After nearly two months of closures and restrictions due to COVID-19, the country’s national parks are slowly reopening to visitors. But park officials caution this isn’t a return to pre-pandemic recreation.
Because mandates vary from state to state, parks are reopening on an individual basis, bringing services back in phases, said Stephanie Roulette, National Park Service (NPS) spokesperson, in an email to the Co-op Journal.
This phased approach means that visitor centers, roads, campgrounds and other park amenities could remain closed, even as some trails open for day use. The parks could close again temporarily if park officials see crowding and a lack of social distancing, or if state leaders reinstate restrictions on gatherings.
The NPS took a similar park-by-park approach when it began closing its more than 400 units in late March to help stymie the spread of COVID-19. Some parks limited access to trails, visitor centers and campgrounds. Others closed entirely. Officials representing many of the parks supported the move, particularly those near vulnerable gateway towns, and some even felt the closures should have happened sooner and been more restrictive. Still, others bemoaned the inherent economic impact associated with the closures.
According to Roulette, 158 of the 419 units in the NPS fully closed, while 261 continued to provide some level of access.
As people consider visiting parks in the coming months, public health experts and park officials have a major caveat: Recreation won’t look like it did last summer. And it might not for some time.
For example, Zion National Park in Utah opened select trails and areas two weeks ago, but kept its visitor center and many campgrounds closed to visitors. Just 4,500 people visited on May 13, when it reopened for the first time since early April, according to Jeff Axel, the park’s acting chief of interpretation and public affairs. If that sounds like a lot of people, it’s not—Zion was the fourth most-visited national park in 2019, with more than 529,000 visits during the month of May last year.
“The traditional experience people remember the last time they visited Zion isn’t the experience if they visit in the next couple weeks or the next couple of months,” Axel said.
National park officials are working with federal, state and local public health authorities to gradually reopen the parks in accordance with state guidelines, according to Roulette. She said the NPS is examining each park unit’s services to ensure they comply with public health guidance from the CDC and White House.
This comes amid growing alignment among public health experts about the lessening risk for contracting COVID-19 in outdoor settings. Kevin Winthrop, professor of infectious diseases and public health at Oregon Health and Science University, noted environmental factors that diminish the virus’ ability to infect. But he says the risk isn’t zero, and it’s still smart to avoid crowds outside.
“I think people should strive to do those things [outdoors], but I think they also have to realize it’s going to be a little different this year, and it might be for a couple years,” he said.
When deciding when to reopen, parks must also consider staffing needs. Some national parks, including Zion, delayed the start dates of seasonal staff due to COVID-19. Mount Rainier National Park doesn’t yet have a date for its gradual reopening, though it has begun onboarding its seasonal staff. Washington, where the park is located, has a stay-at-home order through May 31. And the county where Mount Rainier is located remains in the first stage of the state’s gradual reopening, which prohibits people from gathering in groups.
Park leaders are also talking with public officials in national park gateway communities that could be affected by returning visitors. (Gateway regions are towns located close to the parks that benefit from the tourism the sites attract.) Kevin Bacher, teleworking volunteer program manager at Mount Rainier, said nearby town leaders and business owners have expressed both excitement for the potential economic boost and concern about tourists bringing new cases of COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of dialogue that is happening between the park and businesses and other representatives in surrounding communities, both to keep them informed about what we are doing and to find out what their concerns are,” he said.
Bacher also said that when Mount Rainier National Park reopens, the superintendent and his team will remain in communication with town leaders. Pierce County has more than 1,800 total cases of COVID-19, according to a New York Times tracker. Seventy-five people in the county have died from the virus.
Bacher added that the Mount Rainier superintendent’s office has coordinated with Washington state Governor Jay Inslee’s office and the state department of health, so that the superintendent can make decisions in sync with the rest of the state.
“[The superintendent is] completely aware of the way things are waxing and waning across the state, and that’s playing into what opens and what closes and what guidelines are being given if we open up,” he said.
On the East Coast, Jeff Dobbs, town council chair in Bar Harbor, Maine, said he worries about an influx of people to the town, a gateway to Acadia National Park, once the park begins reopening. He acknowledged the delicate balance between safeguarding lives and livelihoods, but admitted that people are weary of a full reopening.
“We just hope the respect is mutual between the visitors that are coming and following our protocols,” he said of Maine’s mandated, two-week quarantine for anyone traveling to the state. “We won’t stop worrying until [the pandemic is] over.”
