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Photo by Alison Taggart-Barone for NPS/Flickr
While national parks, including Joshua Tree, technically stay open during government shutdowns, most services are suspended and many facilities close.
The government shutdown puts your upcoming national park trip in peril. Now what?
When you’re gazing out at the sunrise across the Grand Canyon, wiping mist from Yosemite’s Bridalveil Falls from your forehead, or counting the seconds until an impending eruption of Old Faithful at Yellowstone, government bureaucracy is likely the last thing on your mind. Who wants to think of paperwork and politics when the great outdoors is calling? Then bam—news of a government shutdown breaks and, as a federal agency, the National Park Service (NPS) closes too. But due to recent changes to shutdown procedures, many parks now remain technically open, although understaffed, leaving the visiting public with few resources, little information, and a lot of uncertainty. We’re here to help. Here is a guide to everything you need to know about visiting the national parks during a government shutdown.
During past government shutdowns, the national parks have closed entirely, most memorably during the first half of the 16-day shutdown in 2013: gates were locked, roads closed, and all services suspended. In other instances, however, states have been allowed to step in and cover the necessary costs to keep their local parks open.
Since January 2018, a new contingency plan stipulates that most parks will remain open during a shutdown, even though the thousands of dedicated employees who protect and run these national treasures will be furloughed. This is likely to change again someday, but in the meantime, the gates are open, and you can still visit, but nobody is home.nps.org for alerts of these closures, but also mind the notification at the top of the page stating that during the shutdown, the website will not be updated. Many parks are able to post anticipated closure information before shutting down, and some parks do sneak in updates during the shutdown, but it’s worth a quick Google search to see if there is any news about the park you’d like to visit.
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Most park lodgings are operated by private concessioners, which are not required to cease services during shutdowns. If the area surrounding these accommodations remains open during the shutdown, the facility should continue running as usual and your reservation should be honored, but it never hurts to call and double check.
Popular national monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Muir Woods require visitors to make reservations. During the current shutdown, both of these sites have received third-party funding and are set to remain open, so confirmed reservations won’t be affected and future visitors will be able reserve spots as usual.
The new contingency plan also stipulates that outfitter or guided trips in progress at the start of the shutdown will be allowed to continue. But if your trip has not yet commenced, contact the outfitter or tour operator for more information.
Yes, without rangers to staff park entrances, there is no one to process entry fees. While a free visit is a windfall for many, the loss of these funds is potentially devastating to the parks. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates that the NPS loses $400,000 per day in entrance fee revenue and notes that many parks rely on those funds to cover operating costs.
Consider donating the equivalent of an entrance fee to the park you just enjoyed. It’s easy to make an online donation to the National Park Foundation, and information about donating to specific parks is available on their individual websites at nps.org under the “Get Involved” section of the page menu.So what services and facilities can I expect if I visit a national park
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But there is good news! In some parks—especially popular ones like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone—certain facilities and services are handled by private concessioners; many restaurants, in-park lodgings, tour operators, stores, and even some road maintenance services remain open, giving visitors much-needed relief. Again, it’s best to check with the nps.org website to see which, if any, concessioner-provided services are still operating.
Additionally, states and certain foundations often step in and provide funding to keep certain essential aspects of a park—sometimes even the visitor centers—running for as long as they can. Local volunteers, too, make headlines by helping with trash pickups and distributing necessary and educational information to visitors.Anything else I should know?
Also, consider exploring less-visited areas of the park to help reduce overuse; as a bonus, you’ll be less exposed to any garbage pileups and restroom debacles.
Don’t forget about nearby state parks! If you’d rather not risk a service-less experience, just head next door. Swap Anza-Borrego for Joshua Tree, Big Bend Ranch State Park for Big Bend National Park, or Falls Creek for the Great Smoky Mountains. The Utah Office of Tourism even has an entire page dedicated to park alternatives.
Finally, we find it helps to take time on the drive in or out to vent any shutdown frustrations by reaching out to government officials and encouraging them to do everything they can to get the parks operating as usual as soon as possible.
>>Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to the National Parks
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