Here’s an in-depth look at the opening of national parks from Krista Langlois that’s running in National Geographic. Click through for all the photos and graphics. Here’s an excerpt:
Despite these concerns—and questions of whether it’s premature to open parks at all—the Park Service is doing some things right. Rocky Mountain National Park is implementing a “timed entry” system to spread out crowds by giving people a specific time slot when they’re allowed to enter the park. Other parks may follow suit.
Yosemite, which plans to reopen in June, is among a number of parks limiting visitors to roughly half its typical capacity. Yellowstone has spent $135,000 on sanitation, protective gear, and educational signs. The Park Service is distributing masks and gloves to employees, albeit unevenly, and trying to educate visitors on safe practices: staying six feet apart, choosing parks close to home, and avoiding traveling long distances to get to a park.
(Related: Trespassing and vandalism abound at national parks that remain open during the pandemic.)
Some parks, like Yosemite, remain closed, while others were relatively quiet over Memorial Day weekend. A visitor from Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida said the park was practically empty, perhaps because of rain. A hiker in Washington’s Olympic National Park, where many roads remained closed, reported seeing few crowds. A ranger at Virginia’s George Washington Memorial Parkway, which connects trails around Washington, D.C. and is administered by the Park Service, said that the people he saw hiking were mostly in small groups spaced well apart.
Still, some parks just aren’t set up for social distancing. It’s nearly impossible to stay six feet apart on the boardwalks around Yellowstone’s geysers, for example, or the narrow hiking trails in Zion. That means that the responsibility to stay safe falls both to parks and individual travelers. “It’s really important for visitors to go online and check the park’s website before they go so they can make sure they’re prepared,” Brengel said. “If a park is going to be too crowded or a trail is closed, they should have a plan B.”
Having a backup plan—such as visiting a less-busy national forest—is one of the recommendations of the new #RecreateResponsibly initiative, a collaboration between nonprofits, outdoor businesses, and land managers. Other recommendations include adventuring with members of your household; choosing low-risk activities to decrease the chances of needing already-strained emergency services, such as hiking instead of rock climbing; and being self-sufficient, such as packing your own lunch instead of counting on a park restaurant to be open. The #RecreateResponsibly initiative emphasizes staying close to home, because non-essential travel is still discouraged by the nation’s top health officials.