There’s nothing like the fall, a time of year when Americans descend upon the roads, flocking to the finest parks and forests to catch a glimpse of the changing leaves in their vibrant splendor.
However, this year is different, as coronavirus continues to shut down schools, businesses and public spaces, confining Americans to their homes. That’s why so many are desperate to escape their houses and the endless Groundhog Day of COVID life for the enchanting peace and reprieve of America’s greatest national parks. Suddenly, the great outdoors holds more promise than ever, but many ask: is it safe to visit a national park during a pandemic?
Some appear not to worry. Yellowstone welcomed record numbers in July 2020, experiencing a 2% increase from the year before, with over 955,000 recreational visits in a single month, while Acadia National Park had 35% fewer visitors that same month. In September, Yellowstone beat all prior records with around 837,000 visitors for a 21% increase from the year before.
“The National Parks Service has developed safety measures and regulations that are in line with guidelines,” says Melanie Musson. As a travel writer and mom of five, she has spent several weeks this year in various National Parks and has first-hand experience with the changes brought on by the COVID pandemic.
She explains, “Some national parks, especially natural parks, experienced a higher volume of traffic this summer and that increase will likely continue as more people are taking road trips and visiting outdoor destinations.”
The team at NorthOutdoors is a group dedicated to active recreation and enjoying the North Country. Founder Paul Johnson says: “We think visiting national parks is a perfect activity for people in a COVID environment. In most cases, you can naturally distance yourself from other groups and enjoy the sights without being in crowded spaces.”
“National Parks are often wide-open outdoor spaces, so this makes them particularly COVID-friendly,” says Kayla Anzalone, Director of Special Projects at Rustic Pathways student travel. “It is absolutely safe to visit National Parks, as long as visitors take the proper precautions.”
Changes to the National Park Service
Brittany Merriman of Bon Voyage Brittany is a sustainable travel blogger with experience working for conservation nonprofits. She has visited six national parks and monuments since the coronavirus outbreak and shares her experiences with us.
“Even in popular parks like Rocky Mountain (which I visited in July), you can socially distance,” Merriman explained.
Michelle Steinhardt, Founder of the luxury travel blog The Trav Nav, visited Yosemite last month and learned more of the Park’s COVID guidelines. “I was in Yosemite National Park in August and was impressed by the seriousness in which Yosemite National Park has taken COVID-19,” she says. “Plus, many of our parks are so large that they are the perfect place for social distancing while on vacation.”
“You will find that each national park will be following a set of guidelines in order to keep their visitors safe,” says Will Hatton, CEO and Founder of The Broke Backpacker.
What measures each park enacts depends a lot on the set up of each space, says Musson. “The safety of each location depends on many factors including the volume of visitors, the communities in the vicinity of the park, and the type of park it is,” she explains.
“There has been a massive focus from state parks on reducing health risks related to COVID-19 for their visitors,” says Laurie Wilkins, owner and editor of Call Outdoors.
Like many other gyms, restaurants and bars, national parks are also undergoing a phased reopening plan. This means that all of your favorite parks may be limiting visitors, or they may not be open for business at all. Others may be enforcing strict rules on how and when you can visit.
“We've spoken to staff who work at parks that have only recently reopened, as they closed through the peak of the pandemic,” says Wilkins. “There are also a great deal of guidelines that they follow to ensure safety for their visitors.”
If you plan to visit a national park from out of state, be sure to check the area guidelines. Some states, such as Maine, may require that you quarantine when traveling across state lines.
National Parks Service encourages the use of masks for all visitors, although, at this time, it is not required, likely due to the enhanced physical activity associated with one’s visit.
In Merriman’s own experience at national parks, “masks have been required. Hand sanitizer has been offered consistently throughout each of the six parks and monuments I have visited.”
Social distancing is also in practice and extra precautions, such as plexiglass shields, have been implemented in some indoor exhibits, gift shops and other areas.
This fall, you will find that many of the entry requirements to national parks and sites may have changed since your last visit. For example, if you visit Acadia National Park in Maine, you must show proof of a negative COVID test. There is also a 14-day quarantine required for all visitors.
“Many of the Parks, even now as the restrictions around COVID begin to become more relaxed, limit the number of guests allowed inside of their facilities,” explains Wilkins.
However, Hatton sees the benefits of these parks, even without limited entry. “In the more open spaces with parkland to visit, you should easily feel comfortable in the wide-open spaces, easy to socially distance while able to enjoy your visit without worry.”
You will still find limited entry at many beloved sites. For example, Yosemite uses a reservations-based entry system to curb its crowds and make visitation more manageable, Steinhardt tells us after her visit.
“Yosemite limited the number of visitors and set specific routes for popular hiking trails to keep guests safe and reduce crowding,” she says. It has made a significant impact on her willingness to return.
“Actions like these leave guests, like me, feeling safe and eager to return,” she explains.
Timed Entry Permits
In addition to limiting entry, some parks are limiting the length of your visit during COVID.
“I have visited more than one park since COVID where Timed Entry Permits are the new normal… That means you MUST have a ticket booked prior to your arrival,” stresses Merriman. “Book these as soon as you know you'll be going to the Park or Monument! [...] “These Timed Entry Permits allow for social distancing and help keep us safe.”
However, that may require a little extra planning on your part, due to limited availability.
Change in accessibility
“In virtually every National Park, some things will be closed,” warns Johnson.
Even attractions that remain open could be affected by precautionary measures. He continues, “Expect some of the indoor buildings and services, like certain restrooms or vending, to be closed. The National Park Service (NPS) did this as a precaution when COVID first broke out and are gradually and carefully opening areas back up.”
