Like many Americans longing for the wild outdoors after weeks of being home, we here at Teton Science Schools are eagerly anticipating a return to our cherished national parks. Just last week, both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks — which typically welcome an annual 8 million visitors combined — began reopening their gates after COVID-19 closures. While our programming within the parks remains suspended through July 5, visitors to our parks are turning out.
As they open, would-be visitors are questioning: Should I go to national parks?
With many cities and states still asking residents to stay home — about 40% of the US remains under some form of lockdown — the answer is tricky. What we do know is that, right now, there’s no such thing as a zero-risk outing. Ultimately, decisions about what’s safe will be up to individuals.
With that, we thought we’d round up the best information and advice to help our community make the smartest call — for yourselves and for those around you.
Before You Go
- Understand your personal risk (to yourself and others): Your personal risk depends on your age and health, the prevalence of the virus in your area and the precautions you’ve been taking and plan to take during any activity.
- Do your homework: Are you up to date on the latest CDC guidelines? Do you know what policies are in place at the park you plan on visiting? These are all key pieces of information to understand before adventuring out. That means reading CDC guidelines, going to the website of the park you plan to visit, reading up on local opinions surrounding the reopening (especially from small gateway communities just outside the park, and native communities that may live within), and understanding the local guidelines in place.
- Plan for self-sufficiency: The most important thing to keep in mind as you plan to visit is that parks are reopening in phases. Right now, “most of the conveniences that come along with a National Park are likely to be either fully or partially closed — things like visitor centers, restrooms, shops and campgrounds” (source). Be prepared to be self-sufficient during these early phases by bringing your own food & beverage, supplies, hand sanitizer, first aid, and perhaps even toilet paper. Use a trip planning guide or even download your park’s app beforehand so you have access to maps and other pertinent information without relying on a visitor center.
- Recreate responsibly: If you’ve done your homework at this point, you should be clear on the latest CDC guidelines for visiting parks and recreational facilities, including practicing safe social distancing, washing hands often, covering coughs and sneezes by wearing a mask and staying home if you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Please, follow these important guidelines. When in the parks, take turns passing others on trails and narrow spots and skip overcrowded destinations with plans to return at a time that might be less crowded. The National Park Service has also put together a list of resources to help you #RecreateResponsibly.
- Be respectful: Of nature, wildlife and the people working to take care of them. If you visit a national park, you will most likely witness park employees wearing masks, rangers enforcing social distancing measures and trail signs reminding you to follow CDC guidelines — be respectful of them. You might also witness wildlife closer to the roads and public areas since humans have been absent from these places for the last couple of months. Drive slowly, be patient and please, keep your distance from wildlife.
- Get off the beaten path: At this point, it’s safe to say you shouldn’t expect to have the place to yourself — parks will still be crowded, especially if they are only partially open. Be prepared to socially distance yourself at major attractions and be flexible to avoid overcrowded spectacles. Wake up a few hours early and visit before most tourists have had their breakfast (many wildlife are more active during dawn hours so it’s a great time for viewing, too!). Scout the lesser traveled trails for hiking and consider going to alternative sites in the park. Rangers should be able to point you toward less-trafficked areas in any park.
- Take a Virtual Field Trip with TSS: In partnership with Google Earth, we had the opportunity to put together a virtual field day at one of our most popular teaching sites, Taggart Lake in Grand Teton National park. Follow us along the trail and learn a thing or two about the various plant communities we encounter on our way to the lake!
- Find your virtual park: The NPS has put together an incredible list of resources to bring the wildness of our national parks into your homes. Take a virtual visit to a national park or spend a day doing park activities from the comfort of your couch.
- Take a Google Earth tour: Google Earth has put together 31 voyages through our National Parks. Visit one or visit them all and experience the beauty of some of our country’s most pristine natural treasures right at home.
We hope this information and advice proves helpful as you navigate your return to cherished activities and places. Stay safe, stay healthy!