Brayden Pleau of Lewiston leaps across a section of Step Falls in Newry on Monday afternoon. It was his first time at the falls, though 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

NEWRY — Town officials, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office and the Mahoosuc Land Trust are working together to develop a plan to close Step Falls for a month starting this weekend.

People hang out at Step Falls in Newry Monday afternoon. 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

The land trust, which owns the property, will close the popular area beginning Saturday morning and keep it closed through Labor Day weekend.

The closure became necessary when crowds flocked to the scenic destination two weekends ago in an attempt to cool off from the 90-degree temperatures in the waterfall and pools on Route 26. According to reports, the area was packed with people not social distancing and few wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vehicles were parked illegally on the roads, in driveways and on private property near the tourist spot. The road is narrow near Step Falls and officials say parking there is not safe.

“It’s Route 26, but it’s not like Route 26 in Paris,” Sheriff Christopher Wainwright said. “It’s winding, hilly and there’s not much room on the shoulders of the road. There’s also a lot of truck traffic.

Visitors parking on the road have to walk in the roadway to reach the trail that leads to Step Falls.

“Our concern as a town is the safety of the public in the road,” Town Manager Amy Bernard said.

Bernard has talked with Wainwright about enforcement efforts, and the Maine Department of Transportation will add more “no parking” signs in the area.

Kirk Siegel, the executive director of the Mahoosuc Land Trust, attended Tuesday’s selectmen meeting to discuss the issue.

“We had a long discussion on what is going on up there,” Bernard said. “It’s not an easy fix.”

The parking area, which has spaces for about 32 vehicles, will be blocked with concrete barriers, and signs will be posted saying the area is closed. The trust will also have someone there monitoring the situation. Siegel said anyone wishing to volunteer to monitor the site should contact him at the land trust at www.mahoosuc.org.

Siegel also said his group is looking at other potential options.

Wainwright said his deputies will patrol the area as much as possible and will respond to complaints of illegal parking and trespassing. Cars will be ticketed and perhaps towed. People trespassing on site will be asked to leave and could be subject to arrest, but Wainwright hopes his deputies do not have to arrest anyone.

“We’re looking for voluntary compliance,” he said.

Bernard is encouraging nearby property owners and others to call the Sheriff’s Office if they see problems.

Wainwright and Siegel both said the overcrowding issues are not happening just at Step Falls, but at other locations throughout the state and across the country.

“Most people understand,” Siegel said. “They get it. Overcrowding a place is not a good thing during a pandemic. People are also saddened by the closing. They love the place. The locals love it. ”

“It’s a beautiful place and we would like to preserve it,” Bernard said.

The Nature Conservancy transferred 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 about a 250-foot vertical drop and features pools, cascades and chutes.


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