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National Parks Are Reopening, but Should You Go?

What to know about visiting them during the coronavirus outbreak

man backpacking in Grand Canyon National Park

Michael DeYoung/Getty Images

En español | For an America longing for the outdoors after many weeks of being home during the coronavirus outbreak, our national parks may seem like an ideal escape. The good news is that while most of the 62 parks were at least partly closed this spring, now the National Park Service has announced that it will begin “increasing access and services in a phased approach.” But visiting will be a little different than it was pre-COVID-19: Park Service officials say they plan to implement restrictions that keep in mind Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and state and local regulations, while, as always, protecting wildlife and natural areas.

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Here are five common questions about what’s opening and whether visiting a park is safe for you, for park workers and for communities.

Is every national park reopening?

Some parks are opening sooner than others. Among the first to welcome back visitors was Alaska’s Denali National Park, which reopened April 28. Since then, Everglades National Park in Florida has reopened its main road, along with the Flamingo Marina. Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park reopened its main road as well as certain trails and viewpoints.

Popular parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon remain closed, though Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, says he thinks most parks will attempt to reopen by summer. Before visiting a park, check its webpage for updates and alerts.

The Grand Canyon is slowly reopening: At the South Rim, visitors can enter the park through the South Entrance Station, but only between 6 and 10 a.m. Yellowstone and the adjacent Grand Teton in Wyoming will reopen on a limited basis on May 18, while Rocky Mountain in Colorado will begin a phased reopening on May 27.

Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, says he thinks most parks will attempt to reopen by summer. Before visiting a park, check its web page for updates and alerts.

Will visitors notice changes at reopened parks?

Most parks are following phased reopening plans. Visitor centers, concessions, lodges and campgrounds may remain closed, for example, though they could reopen in the coming weeks or months. It will depend, says Francis, on whether parks can “manage those sites in a way that ensures safety.” Decisions will also vary from park to park. Lodges at Yellowstone and Glacier will reopen June 15, according to Xanterra, which runs lodges and campgrounds at multiple national parks. But two Grand Teton National Park lodges — Jackson Lake Lodge and Jenny Lake Lodge — are unlikely to open in 2020, National Parks Traveler reports. Bathrooms are available at all recently reopened parks, though the number can vary (at Bryce Canyon, for example, bathrooms are open only at the Sunset Point vista).

The Park Service is still advising visitors to follow social distancing practices. Expect changes such as plexiglass shields in visitor centers to protect staff. One summer challenge could be training and housing seasonal workers, says Francis. At parks that provide housing, units that typically house multiple employees will now house one because of distancing requirements. That could lead to a shortage of seasonal workers, which could reduce services such as interpretive programs, he says.

What about national monuments, battlefields and seashores?

The Park Service manages 419 sites — from national parks to national seashores — and 224 were completely closed due to the pandemic, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). The Park Service largely closed locations that attracted crowds in confined spaces, including the Washington Monument, Ellis Island, Alcatraz Island and Pearl Harbor National Memorial (none of those sites has announced plans to reopen).

Most battlefields managed by the Park Service — from Antietam to Stones River — are open, though facilities like visitor centers and observation towers are still closed. Many national seashores, such as Assateague Island in Maryland remain closed, and while restrooms and other facilities at Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts are still closed, the beaches, trails and parking lots are open. The park service maintains a frequently updated list of closures and alerts that includes battlefields, monuments and seashores.

Is visiting a national park a good idea?

Organizations such as the NCPA have urged that national parks remain closed. “Park staff cannot protect their health, the health of the visitors, or the resources they manage,” said Theresa Pierno, NCPA’s president and CEO, in a recent statement. Park staff lack proper protective equipment, according to Pierno, and social distancing has been “nearly impossible.”

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks has taken a similar position, stating that parks should not open until the safety of Park Service employees, concessionaires, volunteers and nearby towns can be ensured. Residents of these towns — often called gateway communities — have mixed feelings about reopening, says Francis. They’re worried about the economic impact of a continued shutdown, but they’re equally concerned that tourists will bring COVID-19 to areas ill equipped to manage a pandemic. If you visit a gateway community, don’t expect business as usual. In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for example, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some stores remain closed and restaurants are operating at half their normal seating capacity.

And if you visit a park, follow social distancing guidelines. “Taking a rigorous walk in the fresh air is healthy, as long as it’s not in a group and you’re spaced apart,” says Janis Orlowski, M.D., chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers guidelines on visiting parks and recreational facilities.

What's a safer alternative?

If you want to see natural wonders from the safety of your couch — and without endangering communities — the Park Service offers a variety of wildlife webcam and video options. Multiple national parks offer webcams, including Crater Lake, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone and Yosemite, as do national monuments such as the Statue of Liberty (you can even watch the sun rise on Manhattan). Channel Islands National Park offers everything from webcams of bald eagle nests to broadcasts from divers who serve as underwater tour guides. You can also take a virtual tour of the USS Constitution in Boston.

EdItor's note: This story was originally published on March 25, 2020. It's been updated to reflect recent coronavirus developments.

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