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Free day passes returning to these 5 busy B.C. parks

Five parks will be included in the revised day-pass system described as a 'pilot' and set to begin June 22. Critics say it does little to fix the root causes of increasingly crowded parks.

Access to several B.C. provincial parks is about to get a little more complicated.

On Tuesday, the province announced it would be bringing back its free day-pass program rolled out last year to manage access to some of B.C.’s busiest destination parks. 

The announcement comes less than a month after the province walked back comments it would re-launch the day-pass program.

Five parks will be included in the revised day-pass system, described as a "pilot" and set to begin June 22. They include Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Park, Chief Parks Backside Trail in the Stawamus Chief Park, the trailheads at Diamond Head, Rubble Creek and Cheakamus in Garibaldi Park and Golden Ears Park.

Joffre Lakes, another widely popular destination park that closed last year during the pandemic, will also require a day-pass under adjusted booking rules after the province entered into a partnership with Lil'wat and N'Quatqua Nations.

Day passes are not returning to Mount Seymour Park and Cypress Park on Vancouver’s North Shore, a decision the province said it made following feedback from outdoor and recreation groups.

In a written statement, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman said the system “will improve visitor planning and experience while keeping our parks spectacular for years to come.”

Last July, the day-pass system required park visitors to book a free online day pass before they entered Mount Seymour, Golden Ears, Garibaldi, Mount Robson and Stawamus Chief provincial parks. The 2,100 passes for Cypress and Seymour were routinely claimed by mid-morning most weekends. Anyone caught by park rangers without a pass could be fined $115.

Unlike last year’s day-pass system, the ministry said the number of passes available each day will be adjusted to allow as many people to enter as possible. The maximum number of daily visitors varies depending on the park. Joffre Lakes, for example, will accept 1,053 visitors per day, while the Stawamus Chief's Backside Trail will accept a total of 858 hikers throughout the day (see image at the bottom of the story for a full breakdown).

In the past, outdoor groups criticized the plan over same-day booking, a policy many said discouraged visitors and pushed them on to other trails.

This year, the province is extending the online booking time to 7 a.m. the day before arrival. Vehicles with up to eight individuals must book a morning or afternoon time slot the following day, allowing for arrival before or after 1 p.m. 

Joffre Lakes is the exception, where bookings allow for arrivals of groups of up to four people at all times of the day.

Those age 18 or younger do not require a day pass when accompanied by a guardian.  

Lower Mainland parks were flooded with visitors at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that continued through the winter and led to long lines of traffic in places like Golden Ears Provincial Park.

That’s on top of long-term upward pressure on the park system. Park visits in the South Coast spiked to 10.3 million in 2019, up from 6.5 million in 2010. At that rate, the ministry projects visits to hit 16 million per year by 2029.

In announcing the return of the day-pass system, the province said it will introduce more than 30 full-time discover parks ambassadors to welcome visitors. It’s not clear how they will be distributed between the province’s parks.

North Shore Search and Rescue manager Doug Pope said he supported BC Parks’ plan to introduce the 30-plus ambassadors, saying in a written statement, “This is a welcome development to the day-pass program.”

Others were more critical of the decision to bring the day-pass system back. Blogger and outdoor enthusiast Steve Jones noted pushback from outdoor groups had led to a welcomed scaling down of the day-pass system from 2020. Still, he said on Twitter Tuesday morning, the plan had some blind spots.

While advancing the booking window to the day before is a good direction, Jones wrote that it “still makes it impractical for people who are planning road trips or visiting from out of the local area.”

Louise Pedersen, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC, said that while the new day-pass system shows some flexibility, the province has failed to demonstrate it is effective at managing crowds.

“We have seen no documentation that supports this claim,” said Pedersen. “The day-pass program is like applying a Band-Aid. It does little to address the underlying issues, which is an investment in trails to expand and disperse crowds.” 

Pedersen said her organization is working with other outdoor groups to push the province to invest $83 million in funding announced earlier this spring into trail expansion and maintenance.

“I’m a little concerned that BC Parks is not moving towards any solutions,” she said. “You lock people out of areas with well-established trail systems, there will be spillover into areas not set up to handle them.”

DAY PASS VISITOR LIMITS

BC Parks day pass limits BC Parks has set limits on the number of day passes it hands out at five of the province's busiest parks, plus Joffre Lakes. Here's how it breaks down. By Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy

With files from Brent Richter/North Shore News