entrance of lodge

Tips for Traveling to National Parks during Covid-19

Note: The decision to travel during the Coronavirus pandemic is an extremely personal one and influenced by many factors. This post is based on my personal experience and is not medical advice, nor is it saying that everyone should travel. The situation changes daily, so check the National Park website for the latest updates. If you do decide to travel, make sure to do so as safely as possible for both yourself and others.

As the Covid-19 outbreak hit the United States in March 2020, the National Parks shut down for months before slowly reopening. In July I traveled to numerous National Parks as part of a road trip out West and decided to put together a post with some tips for those that are wondering what it’s like to travel to U.S. National Parks during the coronavirus outbreak. If you are looking to get outside this summer or fall to explore the National Parks, read on!

Camping in the Badlands

In general, I was very impressed with the steps that the National Parks are taking to be safe for visitors. While certainly there is always a chance of infection, the parks have some of the strictest measures I’ve seen to prevent the spread of Covid-19. I felt a lot safer within the National Parks than I did in other areas of the country. Visitors seemed to be understanding and respectful of the measures in the places I visited.

If you plan to travel to a National Park during this time, here are 9 tips to keep in mind.

1. Plan to day trip, tent camp or RV camp

Many of the lodges and hotels are not opening this summer because of proximity and because of a lack of staff, but most campgrounds are open. If you camp or day trip you can bring in your own food and avoid having to buy food on the road or at restaurants.

2. Plan ahead

Some activities require online reservations due to reduced capacities. Other activities, especially guided tours, are cancelled for 2020. Do your research to know what is available before you go. While there are less visitors than usual, there are also less facilities open, so the parks still feel crowded.

3. Download the app for the park you plan to visit

All of the regular educational programs like guided hikes and amphitheater presentations are cancelled. Some of the parks have a free app you can download which can fill you in on some of the information that you might normally hear at these programs.

The beautiful visitor center at Yellowstone was closed when I visited

4. Look for rangers outside

Unfortunately, the informative visitor’s centers are generally closed. Some places have a park ranger stationed outside the visitor’s center at a table with maps and the ever-important National Park Passport stamp for the park.

table and ranger
Outdoor visitor table at Craters of the Moon

5. Bring a camp shower

While restrooms are open, shower buildings are not. This can be a problem if you are camping! If you are someone that needs a shower daily (like me!), make sure to plan to alternate camping in and out of the park or bring a camp shower. This one saved me in the Badlands:

6. Bring multiple masks

You will need a mask whenever you are inside, waiting in line indoors or out or in areas where social distancing isn’t possible–imagine the crowds around Old Faithful or on a popular hiking path. Ideally you’d be changing or washing your mask multiple times a day, which is difficult if camping. It helps to have masks in multiple places in case you find yourself in an unexpected situation. I like to keep one in my purse, one in a backpack and one in my car.

7. Be prepared to wait

With major cuts in capacity, it is common to have to wait to get into buildings like lodges, general stores, and even gift shops. Usually these lines move fairly quickly, but assume that you may have to wait outside in the hot sun before being let in.

Waiting to order carry-out at the Ranch House Restaurant

8. Eat at off-peak times

Glad to see Grand Teton NP is using mostly compostable materials for their carry out food

All cafes and sit-down restaurants are now carry-out service only. In places where there are normally two or three restaurants open, there is now only one. So, if you plan to buy dinner it’s a good idea to go early or late and avoid the peak times so you don’t have to wait as long. Also plan to bring a blanket for a picnic if there are not tables nearby.

9. Bring credit cards

Most places prefer the use of credit cards and do not accept cash. When a guest uses a credit card they can usually complete the transaction without handing anything to the employee. Even if the employee needs to take the card, at least they are handing that card back to the guest, whereas with money they would then be passing bills off to the next person in line. In addition, there is apparently a nation-wide coin shortage, so plan on using credit cards exclusively.

The social distancing set up to rent watercraft at Grand Teton

10. Change your attitude

Visiting National Parks during the Covid-19 pandemic is not the same as visiting before it. You can still have a wonderful time enjoying nature, but you’ll need to come with the understanding that things will be different. Start with a change of attitude before you plan for anything else and you’ll have a rewarding visit.

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