If you’ve ever stared out over the vastness of the Grand Canyon, watched the buffalo roam in Yellowstone, or walked through forests of redwoods in California, then you know what Americans mean when they sing “America the Beautiful.”
With many international borders closed to Americans, US travelers are rediscovering one of the country’s greatest treasures: the National Parks. “2020 is the perfect year to travel domestically and explore the best national parks that the US has to offer,” Arlett Walleck, travel manager at online startup Tourlane, told Forbes. “National parks offer visitors a chance to escape crowded cities, while still being easily accessible by car from major population centers.”
The National Park Service (NPS), founded in 1916 as a division of the Department of the Interior, was established to protect and preserve over 400 monuments, parks, and conservation areas that span over 84 million acres across all 50 states and outlying territories. While many parks closed in March and April, almost all of them have since reopened to the public, regardless of individual state case numbers.
The National Parks have exploded in popularity in recent years, seeing 327 million visitors collectively in 2019. That’s their 3rd-highest total visitors since 1904 when officials thought to start recording visitation numbers in the first place. For parks and towns among the top 10, this means more revenue, but also more risk.
Top 10 National Parks by Visitation in 2019
|1||Great Smoky Mountains National Park||12.5 million|
|2||Grand Canyon National Park||5.97 million|
|3||Rocky Mountain National Park||4.7 million|
|4||Zion National Park||4.5 million|
|5||Yosemite National Park||4.5 million|
|6||Yellowstone National Park||4 million|
|7||Acadia National Park||3.4 million|
|8||Grand Teton National Park||3.4 million|
|9||Olympic National Park||3.2 million|
|10||Glacier National Park||3 million|
While the overall numbers likely won’t be as high in 2020 with the parks closed for much of the spring, this summer has seen more visitors than normal. “While we cannot speculate on this summer’s level of visitation, we do know that visitation in recent years has remained above 300 million and that summer is typically the busiest season for many parks,” NPS public affairs specialist Chelsea Sullivan told Sierra Club.
Park visits have varied based on state restrictions and popularity. Yellowstone National Park, for example, saw 955,645 visits in July 2020, up 2% from the previous year, while Acadia National Park saw 35% fewer visitors in July. That may be because out-of-staters need to have a proven negative COVID-19 test or submit a certificate of compliance for a 14-day quarantine before booking a campsite or hotel in Maine.
But with many traditional travel options closed, RVs, camping, and outdoor excursions have surged in popularity. Similar to the government shutdowns of past years, this has overwhelmed parks operating with fewer staff members, closed facilities, and a pandemic all at once.
Going to a national park in 2020 won’t look the way it has in past years, though compliance with new COVID-19 rules has been sketchy at best. That’s partially because each park has different guidelines and closures depending on staff, state-by-state restrictions, and their natural landscape.
What you can expect: signage promoting social distancing, mask requirements in high-visitation areas like visitor’s centers or monuments, and restrictions on lodging, trail permits, and parking lots, with timed systems for entry and other methods to decrease crowding.
Much of this has impacted the parks themselves. “Many of these spaces, supposed to be untouched swaths of time-proof wilderness, have been overrun by first-time visitors seeking refuge from quarantine, joblessness, or the inability to take far-flung vacations,” writes Andrew Chow for TIME. “Virginia State Parks rangers have reported illegal all-terrain vehicle use, trash dumping, and boulders thrown from landmarks. At Arizona lakes, visitors have left behind dirty diapers, shoes, broken glass, and entire grills.”
The folks at the NPS have a sense of humor through all this, at least. While the last few months have been challenging, the parks have used social media to share safety tips and moments of zen. These hilarious WPA-style posters, in a nod to National Park Service history, communicate social distancing guidelines and other new rules:
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Recreating responsibly can help keep you and others safe and help us protect parks! Visit the park’s website for current park conditions and availability of restrooms and other facilities. Find out if other services, such stores and food service, are open. If not, be sure to bring enough food, water, and other essential items with you for the duration of your trip. #FindYourPark #nationalparkservice #socialdistancing #safetyfirst
Source: Yellowstone National Park/US National Parks Service
All of these changes have put the small businesses in gateway towns around the parks at risk in more ways than one. “It’s a little concerning,” Terese Petcoff, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Gardiner—a Yellowstone gateway town—told NPR. “We only have a couple more months to make it through, so I think we’re all kind of holding our breath and just hoping community spread doesn’t happen.”
The American Alpine Club (AAC) and other outdoor organizations urged collective action to protect gateway towns across the country. “I think the context of ‘social distancing’ got spun up with the idea of, ‘Hey, now is a good time to be outside,’” AAC rep Taylor Luneau told Outside Magazine. “The problem is that it leaves out the issue of, ‘Hey, I stop at the gas station along the way, and I go to the store. There’s multiple touch-points where you potentially interact with other people.”
It’s a catch-22 for small businesses that also depend on the National Parks to bring in visitors that drive revenue. For businesses in gateway towns, staying open is about survival—so if you do plan on visiting a national park, follow guidelines, check individual park restrictions, and support local businesses by ordering online or curbside.