What It's Like to Visit a National Park During a Pandemic

People are aching to be outside in our national parks. But is it safe to do so?

Oxbow Bend in Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming.
cldjansen / Getty Images

We’d been planning our family vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park for over a year, well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Before everyone’s habits and vocabularies changed; before we all knew how to “flatten the curve” and “socially distance” ourselves from the people we love. Before we stopped going into offices and started working from home, those of us who were privileged enough to be able to do so. Before we stopped going anywhere at all. My in-laws had a cabin booked for the entire extended family since the previous summer—we’d be staying at the YMCA of the Rockies, which is where my husband’s family has been vacationing for over 30 years now. It’s notoriously difficult to get a “good” cabin there since numerous other families are looking to do the same thing. So they’d booked a year in advance, and for months, we’d all been looking forward to the trip: a blissful week of hiking in the Rockies, soaking up mountain sunsets from our cabin’s porch, and simply enjoying time together in a mutually beloved place. 

In March 2020, it seemed impossible that we’d be able to go through with it, of course. After all, I had already begun to cancel everything else: a weekend in San Antonio, a trip to see friends in Nashville, and, horribly, a bike tour through the Alps in the spring. (Amidst a sea of mass evictions, unemployment, and other structural horrors that the coronavirus has exposed, I realize that canceled European bike trips rank low on the list of “Things to Mourn That COVID Took From Me,” but...I think I’m still allowed to be a little sad. I think we all are.) As the date for Colorado crept nearer, though—we were scheduled to leave in late-July, and everyone else was still on board—I felt apprehension mixed with dread. Still, I also felt pure, unbridled elation at the thought of leaving my 600-square-foot apartment for the first time in months. In the end, Alex (my husband) and I decided to go, tacking on an extra three days of camping in Wyoming, in the Tetons—provided that we stayed outdoors and took every precaution possible, this wouldn’t be much different from being holed up in our apartment, we figured. We’d do things as safely as possible, to minimize our impact and protect our fellow park visitors. 

Road-Tripping During a Pandemic: It’s All About the Prep Work

As long as you’re not around other people (or at least staying a safe distance away), experts say that camping and hiking are two of the lowest-risk activities you could be doing right now—on par with going to the grocery store, for instance. With this in mind, we set off for Estes Park, with an arsenal of COVID-protective gear in tow. We had masks of all varieties. We had gallons of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. We had disposable gloves for wearing while pumping gas. We had a cooler packed full of picnic food, so we wouldn’t have to stop to eat. Like the rest of the country, we’d been honing our coronavirus safety protocols for months; we knew the drill.  

Crucially, our entire family had also quarantined for two weeks before the trip so that we’d be able to stay in a cabin together. As we approached the familiar grounds of the YMCA, with the majestic Rockies looming in the distance, it was both wonderful and strange to see people I loved, in a place I loved, under such surreal circumstances. During a normal summer at the Y, the lawn is teeming with families taking photos, kids streaming in and out of the cafeteria, and smiling employees conducting tours. There were noticeably fewer people around this time, and most of them were masked (or if not masked, a safe distance away). A weird sight, to be sure, but also comforting—it meant that people were either staying home or taking necessary precautions.

Exploring the Grandeur of Our National Parks—Safely, and From a Distance  

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most-visited national parks in the country, so back in May, they’d designed an online reservation system to help spread out and restrict visitation. Currently, anyone who wants to enter the park has to make a reservation; these reservations come in two-hour slots, and you have to arrive within that time frame (there’s no limit on how long you can be in the park). This is scheduled to change in mid October, as the park’s busy season ends and the crowds thin out. 

We didn’t spend much time outside of the cabin and the Y grounds, but when we did venture into the park, things felt eerily...the same as always. One morning, we arrived just after dawn for our hike to Sky Pond—a stunning, ice-blue glacial lake ringed by snowy peaks jutting into the clouds, and one of my favorite hikes in the park. While there were few people in the parking lot when we arrived (which is typically the case, if you get there before 8 a.m.), by the time we made it back to the lot, there were gobs of unmasked people crowding around the bus area and ranger station, either waiting for the buses to arrive or preparing to hike. It was a jarring scene, and we stayed as far away as we could. I hoped that the reservation system was working and that the park had been effectively able to stagger its visitors, but the crowded lot didn’t exactly reassure me.

