ELKHART — Outdoor recreation is considered essential under Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order, so many parks facilities and golf courses are staying open to the public.
“There’s all sorts of health benefits even in a non-quarantined time, but during this time it’s even better,” Elkhart County naturalist Krista Daniels said. “You get a little bit of freedom and you’re not confined to the four walls of your room. I think even just looking away from a screen and resting your eyes, seeing something in natural light, is way better.”
Parks departments and other natural resources agencies have closed down many amenities such as playgrounds and some indoor shelters, but they are keeping their walking trails and bike paths open to the public because they believe in the benefits of spending time outdoors.
“Spending time in nature provides not only children but adults too with a wide range of health benefits,” said Marcos Stoltzfus, director of environmental education outreach at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. “It can also improve academic outcomes as well, ranging from enhancing attention to helping with behaviors like impulse control, better engagement with learning and a whole host of researched benefits.”
With nearly 1,200 acres of nature sanctuary, Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center near Wolf Lake, offers education resources, trails, sustainable farming and native diversity research through Goshen College.
“Part of the reason our organization even exists is because we know that nature plays an important role, not only ecologically, but also in terms of how humans interact with it,” Stoltzfus said.
At Merry Lea, trails will remain open the same hours as before, dawn until dusk, although precautions have been taken to help ensure the safety of visitors. Stoltzfus said nature trails are safe during the pandemic as long as individuals are following Center for Disease Control guidelines including social distancing and awareness of surfaces and trail shelters. They’ve closed down the learning center but kept bathrooms open for the time being.
Elkhart Environmental Center’s cabin is closed to the public, but trails and property remain accessible dawn through dusk, although guests should park outside the gate in order to enter.
“Everyone knows we need to remain healthy and sane and a great way of doing that is making sure that people are able to access the outdoors and still have that quality of life while keeping social distancing,” said Jamison Czarnecki, supervisor for the Elkhart Environmental Center.
With nine trails on their property and trails leading through parts of town, too, there’s no shortage of paths in the Elkhart area.
“It’s a great time for people to get out because it is spring, even if it doesn’t feel like it,” Czarnecki said. “The birds are out, the wildlife is active.”
Resources on the EEC’s website offer opportunities for scavenger hunts on trails as well as educational opportunities.
Elkhart County Parks Department trails remain open at all Elkhart County Parks, although playgrounds and restrooms are shut down, and there will be warning signs placed throughout the parks warning against use of surfaces.
Daniels, the county naturalists, said the parks have miles and miles of trails, and disc golf and bike paths are still open, too.
“You’re not only exercising your body (outside), but you can exercise your mind,” she said. “Listen to the sounds – it’s spring! There’s all sorts of sounds right now. Things are happening in the wild, even in your backyard. Frogs are calling, insects are moving, birds are migrating in, seeds are sprouting. During a quarantine, I know I’m missing some of those things.”