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 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.
That has not had a noticeable effect on the preserve, he said. Anderson said in a report to the Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this month that the lowering of the visitor cap from the traditional level of 1,000 to 500 has helped eliminate problems in the park. The new fee, which is only being collected on the weekends, also helped, he said. About 59% of the visits to the nature preserve occur on the weekends.
"When the visitor limit was reduced to 500 and the and weekend entry fee was implemented, the preservation and capacity have been noticeably more manageable," Anderson said. "Previously observed issues with visitors going off trail and increased parking and traffic issues have greatly diminished."
While the council gave city staff the discretion to lower the visitor capacity to 300, the city had not had any reasons to do so, he said.
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.
Anderson said the existing student policy has created confusion for visitors over the past year.
"It's led to a number of arguments at the entrance station, which sometimes contributes to vehicles backing up and having to wait to get in," Anderson said.
The commission also recommended new policies that provide free annual passes to members of the military, veterans and individuals with disabilities, as defined by the California State Parks system (this includes developmental, hearing, speech, visual, mental and physical disabilities).
While most of the revisions are designed to make visitation to the park easier, the commission balked at removing one existing rule that many in the bicycling community want to see gone: a prohibition on bicycling through Gate D, which serves as an access point between Arastradero Preserve and the Foothills Nature Preserve. Palo Alto adopted this law to comply with a 2005 agreement with Santa Clara County that required the city to provide pedestrian (though not bicycle) access to the Bay-to-Foothills trail.
Now, with Foothills Nature Preserve open to the broader public, the city's leading bike advocates are arguing that the prohibition is no longer necessary. Paul Goldstein, a member of the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Commission, was one of several residents who urged the commission to abolish the rule. He noted that both nature preserves allow bicycling.
"The current prohibition makes no sense, since bicycles are permitted on the approaches at both sides," Goldstein told the commission. "The prohibition is a relic of the time that Foothlls was open to Palo Alto residents only and the gate was made accessible to hikers to the Bay-to-Reach as a condition to get grant money."
Robert Neff, who also serves on the bike commission, argued that there is "no intrinsic reason for the gate to be closed to bicycles anymore." Palo Alto resident Cedric de la Beaujardiere concurred and said that opening the gate would make conditions safer because it would obviate the need for bicyclists to rely on Page Mill Road to get to Foothills Nature Preserve.
"The logic of saying, 'No we don't want people who do dangerous things,' doesn't make sense because it's much safer to be coming in that way than coming up the road," de la Beaujardiere said.
The parks commission agreed that opening the gate to bicyclists would improve connections in the city's trail network and increase recreational opportunities for bicyclists. Commissioners remained concerned, however, that opening the gate would spur an increase in bicyclists riding the wrong way on the one-way road and the city does not have enough staffing in place to enforce compliance with trail rules.
Four commissioners supported keeping the existing rules in place, with only Commissioner Keith Reckdahl voting to allow bicycle access at Gate D and Commissioner David Moss abstaining.
Reckdahl argued that the upsides in expanding access outweigh the downsides. He also noted that some bicyclists already ignore the existing prohibition.
"The current rules just penalize people who follow the rules," Reckdahl said. "The people who don't follow the rules are already going through that gate and are already in Foothills preserve. Right now, we're not penalizing the right people."
Most of his colleagues favored a more cautious approach, with Commissioner Many Brown recommending opening bike access for guided tours on certain days. The majority ultimately decided not to move ahead with any changes at this time. Commissioner Jeff Greenfield suggested that "the timing just isn't right to be pursuing this," given all the other recent policy changes.
Commission Chair Anne Cribbs agreed and said she supports keeping the prohibition in place for at least the next few years so that the city has a chance to better assess the impacts of its other policies in the nature preserve.
"I'd like to keep it closed until we have a bit of a rest, acknowledging that we're in favor of connecting things," Cribbs said.