INDEX — Hundreds of people seeking chills and thrills have flocked to a skinny stretch of beach and rock along U.S. 2 over the past few weeks.
But their pursuit of a relaxing dip has wreaked havoc on the highway’s traffic as people have parked their cars, SUVs, trucks, vans and wagons along the road, sometimes encroaching on the travel lanes. Other vehicles have filled “no-parking” zones reserved for emergency responders.
“It’s creating a roadway hazard,” Washington State Patrol trooper Anthony Reese said.
Not to mention a public health risk as cases of the new coronavirus surge. Gatherings, except for those from a household, are limited to five people in Snohomish County to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Eagle Falls features a series of rapids where the glacier-fed water is funneled into narrow chutes between rock. People drown and are pulled from the water almost every year after being swept over or into the falls.
One man was presumed to have drowned there Wednesday evening, though his body has yet to be found. Firefighters rescued several people from the river a couple of weekends back. And a month ago, another young man died there.
“It’s always been bad for us over the years,” Sky Valley Fire Assistant Chief Ernie Walters said. “But this year, social media and the COVID thing has made everybody want to get out, and we’ve had a lot more traffic out there in the last month or two.”
Posts on social media apps Instagram and Snapchat show dozens of photos and videos tagged at Eagle Falls, east of Index, in the past few days alone. The location is especially popular on TikTok, a video-based social media app.
Sunshine, 90-degree days and the cool relief of the Skykomish River draw people there in droves. Photos and video on social media, as well as some shared with The Daily Herald, show large crowds along the shore, leaping from a cliff and splashing in the water. Vehicles lined the highway, some over the shoulder “fog line,” further snarling traffic that is often congested anyway.
“It’s pretty scary,” Melissa Simpson said. “You don’t know if someone’s going to pull out or have to swerve if someone parked over the line.”
She has lived in the Index area for about five years and drove by Monday afternoon through “bumper-to-bumper” traffic. She saw someone slam on their brakes because a child tried to run across the 60 mph highway. Trash bags lined the road, and cans, bottles and toilet paper were scattered around Eagle Falls.
“It’s really sad to see,” Simpson said.
Troopers are speaking with people first and explaining to them about the need to keep the road and shoulders clear. But the officers are responsible for a large rural area and can’t spend all day stationed on a short stretch of highway.
“We’re trying to alleviate the hazard rather than write people tickets,” Reese said. “If it persists, we’re gonna have to increase the enforcement.”
That could mean towing vehicles more often.
Beyond the COVID-19 risk, environmental issues and safety problems, Simpson said all of the travelers have picked through their only local grocery store in Gold Bar.
“They come through and buy everything out, then there’s nothing left for the local people,” she said. “Any other summer, it’s never been like that.”
Barb Barclay, who lives in Everett, had a similar experience after driving to Barclay Lake for a hike Monday morning. The short trek was nice and almost everyone wore face coverings and made room when they passed each other, she said.
When she and her daughter drove by around 10 a.m., she said, there were a handful of cars. She saw social media posts of people at Eagle Falls, but she was unprepared for the crowd when they came back through a few hours later.
“I’ve been by it thousands of times, and there’s always cars there, like five or 10 cars,” she said. “But the other day it was insane. … There must have been at least a hundred cars pulled off.”
“This does not fit with the time we’re in right now, this scene,” Barclay said. “It was pretty disappointing, all the people partying.”
The Washington State Department of Transportation put up electronic reader signs in both directions warning people not to park along the shoulder or cross the highway. There are places where it’s OK to stop, but there must be ample room.
“Where the shoulder is large enough to park a vehicle, you can park legally,” WSDOT spokesperson Joseph Calabro said.
The agency also plans to install more “no parking” signs in the area.
“Really it boils down to driver responsibility,” Calabro said. “Folks just need to understand it is a safety issue. It isn’t just a traffic issue.”
Walters, with the Sky Valley Fire Department, said he doesn’t want to discourage people from visiting the area. But if they show up to a site and there’s no parking, they should look for another place.
Simpson recommends Big Eddy on the Skykomish River. But it’s popular, too.
Anyone traveling through can stop by the fire stations to ask for recommendations on where to go and to borrow a lifejacket.
“There’s a lot of other spots they can go that are less populated and more enjoyable,” he said.