Visiting National Parks in the COVID era

During the month of June we took off on a road trip traveling to some of our beautiful National Parks. The trip was definitely a calculated risk during this season of Covid. Since our return, we have received many questions about the experience. Many of my readers and friends are looking for an escape. Some have trips planned in the fall and want to know if they should continue to plan or cancel.

Let’s Go! Learn things about visiting the National Parks in the Covid era…

On the Road Again!

We drove from Tucson, AZ to Milwaukee, WI, visiting state parks, national forests, national monuments and national parks in four states. There was a lot of variance in how each state was handling Covid safety. State Parks were in step with their local regulations, and although the National Parks are a federal agency, they are also respective of their home state guidelines. The pandemic situation is changing every day. However, the National Parks have established their conditions and appear unlikely to change for the rest of 2020 

National Forests

Needles Highway in Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota

We found the least amenities and facilities available in the National Forests. These areas typically have sparse facilities and a remote Ranger Station serving a large are. The pandemic has exacerbated these conditions. The restroom facilities were mostly open, but it could be hit or miss because of staff reductions. Expect to be self-sufficient in a National Forest, but also expect some amazing and unique scenery without the crowds.

State Parks

Visiting National Parks in the Covid era
Custer State Park in South Dakota

We drove through 6 states; New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Again, the pandemic is a very dynamic situation and states are tweaking their guidelines every day. In the month of June, we found NM, CO and WY very conservative in their regulations. South Dakota and Wisconsin were much more liberal. These observations applied to both in their state parks and outside the parks in regards to their lodging/dining options. 

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Rangers in Custer State Park told us that they were not seeing any reduction in visitors this summer. So we did share the park with plenty of people. However, it was easy to social distance from both fellow visitors and the wildlife. Custer State Park did not have their Visitor Center open. While I love visitor centers, it is a small price to pay to have the opportunity to get out in the fresh air and photograph the critters. Lodging and dining was busy in Rapid City. Every venue had some form of Covid procedures in place.

National Parks in the Covid era

Mount Rushmore, visiting the National Parks in the Covid era

Our decision to visit the National Parks in the Covid era was impulsive. The original plan was to beeline it from AZ to WI to visit grandkids. After a winter of lock down we could not fight back the wanderlust any longer. Traditionally, a trip to the National Parks would require planning a year in advance. Because of the Covid uncertainties and procedure changes in the parks, there were rooms still available in May for our June trip.

Ranger Stations

Visiting the National Parks in the Covid era, Grand Tetons NP

We visited Badlands NP, Mt. Rushmore NM, Yellowstone NP, Grand Tetons NP and Bryce Canyon NP. All of the parks had similar closures, restrictions and special procedures. The gift shops, operated by a private concessionaire, were open. They all required masks and enforced strict capacity limits.

The Park Rangers were in small tent kiosks outdoors, providing maps, guidance and the passport stamps. So you could access info from the Rangers without having to ever enter the milieu of the building. There were no Ranger guided activities and information about hiking was online, which was difficult to access when in the Parks’ dead zone of cell service. 

Park Lodging

Visiting National Parks in the Covid era
Beautiful Yellowstone Lodge lobby is a ghost town. All furniture removed and access severely limited.

We stayed inside some of the parks and outside in “gateway towns” of other parks. The parks have significantly reduced their lodging capacity. In Yellowstone NP they were only using the separate cabins and cottages and none of the big hotels and lodges. They also had limited campground availability. Bryce Canyon NP also had greatly reduced housing choices and campground capacity. None of the parks were offering housekeeping services during your stay.

Food

We found food the most difficult and frustrating in all of the parks. Dining inside the National Parks has never been spectacular. The options are often limited and pricey. But now with the Covid restrictions, it is close to impossible. Each park had only one option for take-out only. Options offered limited and over-priced menus, with understaffed and poorly organized service. 

Should you visit the National Parks during the Covid era?

My overall recommendation is to Go! enjoy the parks as safely as possible. Know going in that the lodging and food are difficult. Pack in your own food, consider an RV or stay outside of the parks where the hotels and restaurants are more plentiful and convenient. If the historic lodges are an important part of your experience, I would wait until things return to normal. However…

The wildlife and amazing scenery are open for business and waiting for you!!

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