America’s Marquee National Parks Begin Opening As Public and Park Advocates Remain Divided on Safety Concerns

grand canyon
prochasson frederic / Shutterstock

Adventure is a state of mind.

In January, your idea of adventure might have been hiking the Wasatch backcountry. In February, it might’ve been dirt bikes in Baja. But by March, adventure took on a new, much more limited definition. Maybe just exploring the back corners of your attic. By April, it was the tamarind sauce you bought online.

But now, the unofficial start of summer is upon us, somewhat unexpectedly. Memorial Day (May 25) falls about a week earlier than normal this year. With state stay-at-home lockdowns either ending or loosening, it’s time to cautiously plan real adventure once again—raging rapids, weekend ascents, perhaps getting lost in the woods. As the U.S. saw a dramatic rise in positive COVID-19 cases in March, the National Parks Service responded by closing park buildings, facilities and restrooms. Some parks had to be shuttered all together.

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Grand Prismatic Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Wisanu Boonrawd / Shutterstock

Now it’s time to start looking at what the U.S. National Parks look like for visitors.

A typically vague public-health statement on the website read, “We recognize that at times like these, parks can fill our needs to be inspired, to find solace, and to connect with the world around us. However, we have a responsibility to ensure this need doesn’t outweigh the protection of these places and the protection of our employees and visitors. We ask the public to please recreate safely and responsibly.” (They bolded that last bit, not us.)

Then on April 25, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt publicly announced that resumption of operations of national parks would be part of reopening the American economy and getting people back to work.

“In accordance with this guidance and in coordination with governors across the country, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service are working to reopen the American people’s national parks as rapidly as possible,” stated Bernhardt.

As parks become accessible to varying degrees, some folks close to the parks are concerned that it’s all just too soon.

“I love our parks and public lands and want to get back to them as much as everyone else does,” says Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association. “And I want to support the local businesses that depend on them. But I could not disagree more with Secretary Bernhardt’s call to reopen national parks before staff are completely prepared to do so safely. This premature and dangerous move could needlessly put park staff, visitors and community members at serious risk.”

The NPCA’s mission is to protect the parks and the park experience for present and future generations. They say there just hasn’t been enough planning or information to do so at this point.

“It’s still unclear whether park staff will have enough personal protective equipment to stay safe, or any new signage or tools that can help people with physical distancing,” says Pierno. “And there is very little guidance coming from Interior leadership about how to acquire face masks, gloves, plexiglass and other protective equipment. We continue to have more questions than answers when it comes to Secretary Bernhardt’s plan to reopen national parks safely and protect staff and visitors.”

Social distancing sign
Focused Adventures / Shutterstock

Pierno adds that when people think about national parks, they picture wide-open spaces.

But to access these spaces, visitors must often walk through crowded parking lots and hike trails alongside others. “Even the most well-meaning park visitor may not be able to effectively physically distance in a national park during this time,” Pierno says. “Park roads, trails, overlooks, structures and other features are designed to connect visitors to specific attractions like scenery, cultural artifacts and historical sites, which naturally leads to crowding in certain areas. As we’ve seen throughout the last couple of months, these conditions made it nearly impossible for park rangers and visitors to adhere to physical distancing guidelines outlined by the CDC.”

Great Smoky
Perched above the clouds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. IrinaK / Shutterstock

Pierno points to the recent reopening of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where visitors from across the country crowded into the parking lots and trails that were open. The 522,427-acre national park shared by Tennessee and North Carolina, which sees more visitors than any other national park each year (12.5 million), had a phased reopening on May 9 and now has most trails, picnic areas and restrooms open. The park closed some of its roads to cars, keeping them open to walking and cycling in order to lessen the pressure on other areas. Initial reports suggested that the park was not completely overwhelmed, but Pierno notes, “Park staff counted license plates from two dozen different states in one parking lot and noted that very few people were wearing masks.”

Zion National Park partially opened on May 13. The Utah park is not currently charging for entry to limit contact between the public and staff. According to the site, “limited resumption of operations” includes day-use access to select areas of the park at daylight hours only. All Wilderness and Recreation Permits, overnight backpacking, campgrounds, visitor’s centers and Kolob Canyon are closed.

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Zion National Park
James Marvin Phelps / Shutterstock

The Grand Canyon, the world’s most famous hole in the ground/geographic wonder, reopened May 15 for day-use only, with Arizona visitors only permitted to enter through the South Entrance Station between 6-10 a.m. Every other aspect of the park, from the Grand Canyon Visitors’ Center to the North Rim, remains closed.

Likewise, Yellowstone National Park, which bumps Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, just opened for limited day-use as well. Normally seeing 4 million visitors a year, the sprawling park’s wildlife began to reclaim the land this spring without all the obnoxious humans. Park staff and webcams captured coyotes and bears living it up while you were home watching Never Have I Ever.

NP phases

Home to the iconic Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone reopened on May 18 with a three-phase plan. The first phase involves road access, limited retail, trails and boardwalks, and medical stations (no overnight stays or tour buses). According to reports from earlier this week, thousands of out-of-state visitors flocked to the park, which plans to open campgrounds, visitor parking, boating/fishing and limited visitor centers later in May and into June. There is no date set for Phase 3, which would mean reopening hotels, full-service dining and ranger programs.

Yellowstone bear
Roads coming alive in Yellowstone N.P. Pavlina Trauskeova / Shutterstock

The reopening plan looks to evaluate “high-congestion areas to determine what actions may be appropriate.” Said actions would include additional signage, parking considerations, one-way traffic on boardwalks, and visitor spacing at public restrooms. It continued: “The park may also actively manage high-congestion areas by limiting the number of vehicles and/or people entering a specific area.”

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park won’t be an option for Memorial Day weekend, as it won’t start a reopening until May 27. According to staff, Moraine Park and Glacier Basin campgrounds will partially open on June 4, with approximately half of the campsites available for reservations. Aspenglen, Timber Creek and Longs Peak campgrounds will remain closed while wilderness camping permits will be issued beginning May 27.

Acadia National Park, in Maine, known for its incredible views from Cadillac Mountain, is very much a summertime destination, considering winter in New England starts in November and ended last week. Maine picked up a few inches from a late-season snowstorm last week.

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Acadia NP
Hiking Acadia National Park. Romiana Lee / Shutterstock

Much of the annual openings in Acadia have been delayed, like the Hull’s Cove Visitor Center, which normally opens May 1 and has been pushed back to June 1. All park campgrounds will have a delayed opening until June 15. The state of Maine also has implemented a key tenet to reopening the economy that requires anyone entering the state to quarantine for 14 days, which, if enforced, would make the park off-limits for pretty much any non-Mainers.

Yosemite National Park is closed with no date to reopen. California took a quick action against the spread of coronavirus early on and remains vigilant. While visitors eagerly await returning to Yosemite, the park brings $18.2 billion to economy of the area communities, supporting an estimated 256,000 jobs.

This pandemic is unprecedented, so no one can be sure of timelines and each region of the country may be different. The parks seem to update their information as often as they get news.

“With recent calls from the President and other elected officials to reopen national parks, we’ve grown increasingly concerned that park staff have and will continue to feel pressured to open before they’re prepared to do so safely,” Pierno adds. “Prematurely opening these places could endanger the public and park staff such that we return to the same hazardous situations in our parks and local communities that made closing them necessary.”

The NPCA has gone so far as to lay out a Road Map For Reopening Our Parks for letting visitors return and resume activity moving forward. For these and all of the recreation areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Services, do ample research before you expand your definition of adventure and make a visit; plans are changing rather quickly. (Here’s a running status list of the NPS-managed parks across the country.)

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