“Historic structures should be visited with extreme caution or avoided if there is an indoor area to visit,” explains Anzalone.
Events have been affected, too. “Most major events that occur at national Parks have been modified or canceled, making the experience much more about exploring on your own,” says Johnson.
For Dylan Gallagher and his team, life has temporarily been put on hold. Gallagher specializes in high-end Yosemite tours with his company, White Wolf Tours. He has suspended all tours, telling us that it is “due to the possibility of transmission of Covid between guests and guides.”
“Instead, we are encouraging potential guests to venture on their own,” he explains. “The Parks are less crowded than usual, and you can easily find serenity.”
Parks aren’t your only option. NPS manages a total of 419 sites, and only 62 are National Parks. Some sites, such as campgrounds, remain operating at just 50%, while others have reopened entirely.
In reopening facilities, decision-makers consider the ability to control crowds and maintain social distancing effectively. That’s why some beloved landmarks, like the Washington Monument, remained closed for extended periods. In a space so small, it would be near impossible to control the risk of transmission.
“Any facilities that are part of these sites can be aggressively monitored and cleaned by staff who are also ensuring that visitors are following the rules,” says Ravi Parikh, CEO, RoverPass Campground Management Software. “They can schedule groups to come through at irregular times, so there aren't so many people crammed in at once.”
“Monuments, like the St. Louis Arch (which I visited in early October), can also be safe with the same precautions,” says Merriman. “Every Park and Monument I have visited has been limiting the number of people inside Visitors Centers, small spaces, and historic structures in order to maintain social distancing requirements.”
Tips to Consider Before Your Visit
Citing recent COVID surges, Jennifer Willy, Editor of Etia, warns that this could become the new normal. “Even though most of the public gathering venues are opening slowly and steadily, the threat of the virus will not be going away any time soon,” she says bluntly.
That’s why it’s more important than ever that visitors enact extra safety precautions to stay safe.
Anzalone summarizes the most important tips they are taking at Rustic Pathways. “To safely visit a National Park, visitors need to: wear a mask, especially if around people/crowds; explore at non-peak times to avoid other visitors; seek out lesser-known trails and areas.”
These are the top tips from our travel experts on how to visit National Parks safely.
Wear your mask
“As is good practice, bring a mask wherever you go,” advises Johnson. ”Many buildings and especially nearby businesses (like restaurants on the edge of the National Park) will ask that you wear a mask.”
Consider less popular Parks
Some Parks are far busier than others, making it difficult to maintain social distancing and even enjoy the Park at your leisure when lines can easily interfere with your visit.
Instead, Hatton recommends a little research. “It might be worth calling the location ahead of time to find out if there are any quieter than usual times, which might make you feel more comfortable, or you could ask whether they are temperature checking as an extra measure. The people working there should be able to help find a way to visit that feels safe for you.”
Clean up after yourself
Don’t forget to take your trash with you. With fewer volunteers from COVID, there is a greater importance on cleanliness and self-responsibility.
“Don't forget that COVID hasn't stopped other Park and Monument regulations,” says Merriman. “Pick up your litter, utilize trash cans, and be respectful of other people. With more people looking to visit our National Parks and Monuments during the pandemic as a safe alternative to traditional vacations, we run the risk of people abusing these Parks.”
Plan your route
There may be some road closures from COVID that can affect your trip. Be sure to plan your trip, checking to see what roadways and facilities may be closed for entry.
Make a plan
“The best part about the outdoors is that you never have to worry about stagnant air!” says Merriman. “I recommend that people look up hikes appropriate to their fitness level and take in a few trails during their visit. This is a great way to socially distance while seeing more of the Park.”
Consider seasonal limitations
“Keep in mind that some northern National Parks, such as Yellowstone, begin shutting roads down as snow falls,” warns Johnson. “While the fall months can be among the best to visit because crowds are fewer, Mother Nature will dictate when the fall access season comes to an end.”
Avoid indoor attractions
“National historic parks are not as safe as outdoor parks,” says Musson. “Historic buildings can often not be outfitted with air filtration systems without losing some of the building’s historical integrity. Plus, indoor spaces are riskier in general.”
“Of course, with inside historic venues, there will always be more risk,” says Hatton. “Although you can trust the sites to be doing what they can, it's important to be mindful that you won't be in control of other people also at the venue.”
However, Musson acknowledges NPS for its anti-COVID efforts. “Still, the Park Service is being careful about the number of visitors allowed in a space and is enforcing social distancing and masking rules.”
The Bottom Line
“National Parks are generally large spaces, either indoor or outdoor,” says Héctor Nguema, CEO of Rumbo Malabo and a tour operator expert in Bioko National Parks. “Visiting those places is one of the best alternatives for those looking to go out and explore without worrying about getting infected.”
U.S. National Parks have always been a pleasure to visit, but coronavirus makes us appreciate them that much more.
“We've been doing tours in Yosemite for years, and there is no better time to visit than now!” says Gallagher at White Wolf Tours.
Wilkins agrees emphatically. “In short, absolutely, one hundred percent YES, it is safe to visit these spaces (provided you ensure that you take precautions against the virus yourself),” she says. “I advocate for people getting out of the house and enjoying the beautiful monuments, parks, lakes, mountains, and every other wonder that the outdoors has to offer!”
Steinhardt adds a final token of advice from her own experiences. “With a little effort to protect yourself with masks and social distancing, now is a terrific time to visit our National Parks and take advantage of our nation’s natural treasures without all the crowds.”
Photo by Matteo Colombo / Gettyimages