Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning a National Parks vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In these days of social distancing and hunkering down at home, it seems like the one good thing we can do for ourselves is get some fresh air and sunlight. And National Parks have plenty of that. Remember, the National Park Service has 419 units under its auspices, including the 62 iconic scenic parks, but also National Historic Sites, National Lakeshores, National Monuments, National Parkways, National Recreation Areas, and more. So, there’s bound to be one close to you. To sweeten the deal, the entrance fee to all National Parks has been dropped.
Fresh air is absolutely necessary at a time like this. We can’t remain locked in our houses—it’s not healthy. We need sunlight and exercise to keep our bodies happy. Going outside provides vitamin D, which is important for the bones, blood cells, and immune system. The great outdoors lessens anxiety and helps set the sleep cycle.
Hence the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku—Forest Bathing. According to WebMD: “It means you spend time in your forest to improve physical mental and health. Several studies show it can help boost your energy, immune system, and energy levels, as well as help you sleep and recover faster if you’re sick.” But you don’t need an official study to know that.
National Parks seem like the perfect fresh-air remedy, right? Not exactly. Here’s why you should reconsider your trip, even if you’re not under quarantine or lockdown.
The Official Policy
On March 21, the National Park Service announced a coronavirus policy for all National Parks. The NPS is taking extraordinary steps to follow the latest CDC guidance to promote social distancing. Where this policy can be implemented, outdoor spaces will remain open to the public and entrance-fee free.
“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners is the priority of the National Park Service,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in the statement. The Department of the Interior oversees the park service.
Are National Parks Closed Right Now?
The National Park Services has closed many of its parks, including Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, Independence National Historical Park, and Canaveral National Seashore—essentially ones located within closed-in facilities or other situations in which social distancing cannot be honored. In addition, most visitor centers have closed their doors throughout the NPS system, and interpretive programs are postponed indefinitely.
Among the bigger scenic parks, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, White Sands, and Rocky Mountain also have been completely closed to visitors, mostly in recognition of the fact that the rural counties surrounding the parks have limited hospital facilities to handle a surge of COVID-19 cases. It’s also a way of reducing outside visitors from traipsing through local communities and spreading the virus. The NPS website has more information about park closures and safety measures.
What National Parks Are Open?
While every scenic national park has experienced some aspect of closure, some elements remain open. For example, while Acadia’s visitor centers, public restrooms, park campgrounds, and the majority of Park Loop Road are closed, its hiking trails and open spaces are open. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon remains open, as are hiking trails and some campgrounds, though its restaurants are closed and services are limited. The idea is that open spaces, where space can be maintained between individuals, remain open—though this is a fluid situation that’s changing every day.
The idea is that open spaces, where space can be maintained between individuals, remain open—though this is a fluid situation that’s changing every day.
But remember, these scenic parks are often in remote communities that you shouldn’t visit right now. There’s more likely to be a national park unit near your home—whether it’s a National Monument, National River, or National Historic Site. The Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, climbs atop the Blue Ridge between Virginia and North Carolina, providing scenic views, hiking trails, and places to stretch your legs along the way. You shouldn’t tackle the whole 469-mile route now—but if you live nearby, a little portion might be just what you need. Note that restrooms and visitor centers are closed, and that backcountry camping has been limited. The Delaware Water Gap NRA, a scenic stretch along the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, encompasses tree-covered mountains, grassy beaches, and the actual “gap”—a slice through Kittatinny Ridge. Park trails and parking areas remain open, while park facilities have closed. And while the visitor center and store are closed at Devils Tower NM, the outdoor areas, including trails and roads, remain open.
Again, it’s a changing situation. Find more info about individual park situations on the National Park Service Website.
Can I Visit a National Park?
As we all are aware, the main issue is spreading the virus, even if you have no symptoms. So even though it’s absolutely necessary that we get our nature fix, it’s also important to be vigilant about maintaining a six-foot distance from others. Translation: Stay away from crowded trailheads, crowd magnets, and, quite simply, anywhere where there are people.
“If we are outdoors and ending up in small groups (camping, running, fishing, etc.), then it will not be effective,” says Dr. Rodney Rohde, a medical laboratory professional at Texas State University who has two decades of experience dealing with infectious disease outbreaks including Anthrax, influenza, SARS, Zika, and Ebola.
In addition, many National Parks are located in less populated areas, and it’s unjust to put local hospitals under stress. You don’t want to get injured on the trail while medics are employing their limited resources to fight coronavirus; and you certainly don’t want to introduce the virus to the local population, not to mention, use their valuable resources to be treated for the virus there yourself, should you fall ill.
Something else to consider is that park resources and employees are already stretched thin. When visitors show up, they need to work—and therefore have more chance of being exposed to the virus.
“We must prioritize the safety of our healthcare professionals and other at-risk populations in all areas. It may be even more critical in rural areas due to shortages of personnel,” Dr. Rohde says.
As we fall deeper into the coronavirus crisis, the simple answer is that now is not the time for most of us to be visiting a National Park. For now, it’s important to pay attention to the CDC policies, and come to the sad conclusion that, unless we’re fortunate to live close enough to walk to one, it’s probably best to stay away. The landscapes have been around for thousands of years—they’ll still be there when this is over.