9 things to know about visiting a national park right now
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Some of my favorite places in the United States are national parks. And, national park activities such as hiking, camping and driving can easily provide a socially distant vacation.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, remains a very serious issue in the U.S. For many of us, there's more risk involved in traveling than staying at home. So, it's important to consider whether now is the right time to travel.
But, as a digital nomad, I don't have a place of my own — and in July I decided to get back out on the road.
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Three of my first stops were national parks. First, I stayed in Estes Park, Colorado to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Then, I visited Grand Canyon National Park while relocating an RV for $1 a day. And, finally, I visited Petrified Forest National Park in the same RV.
Visiting national parks right now is undeniably different. TPG's senior news editor, Clint Henderson, wrote earlier this summer about his experiences at Yellowstone and Glacier. But, no matter which park you're visiting, here are nine things to know if you're planning a trip right now.
You may need a reservation to enter
Some U.S. national parks are currently requiring reservations to enter during set hours. For example, Rocky Mountain National Park currently requires reservations for entry between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. So, check whether the park requires reservations before planning a trip.
Reservations for Rocky Mountain National Park are available one month in advance on the first of the month at 10 a.m. MT. You can book a reservation on Recreation.gov for $2.
Two weeks before my trip, I was only able to snag reservations from noon to 2 p.m. for each day. And, last-minute travelers may not find any reservations available. I recommend booking your entry reservations as far in advance as possible.
Rocky Mountain National Park releases additional reservations each day at 8 a.m. MT for two days later. These last-minute tickets will be your best chance if you're unable to secure a reservation further in advance. But, these tickets usually sell out in just a few minutes.
Alternatively, you can enter Rocky Mountain National Park outside of the controlled times without a reservation. For example, one morning we entered at 5:40 a.m. without even needing to stop at the entrance kiosk.
Related: Why you’ll need to prebook all your fun this summer
Some parks have significantly fewer visitors
There were relatively large crowds when I visited Rocky Mountain National Park last month. Specifically, I wasn't able to get morning entry reservations even two weeks in advance. Parking reached capacity in the popular Bear Lake area quickly most days.
My hotel — and most other hotels I saw — displayed "no vacancy" signs. And, I frequently saw other hikers on the trails.
But, Grand Canyon National Park was much less crowded than any other time I'd visited. The popular Rim Trail, for example, had sparse foot traffic even near parking areas. And, I was able to snag a last-minute reservation in Trailer Village RV Park. Plus, if you walked away from the popular overlooks, you could have the trail to yourself in most areas.
Related: Exploring national parks in 2020: Where to stay using points
Mask usage varies
Each national park I visited required mask usage in park bookstores, visitor's centers and restrooms. Though everyone I saw wore face coverings as required in bookstores and visitor's centers, I encountered people in restrooms on multiple occasions who weren't wearing a face covering.
Signs at trailheads encouraged visitors to distance from others and to wear masks when distancing isn't possible. But, in practice, many park visitors didn't wear a mask outside even when physical space wasn't maintained. Only some visitors wore a mask when enjoying overlooks and when passing other hikers on trails.
Related: Where you can buy face masks for travel right now
Closed or capacity-controlled indoor spaces
Each of the national parks I visited either closed or limited entry to most indoor spaces. Most park bookstores and visitor's centers had staff or volunteers outside to control occupancy. And, Grand Canyon National Park closed its visitor's center.
In the other parks I visited, the visitor's centers were open, though the exhibits and videos inside these weren't.
When Henderson visited Yellowstone and Glacier earlier this summer, he found many restrooms closed. But, I didn't have this experience. At the parks I visited, most of the restrooms were open.
Related: When you gotta go: Your guide to public bathrooms during your summer road trip
Suspended ranger walks and talks
I usually enjoy ranger activities and talks when visiting national parks in the U.S. But most parks have suspended these activities.
You can still find a ranger to speak with if needed, however. At Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, rangers are stationed outside visitor's centers to speak with travelers.
And, at Petrified Forest National Park, a ranger was sitting by a large map in the visitor's center. A rope encouraged visitors to remain about 10 feet from the map and the ranger.
Related: 5 American road trips to take with the family this summer
Closed areas and even parks
I'd initially planned to visit Big Bend National Park on this trip. But, the park closed after someone living in the park tested positive for coronavirus. Although the park partially reopened in early August, large sections of Big Bend are still off-limits.
When I visited in July, the Desert View entrance, watchtower and campground at Grand Canyon National Park had closed. Additionally, the park closed Hermit Road to vehicles and stopped accepting new reservations for Mather Campground. Being that Mather Campground would usually be sold out all summer, it was surreal to see it almost empty.
On the other hand, most of Rocky Mountain National Park was open when I visited. Save for one or two shuttered campgrounds, entrances were open and I saw no closed buildings or trails.
Each of the national park websites shows information about what sections of the park and amenities are open. So, if you decide to visit a park, make sure to spend some time exploring the park's website so you know exactly what to expect.
Related: National parks begin to reopen: Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip
Shuttle buses may not operate
Some parks, such as Grand Canyon National Park, have completely discontinued shuttle buses within the park. Other parks, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, still offer shuttle buses but cap occupancy.
I considered waiting for a shuttle bus while at Rocky Mountain National Park. But, most visitors in the queue weren't distancing from others and the line was sizable. So, I decided to hike back to my vehicle to save time and stay safe.
Related: 7 trips to take right now if you want to escape the crowds
You may need a credit card
Signs at park entrance stations said payment must be by credit card. And, most other places in the parks -- including bookstores, visitor's centers and cafes -- didn't want to accept cash. So, you'll want to take one of the best travel rewards credit cards with you on your trip.
When paying, I noticed a sign at most registers encouraging contactless payment. And, multiple staff members verbally encouraged customers to see if their card had tap-to-pay functionality.
If you have a national park trip on the horizon, you might want to apply for one of the best contactless credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Freedom Unlimited.
Related: Here’s why I don’t plan to spend cash on travel this year
Changes happen quickly
It's important to remember that changes — especially during a global health crisis — can happen with little notice.
For example, a park may close to the public right before you plan to arrive. Or, your hotel, vacation rental or campground may cancel your reservation at the last minute. State reopening policies can also change at any point. In short, if you choose to travel during the pandemic, you'll want to keep your plans flexible.
Related: 5 steps I’m taking to plan a trip during the ongoing pandemic
Travelers exploring the national parks this summer will find the experience varies at each park. Rocky Mountain National Park was relatively crowded and mostly open, while Grand Canyon National Park was surprisingly uncrowded and still had many closures.
As the parks continue with phased reopenings, it can be very appealing to plan a national park vacation. But, if you're planning to visit a national park now, you'll need to be flexible. I'd recommend periodically checking the websites for the parks you plan to visit as your trip approaches.