Visiting a reopened national park after lockdown? What to know before you go

The visitor newsletter at Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park looks a little different than it did

The visitor newsletter at Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park looks a little different than it did pre-COVID-19.  

In addition to warning about how certain facilities are closed for the summer because of the coronavirus pandemic, the handout features a picture of a cartoon buffalo wearing a blue surgical mask with a caption that says, “Have you masked up?”

As the National Park Service welcomes visitors to come enjoy nature again after three-month-long coronavirus closures, guests are encouraged (by pamphlets and signs) to wear masks. And there are other new precautions, too: Visitors are asked to maintain a social distance from others and navigate limited amenities and fewer open trails than usual.

A graphic on a Grand Teton National Park map for tourists includes a buffalo that asks, "Have you masked up?"
A graphic on a Grand Teton National Park map for tourists includes a buffalo that asks, “Have you masked up?”

What else should you know about what it’s like to visit a reopened national park right now?

Well, after my recent visits to Grand Teton and two other national parks in Wyoming (Yellowstone and Devils Tower National Monument),  Zion National Park in Utah and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, I can say that visiting parks and being reminded of the country’s natural beauty is a wonderful and life-affirming experience. But it’s also a vacation that requires careful planning and consideration. 

Here’s what to keep in mind before you go to a national park in the middle of a pandemic.

Keep checking for campground openings

If you’re hoping to stay overnight in a national park campground, you’ll want to make a reservation right away on recreation.gov. After all, national parks tend to be busy in the summer, and it’s not unusual for many to be booked up.

But with coronavirus prompting travelers to cancel and postpone plans, you may luck into some openings.

Thanks to my partner/travel agent, who checked the park websites for openings several times a day, we were able to find and book spots at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons about a month before our stay.

The chances are good that you can find a camping spot in Yellowstone, but you may need to keep checking the reservation site for openings.
The chances are good that you can find a camping spot in Yellowstone, but you may need to keep checking the reservation site for openings.

There are also first-come, first-serve camping spots available at many parks. At the Grand Tetons, we were able to book one night at a reservation-only ground and then arrive early the next day for the walk-in campground before it was fully booked. We also boondocked (parked our rented RV for free without water or electric hookups) near the Badlands.

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Keep in mind: Several national and state park campgrounds (like ones we attempted to park at in Indiana) require online bookings more than two days in advance. So even if you think a spot might open up, you still may not be able to stay in it.

Overnight amenities may be limited

Check on available amenities – especially restroom and shower facilities – for specific parks before you go, because many are still unavailable due to COVID-19.

There was a public restroom available at Zion but none open at a Grand Teton campsite. In many cases, showers and dish-washing stations were closed on campgrounds, and many local restaurants had limited hours. Visitor center exhibits were generally closed.

The shuttle bus service at Zion wan’t running when we were there last month but has resumed this month. If you would prefer to avoid large groups, rent bikes like we did. But be smarter than us: Book the cycles (electric, if you please) more than two days ahead of time so as to not stress about long wait times and overwhelmed employees who, as they say in their shop voicemails, have never seen this kind of demand for bikes.

NPS shares alerts about park and amenity availability on its website, but the most up-to-date information comes straight from rangers whom you can, of course, still talk to, from a safe distance, inside the park. 

Masks are recommended but not required

It’s a good idea to bring a cloth face covering (as opposed to a surgical mask, which could get sweaty) on the trails, but masks are not explicitly required outside at the parks. They are encouraged, however, and the NPS advises that guests socially distance and avoid crowded areas.

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Almost all NPS employees we encountered wore masks, except for a few rangers at Mount Rushmore.

Masked hikers walk along a paved trail at Zion National Park this summer.
Masked hikers walk along a paved trail at Zion National Park this summer.

As for the crowds, mask use varied by park.

At Zion, we estimated fewer than 10% of visitors wore them. The number was around 15% in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, where trails tended to be wide enough to keep a 6-foot distance from other guests. There was also plenty of space between visitors who gathered to watch bison graze and Old Faithful erupt. Approximately 40% of hikers had them on at the Badlands. 

There was one incident on a trail at Yellowstone where a guest explicitly made fun of me for wearing a mask. 

Plan ahead for closed trails 

USA TODAY's Carly Mallenbaum needed a walking stick in order to complete a challenging and socially-distant hike.
USA TODAY’s Carly Mallenbaum needed a walking stick in order to complete a challenging and socially-distant hike.

Thanks to the pandemic and regular construction, many routes are off limits this summer. For example, Yellowstone has roads closed off, parts of Mount Rushmore are temporarily unavailable to tourists and certain Zion trails have been deemed unsafe for hiking.

This means the paths that are open are especially packed. If you can handle the physical challenge, look for a less-crowded and more-difficult trail. That way, your path won’t be constantly blocked by selfie-snapping families and tourists.

So get out those hiking boots and trekking poles (or carve a walking stick, like my partner/woodworker did for me when I was struggling up a snowy mountain in the Grand Tetons), and find the courage to explore less-congested beautiful spaces and all of their flora, fauna and geology.

Even as COVID-19 threatens life as we know it, nature in parks is thriving and mostly oblivious to invisible illness.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National parks: What it’s like to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic

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