National parks begin to reopen: Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip

Jun 13, 2020

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Following months of closures, lockdowns and relative solitude, destinations around the world are showing signs of a slow reemergence. Among them, national and state parks in the U.S.

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The National Park Service (NPS) says, in a notice on its site that, “Following guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public health authorities, we are increasing access and services in a phased approach” throughout the entire National Park System.

Parks have been welcoming back visitors since late April, when Denali National Park in Alaska reopened its main road, and more than two-thirds of the National Park Service’s sites are now available to travelers in some capacity.

Among them? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most popular national park in the country, which began a phased reopening on May 9.

The park immediately faced crowding issues on Mother’s Day weekend when visitors flocked in from at least two dozen states, according to the Associated Press. A park spokesperson, Dana Soehn, said visitors breezed past barricades without personal protective equipment to still-closed areas.

“It seemed like people were not respecting our suggestion that they avoid crowded areas,” Soehn told the AP.

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And the popularity of the nation’s parklands may be even greater this summer than ever before. Travelers said they’d feel most comfortable traveling to a state or national park this year (nearly 44%), according to a new TPG special report. In addition to the promise of wide-open spaces, parklands across the nation will also simply reopen faster than other attractions, such as theme parks.

But many parks are still in the earliest stages of reopening. Just last week, one June 1, all the entrances to Yellowstone National Park were unlocked.

While the NPS is testing public access at a handful of major parks, acting Park Service director David Vela told the Associated Press that travelers should expect “a different normal” and manage expectations accordingly. Park visitors need to know that some areas and facilities may still not be accessible even when the main gates are open.

Related: How to stay near a national park using points

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Related: 19 national parks every traveler needs to see at least once

Beyond the mist-shrouded mountains crossing Tennessee and North Carolina, other major parks are taking steps toward reopening. Here’s what to expect at 17 of the country’s most popular national parks right now.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park began a phased reopening, starting with primary roads and trails, on May 9. That’s when motor vehicle access to the Blue Ridge Parkway began resuming in phases, too.

Some roads within the park are still closed to motorists, but are open for pedestrians and cyclists. All trails and backcountry campsites and shelters are open, but with reduced capacity, according to the park’s notifications page. As of June 8, five visitor centers were open, including Cable Mill in Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Mingus Mill near Oconaluftee, Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Sugarlands Visitor Center. Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds are open, with Elkmont reopening on June 15.

Related: Guide to choosing the best Pigeon Forge cabin rental

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park. (Photo by Brent Clark Photography/Getty Images)
Bryce Canyon National Park. (Photo by Brent Clark Photography/Getty Images)

The main park road and all viewpoints are open, as are many popular trails in the Bryce Amphitheater area; the visitor center and bookstore are also open. Park entrance fees and passes are also being collected at this time. Backcountry trails and permits for backcountry camping will reopen by July 1.

While the park’s Rainbow Bus Tour is still not open, the park’s free shuttle service has resumed. Effective June 15, private horse use reservations will resume within the park, and The Lodge will be open for overnight lodging. Dining service within The Lodge remains closed.

Zion National Park

About 80 miles away from Bryce Canyon, Utah’s most popular national park, Zion, opened with “limited operations” on May 13. At this time, “many of the trails in Zion Canyon are open, and the Zion Lodge is offering limited services such as take-out food, some lodging and the gift shop.”

Some campgrounds, the museum, the chain section of Angels Landing, the Canyon Overlook trail and Kolob Canyons remain closed. Outdoor visitor orientation and information services will be in designated areas near the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Climbing, canyoneering, overnight backpacking and areas requiring permits are also still off-limits.

Parking frequently fills up on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive by the late morning, so travelers should be prepared to wait for access. The park is currently not charging entry fees, and advises would-be visitors to make alternate plans if the park is temporarily restricting access because of limited parking spots.

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Park officials began allowing “increased recreational access” on May 29. Unlike Zion, nearly all park roads, restrooms and trails are open. Backcountry, canyoneering and climbing permits are available. What remains closed? Visitors centers, park stores, the Fiery Furnace and backcountry camping at Arches, the Devils Garden campground at Arches and the Willow Flat and Needles campgrounds in Canyonlands. Fee collection also remains suspended at both parks.

Denali National Park

In Alaska, visitors can once again drive on sections of Denali Park Road. The Denali and Eielson visitor centers will tentatively reopen on July 1. The Murie Science and Learning Center will not open this summer, and the sled dog kennels will likely be closed to visitors for the remainder of the season. Entrance fees have been reinstated.

Most of the campgrounds will be open June 16, with a few opening in early July. Wonder Lake is the only campground that might not open in 2020, but that’s yet to be determined. All narrated tour and transit bus reservations are suspended until July 1.

Everglades National Park

In Florida, sections of Everglades National Park began to reopen on May 4. At this time, Royal Palm; Research Road; Long Pine Key picnic area and trails; West Lake; Guy Bradley trail; the Flamingo day-use area; and the Coastal Prairie trail have reopened. Canoe, kayak and skiff rentals are also available at Flamingo. Wilderness beach campsites, marine waters and select facilities are also open. Entry fees will continue to be waived, and all visitor centers are still closed. On June 1, guided tours resumed at reduced capacity.

Also on June 1, the Shark Valley and Gulf Coast visitor areas reopened, although visitor center buildings remained. Backcountry wilderness camping has also resumed, with the exception of North Nest Key which remains closed for public health reasons.

Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park. (Photo by Mint Images/Getty Images)
Olympic National Park. (Photo by Mint Images/Getty Images)

On June 10, the Kalaloch area opened for day-use recreation, including Ruby Beach. On June 12, the Kalaloch Lodge, The Mercantile and the Log Cabin Resort all opened. Lake Crescent Lodge is also open, but dining at the lodge is takeout only for guests staying at the property.

The Lake Crescent area is also open for day-use recreation, including the Barnes Point area, select picnic areas and the Storm King boat launch. At this time, most coastal areas of Olympic National Park remain closed, including trails, beaches and parking areas, with the exception of the Kalaloch area. Overnight camping, including wilderness camping, is still suspended until further notice.

Sol Duc Road and Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort are both open, as well as Heart O’ the Hills area, Elwha, the Staircase area, North Shore Road and July Creek picnic area in Quinalt.

Yellowstone National Park

According to a notice on its website, Yellowstone National Park opened its Montana entrances on June 1. The park’s Wyoming entrances reopened on May 18, when the governor lifted of out-of-state travel restrictions.

All five entrances to the park are open, almost two months after it closed — but the park will be open only for day use, with no overnight accommodations. As of June 1, visitors can access restrooms, self-service gas stations, trails, some stores and medical facilities.

Xanterra Travel Collection, the primary operator of most hotels and campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park, is planning on restarting operations on June 15, according to NBC Montana.

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming also began its phased reopening on May 18. Travelers can expect primary road access, day-use hiking on seasonally available trails and access to fishing. Day hiking on multiuse paths, select public restrooms and certain tours (biking and wildlife tours, for example) are also available to visitors.

Campgrounds and cabins have begun to reopen, and some take-away food services are available again. Park waters have opened to boating and floating for the season.

Visitors can drive the Teton Park, Moose-Wilson and North Park roads, and Jenny Lake and the Colter Bay areas are accessible. Select visitor centers and dining locations will reopen by June 15.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park’s phased reopening began on May 27. On June 4, the park entered phase two with a temporary timed entry system that will be eliminated at a later stage.

“We are eager to welcome visitors back …” said park superintendent Darla Sidles. “This system will more safely manage the pace and flow of visitor use, reduce crowding and provide an improved visitor experience in alignment with the park’s safe operational capacity.”

Reservations to enter the park are currently available through July 31, and the next release will be on July 1, for the month of August and any remaining days that have not been booked for July.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah, which did not close to visitors until April 8, has begun a progressive, phased reopening: The entire park is now open 24 hours; the backcountry is open for overnight camping; campgrounds are open at a limited capacity; Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon/Cedar Run circuit trails are open; all boundary trailheads are open; and picnic grounds are open, except for Dickey Ridge picnic grounds.

From June 11 to 26, select lodges, camp stores and visitor centers will reopen, but masks are required inside. Entry fees apply and restrooms are limited.

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park. (Photo by Dermot Conlan/Getty Images)
Acadia National Park. (Photo by Dermot Conlan/Getty Images)

Acadia National Park’s Park Loop Road, hiking trails and carriage roads are now open. Campgrounds, picnic areas, Wildwood Stables and Thunder Hole remain closed. The visitor center is open in an outdoor setting and their restaurant is open for takeout, and entrance fees are required. Island Explorer Bus service for the park was postponed indefinitely.

Unless you’re a Maine resident, though, a trip to Acadia this summer may be simply out of the question. Gov. Janet Mills just extended through the summer an executive order requiring all out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days. If you’re found in violation of the order, you’ll be faced with an up to $1,000 fine, or six months in jail, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Yosemite National Park

California’s Yosemite National Park mostly reopened June 11, and Tioga Road will open June 15. The Mist Trail, lower Yosemite Fall boulders, Bridalveil Fall area, Crane Flat Helibase and Chowchilla Mountain Road all remain closed.

Travelers only visiting for the day would be required to apply for a day-access permit, and 80% of reservations for June and July became available Tuesday, June 9. Some trails would only permit one-way traffic, and cables on Half Dome opened June 5.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, also in California, has reopened. Visitors can access trails, roads and parking lots, as well as individual campsites and most bathroom facilities. Campsite reservations are now first come, first served. Visitor centers and group campsites are closed.

Glacier National Park

Montana’s Glacier National Park began reopening on June 8. Portions of the west side of the park are now open for day-use only. Lodges are currently closed, but Glacier National Park Lodges will reopen June 15, and food service is take-out only.

Guided day hiking tours with outfitter Glacier Guides are expected to restart on June 12, with overnight trips beginning June 20. Campground reopening is still tentative; they might not reopen until the end of June.

Boat tours and rentals will be closed for the 2020 season, and the iconic Glacier shuttles will also not be running.

Grand Canyon National Park

View from Pipe Creek Vista on the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. (Photo by: MyLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
View from Pipe Creek Vista on the South Rim. (Photo by MyLoupe/Universal Images Group /Getty Images)

Grand Canyon National Park has partially reopened, according to a schedule published on its site. The south entrance to the South Rim is open Mather Campground will open for existing reservations only and some overnight lodging is open, with others reopening on June 15. The North Rim will be open too, but only for day use.

With additional reporting by Alberto Riva and Mimi Wright.

Featured photo of Yellowstone National Park by Ed Freeman/Getty Images.

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