk that you might enjoy in other times.”

If you have any questions, call the Baxter State Park reservations office at 207-723-5140.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.