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Active Travel Health & Wellness Outdoors

Some National Parks Are Free Right Now—But Should You Visit?

Editor’s note: Since this story was published, an increasing number of state and national parks have closed to the public. Be sure to check the individual park’s website for the most up-to-date information before you visit.

A visit to a national park seems like a great idea right about now. Getting out of your house, fresh air, and plenty of room to social distance—what could be bad about that?

After Interior Secretary David Bernhardt waived fees for national parks visitors earlier this week, many people may be wondering: Is it okay to visit national parks during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Unfortunately, like much about this pandemic, the answer isn’t simple. Yes, the majority of national parks are remaining open (for now), but many things will be modified.

Essential services (such as visitor centers, restrooms, campground, and shuttles) will be closed as a health precaution. If you do visit a park, you’ll need to be prepared to be totally self-reliant—so come ready with maps, plenty of food and drink, and emergency supplies.

Other parks are experiencing a flood of visitors right now that makes it impossible to follow social distancing guidelines, and that’s sparking concern in residents over an influx of people increasing the risk of contagion. The Mayor of Moab, Emily Niehaus, told the Salt Lake Tribune, “Moab is asking people to please stay in their home community. This is an urgent message to people considering travel to Moab.”

It’s also important to consider if you would be putting park rangers in danger by visiting a park. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks released a statement saying, “National parks welcome visitors from around the world. Many National Park Service (NPS) employees interact with members of the public daily. These employees should not be exempt from recommendations made by the CDC. Further, to suggest to the public that gathering at national park sites is acceptable when gathering at restaurants, theaters, libraries, and other public spaces is no longer safe is irresponsible to the visiting public and employees.”

If you are considering a trip to a national park, think about whether or not you can do it responsibly.

Before departing, ask yourself: Will you have to travel a long distance to get there, resulting in stops at rest areas, restaurants, and hotels? Or can you travel there and back in your car, from your home, without much public exposure?

Are you visiting a crowded trailhead, where it may be tough to stay six feet away from other groups of hikers, or can you park your car and hike without interacting with anyone else?

If you do decide to go, The NPS is urging park visitors to follow all current CDC guidelines, especially washing hands frequently and most importantly—staying home if you feel sick.

Be sure to check the individual park’s NPS page before visiting, as some parks (especially those in urban environments, such as the National Mall) have closed.

The same advice applies for visiting state parks, some of which may be waiving fees at this time. Check the website for the state park you wish to visit before you go, to confirm it is open and to see what restrictions apply to visitors.

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Principal Editor for SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @travelwithcaroline for travel photos and advice.

By Caroline Morse Teel

Unfortunately for her bank account, Principal Editor Caroline Morse Teel is powerless to resist a good flight deal. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.

Caroline joined Boston-based SmarterTravel in 2011 after living in Ireland, London, and Manhattan. She's traveled to all seven continents, jumped out of planes, and bungeed off bridges in the pursuit of a good story. She loves exploring off-the-beaten path destinations, anything outdoorsy, and all things adventure.

Her stories have also appeared online at USA Today, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Yahoo, Boston.com, TripAdvisor, Buzzfeed, Jetsetter, Oyster, Airfarewatchdog, and others.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Earplugs. A good pair has saved my sleep and sanity many times!"

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.

Travel Motto: "Don't be boring."

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle (when the first class private suite isn't available)."

E-mail her at cmorse@smartertravel.com.

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