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Yellowstone’s Lower Loop, which accesses Old Faithful, will reopen on Monday, May 18.
The National Park Service and the Department of the Interior recently began a slow reopening of the country’s beloved outdoor spaces.
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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 don’t 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:
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.”
Denali National Park reopened part of the Denali Park Road to the public on April 28. 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 certain areas last week, and Zion National Park opened certain areas with capacity limits and timed entry on Wednesday, May 13. Arches and Canyonlands National Parks have announced that they will begin to increase access on May 29, right after the normally busy Memorial Day weekend.
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.
Grand Canyon National Park will open for limited day use this weekend, May 15 through May 18. The South Rim entrance will be open from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and once in, visitors will be able to stay for the day and drive to some popular viewpoints along East Desert View Drive. Hiking trails into the park will remain closed. The park also plans to increase access over Memorial Day weekend.
Two popular Wyoming parks will begin phased reopening plans on Monday, May 18. Yellowstone will open its south and east entrances first, allowing visitors to access the Lower Loop and attractions including Old Faithful and West Thumb. Grand Teton National Park will reopen primary roads and some restrooms and hiking trails.
Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the most popular national parks in the country, will begin to reopen in phases starting May 27. Most campgrounds remain closed, but some will open at half capacity. The park is also considering 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.
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. The NPS recommends you continue to check the websites of individual parks for updates.
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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Soehn points out that the park typically has over 1 million visitors in May from across the country. “We want to do our best to be prepared in a manner that helps our employees, volunteers, and visitors feel safe before reopening.”
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.
No matter how individual parks reopen, it’s expected to take time. Glacier National Park superintendent Jeff Mow tells NBC Montana that it’s looking like the park will be able to reopen during phase three of the president’s reopening plan, when interstate travel can occur with no quarantine restrictions. He adds that while visitor centers likely won’t open right away, nor will high traffic areas, he’s hoping that the popular Going to the Sun Road will open by the end of the summer.
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 whether backcountry, camping, and rafting reservations for the end of the summer will stand remains to be seen.
All parks urge visitors to continue checking individual park websites for updates about the phased reopenings.
While beloved and beautiful, the national parks aren’t our only great outdoor spaces. In his Friday 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 May 14, 2020, to include new information.
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