NEWRY — Step Falls, the popular waterfall and tourist destination on Route 26, will close for a month starting Saturday due to overcrowding and unruly visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision was made Friday by the Mahoosuc Land Trust, which owns the property.

The area is expected to reopen to the public after Labor Day weekend.

Overcrowding has always been a concern at Step Falls, even in the best of times, with its small parking lot and narrow road, which makes street parking unsafe, Newry Town Manager Amy Bernard said.

The problem exploded during the weekend of July 25-26, when temperatures reached into the 90s and people were looking for a place to cool down.

“Cars overflowed the lot and parked illegally on Route 26 and even on the lawns of local residents,” Kirk Siegel, Mahoosuc Land Trust executive director, said in a letter announcing the upcoming closing. “We are also  aware that crowding has resulted in social distancing not being maintained — in the parking lot, on the trail and by the swimming holes and falls.”

The Town Office received several complaints following that weekend, Bernard said. Many visitors were also reportedly not wearing masks or following the social distancing guidelines established by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s a small area. There’s not a lot of space there for people even if there wasn’t a pandemic,” Bernard said.

A similar issue with overcrowding and illegal parking occurred in 2016. The land trust helped solved the problem by staffing the parking lot with volunteers to welcome visitors and monitor the lot.

The trust also added a port-a-potty to the site in response to complaints from local landowners.

Brayden Pleau, of Lewiston, leaps across a portion of Step Falls in Newry Monday afternoon. It was his first time his parents have brought him here but his father Derek and mother Kayla McNeice, left, have been coming for many years. The popular waterfall and tourist destination on Route 26, will close for a month starting Saturday due to overcrowding and unruly visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Due to the pandemic, volunteers and interns were not at the entrance.

“It became clear to the land trust that the typical volunteer interaction with the public posed an undue health risk, and (the board) made the decision not to staff the lot this summer,” Siegel said. “In early June the trust posted a prominent sign at the entrance to Step Falls urging visitors to practice social distancing, to come back at another time if the parking lot was full and to let us know of inappropriate or illegal use.”

The sign also said that failure to follow these guidelines could result in closing Step Falls.

“The trust asks the public to understand and support the rationale for this decision — the health of staff, volunteers and visitors,” Siegel said.

Newry will discuss the matter at Tuesday’s selectmen meeting with representatives from the land trust, including ways to enforce the closure. In the past, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office has ticketed cars illegally parked on Route 26.

The Nature Conservancy transferred the title of Step Falls to the Mahoosuc Land Trust in 2013. The trust rebuilt the trail to the falls and parking lot that summer. In the summer of 2014, more than 10,000 people visited Step Falls, according to the land trust.

The trail to Step Falls is an easy family hike along Wight Brook. The waterfalls have an about a 250-foot vertical drop and features pools, cascades and chutes.

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