I went to Glacier and Yellowstone; 6 ways visiting national parks is weird right now
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I just returned from a very strange trip. It was my first big foray into the wider world since the coronavirus epidemic really took hold back in March. I’ve been ensconced safely at my father’s ranch near Butte, Montana, for months. It’s definitely Big Sky Country here in the Jefferson River Valley, but I was eager to hit the road and I figured visiting the nearby national parks would be a great way to test the waters of travel again.
I spent two nights inside Yellowstone National Park, and two nights in Glacier National Park. Yellowstone was the first to open back in late May, but it was only allowing entrance from the Wyoming side as Montana had a 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors until June 1. Now all the five park entrances are open in Yellowstone (three in Montana and two in Wyoming).
Only one entrance into Glacier is currently open, on the western side of the park. The eastern entrance is currently closed and there’s no timeline on when it may reopen. Do note that much of Glacier National Park is still off limits.
1. Much smaller crowds
I’ve been to Yellowstone and Glacier many times in my life, including during what is traditionally considered the off season in the parks, in late September. I’ve never seen so few people there. It’s especially glaring as this would normally be close to peak season, when kids are out of school and many families are enjoying the parks.
Interestingly, some reports suggest during the Memorial Day holiday weekend, Yellowstone was only fractionally less crowded than the same weekend last year, but that wasn’t my experience a few weeks later.
And while it was still more crowded than I expected, I was pretty shocked at the relative lack of crowding in mid-June. I never had trouble finding places to park even at the top attractions in the park like Old Faithful. In fact, there was front-row parking at all the attractions.
Indeed, the National Park Service said during the first three days of Yellowstone’s reopening on May 18th, there was “less than 20% of the normal traffic volume in the park compared to when all five entrances are open.” Those numbers have definitely increased since then, but there were times driving through the park when I didn’t see a single other vehicle. Now, there were still crowds especially at Old Faithful and the Upper and Lower Falls in Yellowstone, and in the very limited places to see at Glacier, but it was nothing like is typical this time of year.
I will say that only a tiny fraction of Glacier was open to the public, and that tended to concentrate the crowds.
2. Very few wearing masks
I was most shocked by the lack of people wearing masks. As you can see from above there were some people donning masks at the most crowded spots like Old Faithful, but for the most part it was almost mask-free.
I’d estimate 5% of people in Yellowstone were wearing masks, and it was more like 2% in Glacier. Percentages were better inside of lobbies and restaurants but not by much. I saw license plates from almost every state in the Union and I’m sure some people packed COVID-19 with their hiking boots. I wore a mask even during hikes especially near crowds, but I felt like the odd man out.
Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly said in a statement:
“We expect the public to partner with us to protect each other. While we are taking many actions to mitigate health concerns, including widespread messaging, signage, and direct public interface, the National Park Service in Yellowstone will not be actively telling citizens to spread out and put masks on, especially outdoors. While we recommend it, per CDC guidelines, primarily in areas where social distancing cannot be adhered to, we will not be enforcing the wearing of masks in outdoor areas.”
I wonder if that will change as crowds continue to grow this summer. Hopefully an outbreak won’t force their hands.
3. Much is still closed
When I was at Yellowstone in mid-June, most of the park sites and roads were open, but most restrooms and park facilities were still closed. Same thing with the campgrounds and lodging. That is changing rapidly, however, as the phased reopening continues.
Many restaurants will not open this season, and the ones that are open are take-out only with strict social distancing required. Mask wearing was not common in any of the interior spaces I visited (except for the picture below), but people were fairly good about social distancing.
Glacier was even more shut down. There is really only one main highway through Glacier National Park, and other roads in the park were completely closed. The famous “Going-to-the-Sun Road” that starts at the Western entrance was open, but only for about 15 miles total going north. Part of that was due to snow — always tricky in the mountains of northern Montana — but more of the park is usually open by this time of year.
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You can basically only access the area around Lake McDonald up to the Avalanche Creek area. The two days I was there, cars were only being let in for a few hours in the morning and then again in the evening. Once the Avalanche Creek area campground filled with cars, rangers began turning would-be hikers and bikers arriving in vehicles away. The cool thing is it meant the Going-to-the-Sun Road was then basically a walking and biking trail. Some of the folks I chatted with said they’d walked as far as 16 miles up the road to see the glaciers up close.
The park gates are no longer being closed at 4:30pm so that is progress. There are reports that Camas Road near the Apgar visitor center is open once more, but that the visitor center is closed for now. Rangers are stationed outside most visitor centers during the day to answer questions.
The east side of Glacier is bordered by the Blackfeet Native American tribal lands and is closed for outsiders at least through June 30. Out of respect for the tribe, the park’s east side roads, trails and campgrounds will remain closed until tribal leaders say it’s ok to open.
The park does plan to start issuing backcountry hiking permits beginning June 26, and more of the park is likely to open later in the summer.
4. Very little camping/lodging
Yellowstone will have just 550 hotel rooms available this summer — normally they have more than 2,300 — and some of the traditional lodges will not reopen this season. For example at Old Faithful Lodge (where I stayed) only the cabins were open for overnight stays, not the main hotel. Same deal at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel where only the cabins were available when I was there.
Campgrounds were not open when I was in Yellowstone, but all campgrounds did reportedly open back up on June 19.
At Glacier National Park, the only place to stay in the park is the Lake McDonald lodge which still has some rooms available for last-minute bookings.
Hopefully campgrounds will again be opened at some point this summer.
5. Waived entry fees (sometimes)
I was very lucky when I visited the parks. At Yellowstone, at the main gate I was all set to purchase a season pass to visit all the parks all year for $80, a great deal considering each entrance fee would be as much as $25 a pop. When I told the agent what I wanted he said that they weren’t collecting entrance fees because the computers were down.
Related: The best times to visit Yellowstone
Then at Glacier when I arrived in the evening, there were no rangers collecting entrance fees and a sign suggested there was no charge at this time. Apparently when the park reopened they weren’t initially collecting fees, but now are sporadically.
Back in March, the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to eliminate entrance fees for the national parks until further notice, but it’s unclear when that expired or will expire.
Related: Visiting Yellowstone
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said at the time, “I’ve directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open. This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks.”
6. Very few bathrooms
One of the most important things to know about visiting the national parks right now is about bathrooms. Most of the ones I came across in both parks were closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. If you go, definitely have a plan for the call of nature. The many folks driving motor homes were best positioned here, but be sure to plot out your visit and use bathrooms wherever you find them.
I had an amazing time visiting Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. It was definitely a weird experience, but the thin crowds made it a wonderful visit. I’ve never seen so much wildlife as I did on this trip to Yellowstone. I saw a mother grizzly bear and her cubs near Mammoth Springs and another male grizzly bear the next morning by the side of the road. I got to watch bison mingle with traffic, elk graze nonchalantly all over, and even scored the grand prize in the Yellowstone bingo — a long look at a pack of 11 wolves hunting near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
I highly recommend a visit, but pack your masks and make sure you have a plan for where to stay and available bathrooms before you go.
Featured photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.
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