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En español | With the coronavirus outbreak in full swing, Americans eager to vacation safely during the pandemic are turning to the national parks as ideal destinations for outdoor enjoyment in large, protected areas that should allow for physical distancing.
Attendance at Yellowstone, which typically sees about 4 million visitors a year, was down 32 percent in June compared to June 2019 — but over the last 10 days of the month, the numbers surged: More people came at the end of June this year than at the same time last year.
Other parks, especially those intentionally limiting attendance such as Zion, which has a first-come, first-served ticketing system, are seeing far fewer visitors (in Zion’s case, 334,838 in June 2020, 44 percent fewer than in June 2019).
There’s no doubt that visiting a national park is a little different than it was pre-COVID-19. The parks were closed when the pandemic hit earlier this year, and they’re all at different stages of reopening: Visitors may find that some roads or facilities remain closed, as are some visitor’s centers, for example, including those at Shenandoah and Canyonlands National Parks. 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 in effect 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 properties, such as hotels, within parks may be more assertive in asking guests to wear them. 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 information on whether visiting these destinations is 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 until further notice 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 expectations,” practice social distancing and “not rely upon site 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. The North Rim entrance was closed due to wildfires but reopened on June 30. The park isn’t issuing new overnight camping permits for the inner canyon, nor for Mather Campground. South Rim shuttle buses aren’t running, 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: The park has been testing its employees for COVID-19 and on June 30 reported that all 179 tested were negative. Officials plan to continue testing throughout the summer. The park 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. Cabin-style accommodations have been available since the park reopened, and Xanterra has opened a limited number of rooms in three park lodges, with other lodges to reopen on a limited scale this week.
Restrooms, gas stations and trails are open, as are certain visitor centers and stores; backcountry camping is now allowed; 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 either a wilderness permit for backpacking, a camping or lodging reservation, or a day-use entrance reservation, made at recreation.gov, available at 7 a.m. Pacific time on the first of each month for dates that month and the next. (See more information here.)
Only Upper Pines Campground (at 50 percent capacity) and Wawona Horse Camp are open. Yosemite Valley Lodge, Curry Village and the Ahwahnee are open as well.
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, including the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, and Alcatraz Island (all remain closed). The Pearl Harbor National Memorial reopened on July 10, though the theater and USS Oklahoma and USS Utah memorials remain closed. Reservations are required for tours and visitors must wear a mask. Open-air monuments such as Mount Rushmore are open.
Most national 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 and Virginia, are open, with a limited number of lifeguards on duty. 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.”
However, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks has opposed parks’ opening until the safety of Park Service employees, concessionaires, volunteers and nearby towns can be ensured. Residents of those towns — often called gateway communities — have expressed mixed feelings about reopening, notes Phil Francis, the coalition’s chair. 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. Masks are now required in Sevier County, Tennessee, home of Gatlinburg, a popular gateway town for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mask requirement applies to indoor public spaces such as stores and restaurants.
Sevier Country is considered a COVID-19 hot spot, which is another consideration for visiting a park. Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas are among the states struggling to control the virus. But the health risk does not simply involve visiting states with high infection rates. At virtually any park in the country, you’ll be mingling with visitors from states that are hot spots.
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.