The National Parks Are Reopening. Here’s What We Know

The National Park Service and the Department of the Interior recently began a slow reopening of the country’s beloved outdoor spaces.

The National Parks Are Reopening. Here’s What We Know

The Grand Canyon has taken a slow approach to reopening.

Photo by Shutterstock

This is a developing story. For up-to-date information on traveling to the national parks, visit individual parks’ websites.

In early April, outdoor lovers across the country called on the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior to close down parks, citing safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the 62 U.S. national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Yosemite, did shut their gates. Then on April 22, 2020, only a week or two after the last big-name parks closed, President Donald Trump announced that the national parks would begin reopening.

Since then, some parks have started to slowly throw open their gates and unblock their roads. But you might not want to start planning that summer trip just yet. Much like the closures, reopenings are happening on a park-by-park basis. And park advocates are still concerned that it’s too soon. Here’s what we know about the parks’ reopening now:

The parks are reopening on a park-by-park basis

On Friday, April 24, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt confirmed that the National Park Service (NPS), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and governors across the country are working together to gradually increase access to the parks.

Agency and park representatives stress that the safety and health of visitors, employees, volunteers, local communities, and partners will guide the process.

But this isn’t a “one size fits all” approach. In an email, acting NPS director David Vela told regional directors and park superintendents that reopenings would happen for each park based on local conditions, reports National Parks Traveler: “Decisions on a phased recovery of operations will be made in each park or support office based on what is occurring in the respective state and local community.”

Many parks are already open

Many backcountry permits in popular parks like Arches and Canyonlands have already been canceled for the beginning of the summer, and the Grand Canyon has canceled private and commercial rafting trips through June 13, 2020. But parks themselves are starting to increase recreational access.

Denali National Park reopened part of the Denali Park Road to the public on April 28 and plans to open usually restricted sections of the road to private drivers, as there are far fewer visitors right now. Everglades National Park opened boat ramps and some facilities including campgrounds on May 4.

Utah parks including Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area began reopening in early May. On its opening day, Bryce Canyon saw about 1,000 vehicles, about half of its normal visitation numbers for this time of year; numbers are climbing slowly and the park recently started collecting fees again.

Zion National Park opened certain areas with capacity limits and timed entry on Wednesday, May 13. Arches and Canyonlands National Parks began to increase access on May 29, right after the normally busy Memorial Day weekend. On its first day open, Arches experienced overcrowding, closing at 9:10 a.m., just three hours after visitors started to enter. The park plans to implement a timed entry system, but it won’t happen until midsummer.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopened some trails and roads on May 9. The resulting lines of cars and crowded parking lots have reinforced concern that these reopenings are happening too fast. The Blue Ridge Parkway opened the southernmost 14 miles of the park on May 9 and continued to increase access until the full route was opened on May 23.

Grand Canyon National Park first opened for limited day use on the weekend of May 15 and again over Memorial Day Weekend. On May 29, the park opened for ongoing limited day use. The South Rim entrance is open from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. and once in, visitors will be able to stay for the day, hiking inner canyon trails and visiting some open food and beverage services. Starting June 5, the South Rim entrance will be open full-time, some overnight camping and lodging will open, and the North Rim entrance will open for day use.

Two popular Wyoming parks began phased reopening plans on Monday, May 18. Yellowstone opened its south and east entrances first, allowing visitors to access the Lower Loop and attractions including Old Faithful and West Thumb. Its first few days open were quieter than many expected. On Monday, June 1, the park opened its other three entrances. Grand Teton National Park reopened primary roads and some restrooms and hiking trails.

Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the most popular national parks in the country, began to reopen in phases starting May 27. Most campgrounds remained closed, but some opened at half capacity. The park also instituted a timed entry permit system that would apply to all areas of the park and would limit the number of visitors to 60 percent of the park’s maximum parking capacity during the first stage of reopening—that works out to about 13,500 visitors, or 4,800 vehicles, per day.

In California, Yosemite will take its first step toward reopening on Friday, June 5, when people with existing wilderness or Half Dome permits will be permitted to enter. Lassen Volcanic National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Redwood State and National Parks have already begun to reopen, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will reopen roads, trails, parking lots, and some public use areas starting on Thursday, June 4.

Glacier National Park announced a reopening plan last week and will increase recreational access starting June 8.

A number of national recreation areas and national seashores, including Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Gulf Islands National Seashore, have also begun to increase access to trails and roads.

And some lodges, including the Oasis at Death Valley and the Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, are already taking reservations for June.

All parks urge visitors to continue checking individual park websites for updates about the phased reopenings.

Things are going to look different

Jeff Axel, acting chief of interpretation and public affairs at Zion National Park, tells AFAR that the public should think of this more as a gradual increase of access than a reopening. “Some readers will see a word like ‘reopen’ and think we are fully open,” he says. “Limited services and some area closures may be the norm for some time, in order to protect the public health. Zion [won’t] be fully open right away.”

As we’ve already begun to see, that gradual increase of access looks different depending on the park. Dana Soehn, with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Office of Public Affairs, tells AFAR that the park’s phased reopening plan that includes installing plexiglass shields in visitor centers, acquiring PPE for maintenance workers responsible for cleaning restrooms, disinfection procedures for public and administrative buildings, and developing safety protocols for its emergency services staff when responding to people in need in the backcountry and frontcountry.

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Onboarding seasonal staff is one of the most pressing issues for most parks, and it usually happens around this time of year. These additional staff members are key to keeping the parks running smoothly in the busy summer months. The parks’ ability to hire and safely house these workers will affect the reopening process. A concessionaire at Grand Teton National Park announced recently that it likely won’t be able to open the Jackson Lake Lodge or Jenny Lake Lodge this year, due to an inability to safely house staff, reports National Parks Traveler.

Some worry it’s happening too soon

Early photos of park reopenings showed crowds of people with few wearing masks and no one practicing social distancing. The trend has caused concern among NPS workers, who are now worried about their health when they go to work every day. It may be hard to track the impact of these rapid reopenings, especially since the National Park Service is no longer announcing the number of employees who have contracted COVID-19.

Arizona tribal leaders have also voiced concerns about the timeline to their state’s representatives, reports Indian Country Today. Native American communities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus, both in terms of their health and their economies. And the Navajo Nation says that, despite curfews and travel restrictions, people are still crossing through Navajo land to reach the East entrance of the Grand Canyon, supposedly unaware that it is closed. It continues to put a vulnerable community at risk.

There are still so many alternatives

While beloved and beautiful, the national parks aren’t our only great outdoor spaces. In his April 24 statement, Secretary Bernhardt reminded the public that a lot of the great outdoors is still open. “Across the 500 million acres of public lands stewarded by the Department of the Interior, an overwhelming majority of these lands have remained safely accessible to the American public.”

While the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service may not have as many facilities or the same kinds of interpretive signage, they are still wide-open spaces to hike, bike, or camp. And across the country, most state parks are still open or have reopened with limited access. Just be sure to continue practicing safe social-distancing protocols.

This story originally appeared online on April 28, 2020. It was updated on June 3, 2020, to include new information.

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Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.
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