Yellowstone saw 955,645 recreation visits in July 2020, up 2 percent from July 2019. Acadia National Park had 35 percent fewer visitors (493,000) in July than during the same period last year, but that’s still a big crowd considering that the state of Maine requires nearly all out-of-state travelers to show a negative COVID-19 test result upon arrival or opt to self-quarantine for 14 days. (They also need fill out a certificate of compliance, assuring that they will follow the rules, and submit it to their place of lodging.)
Visiting a national park is undoubtedly different than it was before the pandemic. Although every park has reopened, some roads or facilities may remain closed or only partially available to visitors. At Shenandoah National Park, for example, theaters and exhibits are closed in the visitor centers, though stores are open to a limited number of guests, and rangers and staff are available to answer questions and provide assistance. And you’ll want to check each state’s rules before visiting: some states with popular parks, such as Acadia in Maine, have 14-day quarantine rules for out-of-state visitors (in Maine you can also show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test).
The National Park Service (NPS) is encouraging but not requiring visitors to wear face masks in its parks. Yellowstone’s website asks visitors to “wear face-coverings in high-visitation areas and inside visitor facilities.” But some third-party vendors, such as Xanterra, which manages everything from restaurants to lodges at parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, have implemented mandatory mask requirements at their properties. Health officials consider wearing masks that cover the nose and mouth a crucial infection-prevention measure.
NPS officials are also asking visitors to follow social distancing practices, and you may find changes such as plexiglass shields in visitor centers and stores to protect against coronavirus transmission. Social distancing, however, is not guaranteed. Glacier National Park has warned visitors that on some popular trails, “passing within six feet of others is unavoidable.” Large crowds — often not wearing masks — have been reported at popular sites such as Yellowstone’s “Old Faithful.”
Here’s more on what visitors can expect at some of the big parks and whether they’re safe for you, for park workers and for communities. Note: Before visiting a specific National Park Service site, be sure to check its web page for updates and alerts.
Can I go to any national park now?
All 62 national parks have reopened, but things can change quickly. On July 1, Big Bend National Park in Texas closed for more than a month when a park resident tested positive for COVID-19. The availability of services and facilities can vary from park to park, and some parks may restrict the number of visitors (Yosemite, for example, is using a reservation system).
A few other examples of parks’ opening status:
Acadia: The Park Loop Road, carriage roads and most hiking trails are open. You’ll need to buy an entrance pass online and print it before you go. Campgrounds are closed; the Jordan Pond House Restaurant is open for takeout only. The park asks visitors to “adjust their expectations,” practice social distancing and “not rely on park staff to ensure their protection from contagious disease.” Again, note that Maine has a two-week quarantine rule.
Grand Canyon: The East Entrance to the park is closed due to COVID-19 lockdowns for the neighboring Navajo Nation, so you’ll need to enter through the South Entrance. South Rim shuttle buses are running with limited service, ranger programs are canceled, and most visitor centers and museums are closed. The Grand Canyon lodges, including the popular Bright Angel and El Tovar, are all open.
Yellowstone: Since June, the park has tested nearly 1,500 asymptomatic employees for COVID-19 and the results have all been negative, park staff announced in August (two symptomatic employees tested positive in July and have since recovered). Officials plan to continue testing employees. Yellowstone is also testing its wastewater system for signs of the coronavirus. Both the Wyoming and Montana entrances are open, as is the big loop road connecting visitors to major sites such as Old Faithful. Most lodges, campgrounds and cabins are open.
Restrooms, gas stations and trails are open as well, as are certain visitor centers and stores. Backcountry camping is now allowed and food service is “grab-and-go.”
Yosemite: To reduce crowding, Yosemite is allowing visitors to drive into the park only if they have reservations (even for those who have annual or lifetime passes). It’s accepting 3,600 vehicles a day, about half the number it welcomed in June 2019. You need a wilderness permit for backpacking (see information here on obtaining a permit).
Upper Pines Campground (at 50 percent capacity) is open, as are Yosemite Valley Lodge, Curry Village and the Ahwahnee.
Roads, gas stations, restrooms and most trails are open, though the park asks hikers to keep their distance from others. Visitor centers are closed, only some food service is available, and there are limited ranger programs.
What about national monuments, battlefields and seashores?
NPS 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. NPS largely closed locations that attracted crowds in confined spaces, such as the Washington Monument, which remains closed. Others have partially reopened. The Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island is open, though some portions remain closed (guests cannot, for example, access the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and crown). Alcatraz Island is open, though the buildings are closed: Visitors can only walk the grounds. The Pearl Harbor National Memorial reopened on July 10, but it closed again on Aug. 27 due to a stay-at-home order on the island of Oahu.
Most national battlefields managed by the Park Service — from Antietam to Stones River — are open, though facilities like visitor centers and observation towers may be closed. Many national seashores, such as Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, are open. While historic buildings at Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts are still closed, beaches, trails and parking lots are open. Cape Cod is asking visitors to place beach blankets at least 12 feet from others to help with social distancing. The seashore’s Salt Pond Visitor Center is closed, but rangers are available at outdoor info stations.
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?
If you visit a park, wear a mask in crowded areas and 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 (CDC) also offers guidelines on visiting parks and recreational facilities. Those include checking with the park in advance “to be sure you know which areas or services are open, such as visitors’ centers, bathroom facilities, and concessions, and bring what you need with you, such as hand sanitizer or other supplies to maintain proper hygiene.”
Residents of nearby towns — often called gateway communities — have expressed mixed feelings about the return of visitors, notes Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. They’re worried about the economic impact of a 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. Masks are now required in Sevier County, Tennessee, home to Gatlinburg, a popular gateway town for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mask requirement applies to indoor public spaces such as stores and restaurants.
Before traveling to a park, research which states are COVID-19 hot spots — and remember that the health risk does not simply involve visiting states with high infection rates. At any park in the country, you’re likely to be mingling with visitors from states that are hot spots. (See our story on how to be a responsible visitor and “Leave no Trace” in a national park.)
What’s a safer alternative?
If you want to see natural wonders from the safety of your couch — and without endangering yourself or anyone else — 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 over 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.