In a time of a pandemic, quarantine, and social distancing, few things provide that sense of escape and energizing distraction like nature. In particular, national parks seem like the perfect solution for cabin fever, as these grandiose locales tend to afford plenty of personal space in settings filled with awe and inspiration, not to mention the physical and mental benefits that come with hiking, biking, paddling, or even just reading a book in a hammock. But the issue of how to visit national parks right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic—or even if it’s safe to visit them at all—is more nuanced than one might expect.
Are National Parks Open?
Unlike places like theme parks, restaurants, and museums, all of which are obvious and tangible settings for social gatherings, national parks haven’t been ordered to close. Also, the mere fact that national parks are all so vastly different from one another makes it hard to give blanket statements regarding closures and restrictions; for instance, Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which is 8.5 million acres and sees roughly 10,000 annual visitors, is the kind of place where it’s far easier to maintain social distance when compared to a park like Dry Tortugas National Park, a string of tiny keys 70 miles from Key West, which is only accessible by a crowded boat.
Rather than give a federally mandated directive, the National Park Service has approached the pandemic on a park-by-park basis. Some parks, like Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, California’s Yosemite National Park, and Texas’ Big Bend National Park, have temporarily fully closed. Meanwhile, many others have only closed facilities like visitor centers, museums, lodging, and restaurants, while leaving trails and outdoor sites open to the public. Such is the case with Saguaro National Park in Arizona, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and South Dakota’s Badlands National Park.
In some extreme examples, popular parks like Zion National Park fully closed under mounting pressure from leaders of nearby communities, out of fear that heavy traffic could pose a threat to locals. Zion, with its more than 4 million annual visitors, is a prominent example of communities being forced to choose between loss of tourism revenue and overall safety. Conversely, Nevada’s remote Great Basin National Park, just over three hours away, has far fewer annual visitors (less than 200,000) and can keep its trails open, considering social distancing is much easier and more manageable.
The COVID-19 pandemic is anything but certain and steady, and more parks are almost certainly going to close entirely. With news breaking seemingly by the hour, it inevitably has an effect on national parks, as it does on every other organization in the country, and across the world. Considering this rapid rate of change, the National Park Service has done a diligent job of updating its websites with the latest news regarding closures, and each park has been dutifully posting updates to social media accounts, especially Twitter and Instagram. If in doubt, be sure and check park websites and social media handles before embarking on any trips.
Should You Visit a National Park?
One of the most significant aspects of America’s national parks is their innate ability to calm, inspire, and enthrall. In this anxious time of isolation and uncertainty, these are all things people are starved for and seeking out in any safe way possible. Considering the limited outlets for such things, it’s no wonder that national parks have become desirable destinations, and in many ways, they’re a great idea under the right conditions.
Especially in a time of shelter-in-place mandates and anxious quarantine, medical and psychological officials have recommended spending time outdoors, especially in nature. If you’re able to do so while maintaining safe social distance from others, it’s an ideal way to take care of yourself both mentally and physically. The restorative powers of nature are undeniable, and nowhere is this more evident then out on a hiking trail in a national park, kayaking down a babbling stream, or marveling at majestic wildlife, especially while detached from Wi-Fi and far removed from the overwhelming onslaught of unnerving news. Plus, it’s much easier to stay away from people while out in the woods than it is in a grocery store, or even along an urban walking trail, almost all of which remain open across the country, even in congested cities with shelter-in-place restrictions.
Despite the myriad benefits that come with visiting national parks right now, there are important caveats to keep in mind. As seen with parks like Zion, safety is the number one priority, not only for yourself and your family but for residents of the communities where these parks are located. Unlike big cities filled with hospitals, medical professionals, and resources, a vast majority of these park-adjacent communities are small, unpopulated, and ill-equipped to handle an outbreak. Should a visitor infect a local, their options for medical care could be minimal, or completely nonexistent.
Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, two parks on the outskirts of Moab, Utah, both closed following the urging of Moab's mayor, Emily Niehaus; Moab Regional Hospital; and Southeast Utah Health Department. The town of Moab has a population of barely 5,000 and gets much of its revenue from tourism, but it simply doesn't have the resources to protect itself and its residents against a pandemic.
How to Visit National Parks
For parks that are open, there are certainly ways to visit safely, and if they’re accessible to you, by all means enjoy the fresh air and escapism. If it's possible to visit a national park with minimal (or no) impact on nearby communities, it's OK to go. This means if visiting a national park requires air travel or requires staying overnight nearby, it’s a no-go and you should wait until the pandemic subsides. Even if your visit requires stopping to pick-up food at a grocery store or cafe, you're better off waiting. It’s simply not worth the risk for yourself and others.
However, if you live within a short drive of a national park, and you’re able to spend a few hours safely in nature and away from others, then go for it. Lucky residents in Tucson, Arizona, have two sections of Saguaro National Park on either side of the city, and all trails are open at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a stone’s throw from both Cleveland and Akron. For Hot Springs, Arkansas, residents a hike up Hot Springs Mountain at Hot Springs National Park sounds like a great way to escape, and Indiana Dunes National Park has plenty of peaceful lakeside hikes less than an hour away from Chicago.
Another safe—and unique—way to visit national parks is for people who live and travel in RVs full-time. Seeing as these are mobile homes that can technically spend any amount of time anywhere, it’s far easier for RV-livers to safely spend time in different communities, while minimizing interaction with local businesses.
As the U.S., along with the rest of the world, continues to grapple with COVID-19, things are constantly changing and people are constantly looking for safe outlets for rejuvenation during trying times. If you have the means to rejuvenate in a national park while prioritizing safety, then by all means do so.