Palo Alto considers relaxed rules for Foothills Nature Preserve entry | January 7, 2022 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - January 7, 2022

Palo Alto considers relaxed rules for Foothills Nature Preserve entry

by By Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto opened the once exclusive Foothills Park to the broader public at the end of 2020], the number of visitors instantly spiked and one Palo Alto City Council member described a weekend visit to the normally serene nature preserve as "Disneyland."

With rangers reporting damaged trails and nearby residents complaining about parking and traffic problems, the council reacted by lowering the cap on the number of people who can be at the newly christened Foothills Nature Preserve, by instituting a $6 vehicle fee and by exploring new policies, such as a reservation system for people wishing to book a visit.

A year later, the hype has diminished and so have most of the problems. According to Community Services Department staff, the number of visitors hasn't reached the capacity limit of 500 since early April. There hadn't been any parking problems at the preserve and the early problems with visitors wandering off path have been alleviated through signage and, in some cases, rope barriers.

The number of visitors remains far higher than it had been historically, when only Palo Alto residents and their visitors were allowed to visit the preserve. But it has also dipped substantially since the early days. According to Community Services Department data, there were about 42,000 visitors to Foothills in January 2021, just before the city implemented its entrance fee. This is 321% higher than the city's historical average for January, according to Daren Anderson, assistant director at Community Services Department.

In March and April, there were about 27,000 visitors per month, which was about 125% higher than historical average. By August and September, the number of visitors fell to 18,847 and 18,450, respectively.

Overall, the number of people at the park has roughly doubled with the resident-only provision eliminated. Visitation in 2021 had an increase of 107.5% from the three-year average of about 127,387 between 2017 and 2019.

Given the latest trends, the city is now taking a fresh look at its rules for the preserve — in many cases to make it easier for visitors to enjoy the preserve. The Parks and Recreation Commission recommended on Dec. 14 that the city raise the lower limit of the visitor cap from 300 to 400 (though under most circumstances it would remain at 500). It also suggested that the city halt exploration of a reservation system, which is now deemed unnecessary, and that it loosen the rules for students wishing to visit the park. Currently, students who drive to the park get free entry. Under the new rules, students would get a 50% discount on annual passes. However, they would only have to be present in the car and not actually driving.

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