IDAHO COUNTY - The Weir Creek Trail, nestled in the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest along the Idaho/Montana border, is a popular site for winter visitors because of its hot springs.
Since the pandemic began and people ventured outdoors in numbers like never before, the United States Forest Service (USFS) has seen an alarming increase in littering, vandalism, and improper disposal of human waste.
This, combined with much more serious crimes, has prompted USFS to enact overnight closures at the site.
Starting on Dec. 1, people were prohibited from being in the Weir Creek area from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Pacific Time. Anyone found breaking this rule will receive a citation.
USFS District Ranger Brandon Knapton — who oversees the area that has the springs — said although visitation has boomed, the closures should help the area stay safe and clean.
“Use definitely increased during the pandemic,” Knapton said. “I would say that it has been sustained even as the pandemic wanes. I would like to say that a lot of them recreate responsibly, but we have had problems.”
Those problems include the 49 misdemeanor violations last year for drugs, alcohol, and paraphernalia infractions at the hot springs.
Knapton also said he remembers two times since 2020 that law enforcement has caught human trafficking at the springs. He added that since most of the crimes happen at night, visitors should feel much safer going to the springs during open hours.
“I think the restrictions will be effective,” Knapton said. “I do think the area has a capacity level, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet. There is a capacity though, to where we can protect the land and keep it safe for everyone.”
Brady Campell and Stephanie Savage were planning to camp at Weir Creek for a winter vacation when they learned of the closure. Campbell said he’s just happy they get to enjoy the water during the day.
“I didn’t know about the curfew thing until we got out here,” Campbell said. “We just chose to stay in the cabin until this morning. That’s something to know before you drive all the way out here.”
A new sign posted at the trailhead warns visitors that they are on their own if they get hurt, saying: “Emergency Medical Services will no longer enter the backcountry to lend aid or assistance. Enter at your own risk.”
Knapton said the sign was put up because of a recent spike in serious injuries.
“We had an individual become too inebriated and fall down Weir Creek Hot Springs and down the rock face,” Knapton said. “They suffered severe lacerations to their head and had to be extracted on a backboard, in the winter, on an icy trail.”
Savage said she understands how easy it is to get hurt on the icy trail.
“Our first time we came out here it was pretty sketchy,” Savage said. “We didn’t even have Yaktracks and it gets really icy. You could slip off and fall, it’s death-defying.”
Knapton asks that all visitors please adhere to the restrictions, carry proper traction devices for the trail, and practice basic Leave No Trace principles, saying ultimately, the health of the springs is a public education battle.
“There is a balance to be struck with providing access, but also maintaining the health of the land and enjoyment of the public,” Knapton said. “We all want this place to stay clean and safe for the next generation.”