Life

America’s National Parks Are Slowly Reopening — Here’s How To Visit Safely

Americas’ national parks are slowly starting to reopen, after being forced to shut down back in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zion, one of the most heavily trafficked parks in the country, is allowing guests to return on May 13th. Nearby Bryce Canyon is opening certain trails this week. It may feel small, but for lovers of the outdoors this news is certainly a long-awaited ray of hope, especially as summer approaches.

The thing is, parks won’t just be flinging open the gates so that everyone can flood back in. There are likely to be some serious rules in place for social distancing. Meanwhile, all services — restrooms, campgrounds, concessions, lodges — are still shuttered for the foreseeable future. Some of the parks, like Denali in Alaska, are only opening up small stretches of their roads in order to limit access.

In short, you can’t just show up and hope for everything to be as it was before the shutdown. The most important advice is to go to nps.gov, find out if the park you want to go to is even open, and check on what’s accessible. If the park is open, you’ll need to know the National Park Service rules, created in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control. They’re in place to make sure you don’t spread or contract COVID-19 when traveling to or visiting a park, so follow them.

The guidelines for visiting national parks in the wake of COVID are listed below. A quick note, these are for the National Park System — not local or state parks. Policies vary wildly state to state and sometimes county to county and are often subject to rapid change. It falls on you to be aware of and comply with the precautions in place.

Only Visit Parks Close To Your Home

There’s a good reason for this. According to the CDC, “traveling long distances to visit a park may contribute to the spread of COVID-19.” If you’re spending a day on the road, you’re going to need to stop for gas, bathroom breaks, and probably food. That means contact with people and surfaces you wouldn’t normally be in contact with. You could, theoretically, be spreading the disease or pick it up somewhere and take it with you.

Instead, find a national park near you. There probably is one, even if it’s not on your radar. You can travel straight there (and preferably back) without stopping too often and widening the number of people you come into contact with.

Prepare Before You Visit

Part of this is simply going online to figure out if the park near you is even open. Another big part is recognizing that even if the national park you want to see is open, pretty much all the services in the park will be suspended, including toilet facilities. That also typically covers food options, lodging, and visitor’s centers. Campgrounds are also gated as well.

All of this means that if you do plan to go to a park, it should be a day trip and you’re going to need to bring everything you need with you. So ask yourself: Is it even worth it, knowing you won’t be able to use the bathroom or stay the night? It may seem trivial, but simple things like toilets being closed might be a deal-breaker for some.

Always Adhere To 6-foot Social Distancing

This seems pretty obvious, but news reports from beaches from California and Florida show that it’s just not. A statement from the National Park Service indicated that rangers will be on hand to “ensure those [reopening] operations comply with current public health guidance.” And public health guidance includes six-foot social distancing at all times.

It’d be a shame if these parks had to re-close because people refused to maintain social distancing practices. We understand that this can be a bit hard, given that people tend to crowd in areas close to striking vistas or other photo-ops. But the fact is, that really has to stop for now. Our guess is that if, say, a thousand people gathered on the south ridge of the Grand Canyon for a sunset next weekend, they’ll shut it back down. As they should.

Do Not Use Pools, Spas, Hot Springs, Water Parks, Playgrounds

This one is a little murkier. Individual parks will be deciding where you can swim or not in regards to natural water areas. But overall, the CDC recommends you just don’t for now. The CDC notes that water park areas, swimming holes, and pools “are often crowded,” and they “can be challenging to keep surfaces clean and disinfected,” and that the “virus can spread when people touch surfaces and then touch their unwashed hands to their eyes, nose, or mouth.”

Basically, the main facilities at hot springs or spas will probably be closed anyway. As for beaches, lakes, springs, and rivers, please look up and follow the rules prescribed by the NPS and CDC.

Do Not Visit A Park If You’re Sick Or Have Had Contact With Someone With COVID-19

This, again, sounds obvious. But given that a lot of people are asymptomatic, it’s hard to know where to draw a line in the sand if we ever want to open the world back up.

Our advice would be to play it safe. Even if there’s a minor reopening in a park, maybe give it a little more time before you jump in the car and head out. Testing is the only way for us to really know where we stand. And that’s nowhere near universal yet. So… going back to the earlier question, do you really need to go to a national park right now? Why exactly? What about researching less-crowded BLM land? Or hiking a local trail?

Meanwhile, visit most parks online from your couch (we know it’s not the same, but still!). While you wait for the coast to be clear, Find Your “Virtual” Park is a great outlet for experiencing national parks from coast-to-coast.

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