Park officials across the country are considering a number of approaches to opening the parks: closing visitor centers, restricting trail access, barring higher-risk activities and shutting down shuttle services.
At Zion National Park, for instance, park shuttles—which typically transport people to trailheads like that for the popular Angel’s Landing path—remain closed due to an inability to allow proper space on them. People can now only explore the park by vehicle, foot or bike. And because Zion has only 400 parking spots, Axel said that will naturally limit how many people can be in the park at one time. He expects parking areas to be full as early as 10am some days.
“For the first day, things stayed pretty manageable,” Axel said. “People are observing social distancing. There were no aggressive encounters like we’ve seen in stores, and things stayed under control.”
Safety measures like closing the shuttle service are meant to protect park staff and visitors, Axel said. Park leaders have said these protocols will vary from park to park. Zion, for instance, may have park rangers standing at booths outside to provide park information in lieu of opening the visitor center.
Meanwhile, leaders at Mount Rainier National Park are examining whether they can create a one-way stream of traffic through the visitor center, similar to one-way aisles in some grocery stores. However, Axel and Bacher said these protocols are subject to change based on visitor behavior, staffing and even weather. Zion becomes very hot in the summer, so having park rangers provide information at outdoor booths may not be a viable solution for the park come July.
Search-and-rescue operations may also look different at parks. At Mount Rainier, search-and-rescue teams will train with 6 feet of distance between them and no physical contact, said Brett Hergert, operations supervisor. When responding to an actual rescue, they’ll be required to wear park-provided personal protective equipment, such as goggles, gloves and face masks. In some situations, like loading a patient into an ambulance, they may have to wear gowns or other coverings. Since this could result in slower, more difficult rescues, Bacher said the superintendent has closed the upper mountain for now to reduce the number of potential rescues.
Similarly, officials at Zion National Park are not allowing canyoneering or climbing, two activities that have a higher risk of injury. There was one search-and-rescue call on Zion’s first day of reopening. The park typically responds to 100 such calls each year, Axel said.
“It presents some challenges that we have to work with and plan around to accomplish the same objective,” he said. “We will still be there. We will still be responsive.”
Bacher said there are “no easy answers” when it comes to establishing protocols, which can change quickly as people learn more about the virus and how it spreads.
Because openings are still in flux and specific guidance can vary greatly from park to park, people planning visits to national parks are encouraged to research the site before their trip, Roulette said. Many units have lists of what is and isn’t open—this can include trails, campgrounds, visitor centers, parking lots and roadways—available online.
A larger list of tips posted on the NPS website also encourages visitors to consider postponing challenging or higher-risk activities and to maintain proper distance from other recreationists on trails. This guidance is similar to the six tips released last week by a coalition of nonprofit and outdoor organizations, including REI Co-op. The tips, known as Recreate Responsibly, offer recreationists a starting point for how to get outside during this public health crisis.
Katie Boué, an outdoor advocate who helped the Recreate Responsibly Coalition form the guidelines, said she believes it’s possible to recreate safely, but it’s dependent on visitors taking the proper precautions to help protect themselves and others.
“We need to be wearing masks, especially in towns and stores,” she said. “We need to be doing our research on closures and local public health orders before heading out on a trip. We must step up our outdoor leave-no-trace ethics and follow the six guidelines created by the Recreate Responsibly Coalition.”
Boué, who lives in Salt Lake City, said she didn’t see anyone wearing a face covering while camping recently on public land in Utah. She said she was able to keep 6 feet of space from other recreationists, but among those she encountered, she was the only person using a bandanna to shield her face.
She said she’s also become worried after hearing reports of grocery stores in Moab, Utah, filled with travelers not wearing masks.
“ … [I] am concerned that folks who are visiting are not respecting the local community’s health,” she said in an email to the Co-op Journal. “It’s a double-edged sword because these rural communities can’t afford to have a visitor spread an outbreak in their isolated towns—but they also depend on outdoor recreation.”
Boué acknowledged the importance of the national parks reopening, given that many businesses in nearby communities depend on park-generated tourism. In 2018, national park visitors spent about $20.2 billion in local gateway regions while visiting the parks, according to the NPS.
“I do think there is a path for outdoor towns to sustain their economies while living safely—it all just depends on whether or not visitors are going to do the right thing,” Boué said.
REI Adventure Travel is a leading provider of small group active trips that explore more than 20 national parks. For the latest on the co-op’s departures to these iconic destinations, visit REI.com/adventures and see the COVID-19 update.