Hiking down the long dirt trail to play in the water near the cascading waterfalls of Hidden Falls Regional Park is the perfect summer weekend activity.
The park featuring 30-foot waterfalls and 30 miles of winding trails is a prime destination for a lot of local residents. So many, in fact, that park staff was turning away 500 cars on some weekends in 2014 due to lack of parking, said Andy Fisher, head of Placer County’s Parks and Grounds Department.
To combat the problem, the county is pioneering a parking reservation and fee system aimed at managing crowds when the weather is beautiful.
It appears to be the first parking reservation system for a public day use park in the region.
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On peak days – weekends, holidays and some Fridays – would-be waterfall watchers will have to reserve a parking space online before going to the park, starting this Friday.
Parking fees will not go into effect until Oct. 15 to give visitors time to adjust and figure out the system, Fisher said. The fee will be $8 and guarantee someone a spot for the full day, no matter when they arrive.
Non-holiday Mondays through Thursdays will continue to be free and parking will be first come, first served, though Fisher encouraged visitors to check the website before heading to the park just in case. Peak times of year for the park are fall, spring and early summer. Fridays outside of those seasons will also be free.
“We’re not trying to make money,” Fisher said. “The whole point of the system is to make sure there’s space before you go out there.”
The county has already banned parking on the narrow, residential roads leading into the park in response to neighbor complaints. Earlier this year, parks staff installed a camera over the parking lot so potential visitors could see if any spots are available.
Incidentally, the camera has cut down on people breaking into the parked cars, Fisher said. Parks staff also started a social media campaign to remind people to check for parking.
The combined efforts mean parks staff is only turning away 100 cars on the busiest weekends rather than the hundreds in past years, Fisher said.
Hidden Falls opened in 2006 with 201 acres, but parking problems weren’t a serious issue until it expanded to 1,200 acres in 2013.
“It’s a great problem to have,” Fisher said. When the park expanded, he said “the big question back then was, is anyone going to go?”
That question was answered with a resounding “Yes!” in 2014. As the drought settled in to Northern California, the ski season got shorter and less enjoyable, so people were looking for other recreation. Several media stories drew attention to Hidden Falls.
“It was a perfect storm, or lack thereof, actually,” Fisher said. “Several factors came together in early 2014 and all of a sudden we were overwhelmed.”
Placer County had to create a customized system to handle reservations, since it’s aimed more at managing travelers than collecting money, Fisher said. The online system also will handle reservations for campsites, a picnic area and batting cages in other parks.
The website will offer a calendar so would-be visitors can check availability. Reservations can be made 60 days out from a planned trip and guarantee a parking spot for the full day.
The park’s peak hours are 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., so parking fees during that time or for a full day will be $8. Hikers arriving after 2:30 p.m. will pay $4.
Placer County is also looking to double Hidden Falls’s acreage, which would include adding more parking, Fisher said.