Tips for Visitors to U.S. National and State Parks
Being inside is getting old. While I’m sure we’re all happy to do our part to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, a dose of fresh air does wonders! Luckily, spending time outside is a go as long as it’s done safely. Taking to the trails can keep you in shape and give your mental health a much-needed break from the same four walls. Being in nature is a nice reminder that despite our changing world, there are plenty of peaceful corners to be found. That being said, things are different now. We’ve outlined some tips and useful information to help you get outside safely, but you can always check official websites for further information.
Where can I go?
Currently, international visitors are not encouraged to visit national or state parks in the U.S. Visitors from some countries are currently barred from entering the U.S., and others are still advised to avoid all non-essential travel. Spend this time planning a future trip. The parks will be glad to welcome you back when it’s time! Keep up to date on current travel restrictions to and from the U.S. by checking the U.S. Department of State website.
Inter-state travel for tourism and recreation is generally discouraged. Check the guidelines and rules set out by the states where parks are. If they recommend against out of state visitors, you can plan your trip ahead for another time.
Currently, responsible travel within most states for locals is permitted, including travel to national parks, provincial parks, and campgrounds.
Keep Yourself Healthy
Heading to a state or national park for some time away from your now all-too-familiar living room? There are a few things you’ll have to keep in mind while you move around the parks.
First of all, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends physical distancing requirements in all national and state parks. You’ll need to keep six feet of distance between yourself and people of different households at all times, including on trails, near bathrooms, in campsites, and everywhere else.
Hiking and adventure travel expert and founder of 10Adventures, Richard Campbell, noted, “Trail etiquette now includes turning away from passing hikers so you’re not facing one another on narrow sections. Groups are giving as wide a berth as possible to others, and some hikers are wearing masks in cramped sections of trail. It’s great to see fellow hikers look after one another.”
Mandatory face masks and coverings are required in some of the towns and cities that connect visitors to popular parks. Check if your state requires that you wear a mask or face covering when in indoor public places (including grocery stores, gas stations, and on public transit) or when physical distancing isn’t possible. Some municipalities require you to wear a mask whenever you’re not at home, which may include while on the trail. More towns and cities near parks and trails may implement this rule, so make sure you have your masks on you before heading out!
If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, you’re legally required to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days. If you are a close contact of someone with COVID-19, you are also required to self-isolate for 14 days and monitor yourself for symptoms. The trails will be there once you’re healthy again!
Planning Your Visit
When it comes to planning your visit, you’re going to want to cover all the usual bases: where you’re going, what you’ll need to bring, what the conditions are like, and who you’re traveling with. With COVID-19, there are a few more considerations to make before hitting the trails.
Consider how busy the trail or area you want to visit will be. Outdoors expert, Richard Campbell of 10Adventures, observed how busy trails in the Rockies had been since the onset of the pandemic: “Despite the relative lack of non-local adventurers, some trails are experiencing more local visitors than normal. Locals are eager to get outside for fresh air after months of staying home, so trails are still fairly busy.”
Physical distancing is harder on packed trails, so Campbell recommends trying to choose an excursion that sees less foot traffic, going midweek instead of on the weekend, or going early in the morning.
Now more than ever, it’s best to choose trails that are well within your comfort level. Rescue crews are working on limited capacity, each rescue they perform could involve a potential COVID-19 exposure, and injuries increase demand on the healthcare system in local areas. Stay safe and leave that technical scramble for another time!
Extra Things to Pack
Besides your usual essentials, national parks are often advising visitors to pack their own “COVID-kit.” Bring hand sanitizer, masks, water, and snacks. Some facilities aren’t offering their full range of services, so it’s up to you to keep your hands clean and your supplies packed to minimize the need to stop in at local stores.
Smaller townsites near parks may benefit from you avoiding stopping into the town unless absolutely necessary. Make your coffee at home. Fill your tank ahead of time so you don’t need to pull in at services on the way to your hike. This can reduce transmission of the virus to smaller towns that don’t have adequate healthcare facilities in place to deal with outbreaks.
Camping and Reservations
Some newly-reopened park facilities, including campgrounds, require advance reservations to use during the pandemic. Make sure you book your campsite online ahead of time!
Some national parks, like Yosemite, have moved to a reservation-based access system to control the number of visitors in the park at a given time. You won’t be able to just drive up, pay your fee, and enter. Check with your park and see if you need to book your visit ahead of time.
What’s Open and What’s Closed
Most national parks are using a phased reopening system that can be scaled-back should public health require it. Currently, about two-thirds of regular parks and services are open to some degree, and this number is subject to change.
Generally, most trails are open, campsites are accessible, motor vehicle access is permitted, public restrooms are open, and some visitor’s centers are open. What’s closed differs from park to park, but could include swimming areas and hot springs, shuttle services, events centers, and select campsites.