After a week in the Rockies, Alex and I set off for Grand Teton National Park. We arrived late one evening, and in the last, buttery-golden strings of sunset, scrambled to find a dispersed camping spot in Curtis Canyon, above the town of Jackson. I hadn’t seen the Tetons since I was a child, and I couldn’t believe the sheer drama of the peaks—tall, razor-sharp mountains shooting upward, all bumpy spines and jagged edges, juxtaposed against sedate, grassy flatland. On our first day in the park, we hiked Cascade Canyon, and to get to the trailhead, we had to take a boat across Jenny Lake. While we waited for the boat to arrive, I turned to a ranger to ask if she’d noticed a decline in the number of people visiting the park this year, expecting her to say yes. “This is one of the busiest years we’ve ever had, so far,” she responded, shaking her head slightly. Everyone had the same idea, it seemed—after being confined to our homes for months, we were all itching to be outside, in the wide-open space.

Hiking in the Tetons gave me a sense of peace that I hadn’t quite been able to achieve in Rocky Mountain. On all of our hikes, people either wore masks or made it a point to turn their faces away from us as they passed. We spent most of the trip either swimming alone in alpine lakes or nestled in our hammocks for hours, reading and watching the light play off the mountains—the way the peaks were shadowed, then exposed. To be perfectly honest, the threat of grizzly bears loomed larger in my mind than the coronavirus. Our camp neighbors saw a mother grizzly and her two cubs swimming across Leigh Lake one morning. When they told us this, I couldn’t help but think of all the dolphins-in-the-Venice-canals-type stories we’d all gleefully shared early on in quarantine, many of which had turned out to be fake. We’d wanted so badly to believe that all it would take for nature to recover from the human impact would be for us to stay home for a little while. Despite being undeniably depressing, the fact that we’d all wanted those stories to be true also gave me a glimmer of (dare I say it?) hope—hope that we’d come out of the pandemic with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what it means to be good caretakers for one another, but most importantly, good caretakers for our planet. 

Tips for Staying Safe in Our National Parks During COVID-19

While all 62 national parks have officially reopened, each park is handling the COVID-19 pandemic differently. The availability of services and amenities may vary, and some parks may be limiting the number of visitors. Plan accordingly. 

  • Protect yourself and others; wear a mask. It should go without saying at this point, but wearing a mask in public places is imperative, and this goes for national parks, too. Even when (especially when) you’re hiking, be sure to carry a mask with you. If you are visiting a more popular park, like RMNP, the parking lot at the trailhead will likely be crowded, or there could be a bottleneck on the trail—in which case, wearing a mask is crucial. No, most national parks aren’t technically requiring masks (rather, they’re strongly encouraging it); yes, you should wear a mask anytime you’re around other people. 
  • Don’t attempt anything too risky. Now isn’t the time to summit Half Dome in Yosemite or try that tricky climbing route in Canyonlands. Because so many of our national parks are in remote areas, you don’t want to risk going to the hospital—and possibly straining local resources by doing so. 
  • Prepare for closings and reservations. Check the individual park’s website ahead of time to monitor closings and their reservation system. Every park is different; some parks (like RMNP) may only be releasing a small number of reservations per day, while others may have temporarily shuttered their visitor centers, exhibits, or theaters. As such, you may need to procure maps and recommendations beforehand.
  • Kayak or canoe. Getting on the water—in a canoe, kayak, or raft—is one of the most socially-distanced activities you could do in a national park. If you’ve always wanted to paddle the Rio Grande or raft the Snake River, now would be an excellent time to do so. 
  • Know when and where you have to self-quarantine. A few states, like Maine and Vermont, are requiring out-of-town visitors to either self-quarantine or provide negative test results before visiting. Don’t be that person who shows up unaware of the state’s rules; know what the park (and each state) requires of you before you go.
  • Don’t go on the weekend, if you can help it. To avoid crowds to the best of your ability, it’s always a good idea to schedule your visit during the week rather than the weekend. 
  • Stray off the beaten path. Rather than planning a trip to Yellowstone or the Smokies, save the more popular parks for 2022. Instead, plan to visit a less-traveled park, like Big Bend in Texas, Congaree in South Carolina, or Isle Royale in Michigan. Wherever you go, choose lesser-known hiking trails and campgrounds to evade crowds successfully.
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