Bartlett Falls draws heavy crowds


THE FAR SIDE of the New Haven River at Bartlett Falls has a smooth bank that is good for sunbathing, but not good for social distancing. Advocates urge swimmers to keep six feet from others, to bring a mask for when you are not swimming, and to refrain from going to swimming holes if you feel sick. Independent photo/Alexa Lapiner

ONE KEY ATTRACTION of Bartlett Falls this summer is the high rock outcroppings over deep pools in the New Haven River, which are perfect for cliff jumping. Independent photo/Alexa Lapiner

CARS OVERFLOW THE limited pull-offs and line Lincoln Road in Bristol near Bartlett Falls this past Saturday. Bristol police are prepared to ticket cars that park illegally. Independent photo/Alexa Lapiner

BRISTOL — Bartlett Falls in Bristol has been a serious hot spot for swimmers this year. The popular New Haven River locale is known for its cliff jumping and smooth rock face across the river. 

A recent Saturday saw at least 50 bathers in and around the popular jumping spot, plus more sprinkled among the cooling currents and freshwater pools that dot the river as it climbs up the mountain toward Lincoln.

While Vermont swimming holes are a top summer attraction and can be a great place to cool off, the popularity of Bartlett Falls (also known as Bristol Falls) comes as a mixed blessing to those who would like to practice social distancing during this summer of COVID-19. The local police have also been busy trying to keep Lincoln Road, which runs next to the river, clear.

Melissa Petri of Middlebury said she is OK with sharing the river. “We can usually find our own space to swim and hangout,” she said. However, she was a little wary of the crowds, given the state of public health. “It is a little concerning in terms of COVID-19 to see so many out-of-state vehicles,” she said. “On weekends the road is lined with cars and people aren’t always social distancing properly.” Because of the weekend crowds, Petri visits the river on the quieter days. 

Looking over the scores of people lining the “beach” along the river or waiting for a turn to jump in the water, one individual who grew up visiting Bartlett Falls and other locations along the New Haven River said this summer things have changed somewhat. They felt that the crowds dampen from the sense of community that is often engendered around specific spots on the river. The New Haven River, they said, used to be a place where locals could congregate and see familiar faces, but now it often feels infiltrated by unfamiliar ones, changing the overall vibe. 

Many bathers acknowledged that in a typical year, the large influx of swimmers that used to occur only on days like the Fourth of July and a couple of hot weekend days throughout the summer where everyone congregated to stay cool, now has become regular three to four days a week. 

The Vermont River Conservancy, which promotes the use of swimming holes, this summer is encouraging swimming hole visitors to follow state guidelines regarding recreating on public land during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Vermont River Conservancy sees the unique role swimming holes play in communities throughout Vermont,” said VRC Executive Director Steve Libby. “These are places to enjoy the peace that a river can provide, to cool off on a hot day, and to recharge your mental well-being during these unsettling times. VRC protects swimming holes for public enjoyment, but we rely strongly on the respectful behavior of visitors to ensure these sites can remain open during the pandemic, and are cared for and maintained for years to come.”

VRC offered guidelines for proper use of swimming holes during the COVID-19 pandemic:

•  Don’t go to public swimming holes if you are sick.

•  Avoid crowded trails and swimming holes that do not allow a minimum of six feet of distance. If a parking lot is crowded, please go elsewhere.

•  Leash your dog.

•  Avoid risky activities, so as not to put more strain on hospitals and emergency responders.

•  Be mindful of the popularity of these sites and don’t linger too long, to make space for others to be there.

•  Do not wear a mask while swimming, but do bring a mask with you for walking along the trail.

It is not just bathers in the water that makes swimming holes crowded. The Bristol Police Department has been called to Bartlett Falls a number of times to address parking violations. The Falls area at the west end of Lincoln Road has a few small pull offs that are often filled with parked cars by noon every weekend. With no more legal spots, some bathers leave their cars on  the edge of Lincoln Road instead, which is not legal. 

In seven separate calls to the Bartlett Falls area during July, Bristol police issued 86 parking tickets on Lincoln Road — 52 for vehicles registered in Vermont and 34 registered out of state, according to Police Chief Bruce Nason.

There is a town ordinance against parking any part of a vehicle on the pavement of the road. Tickets are given to those who pull over on the side of the road but are still in contact with pavement. 

Cars that are parked farther onto the paved road can be subject to towing, in a worst-case scenario. 

Despite the crowds, Bristol police said they are not responsible for enforcing social distancing or mask wearing. They do, however, try to explain the state’s expectations, which they said people are often pleased to comply with. 

When visiting the river this summer; social distance, take care and enjoy. 

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