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Going to a national park this year? These tips will help you make the most of your trip

Hikers on a trail in North Cascades National Park, Washington Hikers in North Cascades National Park in Washington. | Photo courtesy National Park Service

Yes, the national parks are open, along with their profound appeal as an inventory of America’s most special places. That allure is stronger than ever in this pandemic era, when so many of us, weary of staying home, long to experience beauty and adventure in the great outdoors.

It’s not too late to plan a national park getaway for this year. But the experience will be different, and it’s important to plan carefully to avoid disappointment. The first step is to simply choose a less-visited destination where physical distancing is built in. Fewer crowds makes for a better park experience anyway. Consider one of the relatively unsung yet definitely beautiful parks featured in this article’s photos. 

There’s an upside to a 2020 park visit, by the way: Visitation is down at some parks and some parks are limiting entry (Yosemite allows 1,700 vehicles per day, for instance). Keep the following tips in mind and you just might have your best park experience ever.

Planning tips for your park vacation

1. Visit the park’s website or call for the latest information. In some cases, we’ve found the recorded phone information to be more up to date than the website. It’s a good idea to check both. Find out of the park is open and what services may be limited or unavailable.

Handy hint: Nearly every park’s web address is two letters of park’s first name, first two letters of park’s second name. Example: Great Basin National Park is One exception: Carlsbad Caverns is If the park has only one name, it’s the first four letters. Example: Or simply visit the Find a Park page on the National Park Service’s website.

North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park, Washington

Rather than Mount Rainier or Crater Lake farther south, consider North Cascades. The park’s alpine environment is magnificent for camping and hiking, and adjacent Ross Lake has boating, fishing, and lodging. The park’s visitors centers are closed, but individual campsites are available. | Photo courtesy National Park Service

2. Pick a park close to home. The less time you spend on the road, the more time you can spend in the park. Plus, you’ll limit the amount of public contact at gas stations and stores along the way. Maybe you’ve been overlooking a park that’s only a day’s drive away.

3. Make reservations for everything. This applies to camping, lodging, and even park entry. This not only provides you reassurance, it can also limit the spread of COVID-19 by eliminating unnecessary close contact with park employees. In some cases, such as at Yosemite, you must make a reservation for park entry. You can make campsite and entry reservations (you print your pass and display it in your vehicle) for most parks through For lodging information, check the park’s website for a link to the concessioner that operates park lodging.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Rather than Glacier National Park in Montana, consider Theodore Roosevelt. The park has scenic drives through two units, north and south, both featuring badlands and rolling prairies, where you’ll see bison, wild horses, and abundant prairie dogs. Most facilities are open, but the campground remains closed. There’s lodging in the adjacent town of Medora, as well as at private Medora Campground on the Little Missouri River. | Photo courtesy National Park Service

4. Check on state travel restrictions. Some states are imposing mandatory quarantines to outside visitors. For example, if you’re considering a visit to Acadia National Park in Maine and you don’t come from a nearby state, you will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or sign a document stating you have tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours. Similarly, in Hawaii, you must show proof of your negative test or else quarantine for 14 days. New Mexico’s policy is even stricter: All travelers must self-quarantine for 14 days or for the duration of their stay, whichever is shorter. The New York Times maintains an updated list of state restrictions here.

5. Hike safely. “Taking a rigorous walk in the fresh air is healthy, as long as it’s not in a group and you’re spaced apart,” said Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, speaking recently to AARP. The CDC recommends staying at least 6 feet away from others, even when you’re hiking outdoors. Avoid crowded trails and carry a face mask to put on when you encounter others on the trail. The National Park Service also suggests that this isn’t the best time to challenge yourself on the hardest hike of your life. You don’t want the park to have to divert resources to bail you out should you become fatigued, lost, or injured.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Rather than Rocky Mountain National Park farther north, consider Great Sand Dunes. The tallest sand dunes in North America rise at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are fun to play in, explore, and photograph, and hiking trails lead into the Sangre de Cristos. Interior exhibits are closed, but campgrounds, trails, and picnic areas are open. | Photo courtesy National Park Service

6. Be aware of the restroom situation. Some facilities, including showers, will be closed. Every park that is open has available restroom facilities, but some individual restrooms might be closed, and some have been replaced by portable toilets—which makes having a sanitation-essentials kit all the more necessary (see Tip No. 8). 

7. Don’t count on the usual pit-stop standbys. Many gas stations have closed their facilities to the public, and most fast-food restaurants are drive-through only. Roadside rest areas may be a safer bet. Where’s the nearest one? The app USA Rest Stops Locator (in the Apple App Store and Google Play) can tell you, though it can’t guarantee that it will be open. Another fairly good bet for open restrooms: grocery stores and big-box retailers like Walmart and Target.

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Rather than the Mighty Five national parks in Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef), consider Great Basin. The park is notable for its night sky, ancient bristlecone pine trees, and the high-altitude Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. The park’s Lehman Cave tours are closed, but the Great Basin Visitors Center and most campgrounds are open. | Photo courtesy National Park Service

8. Pack plenty of sanitation essentials. No matter how long or short your road trip, pack a bag filled with pandemic essentials such as cloth face masks, hand sanitizer (including several small bottles), gloves, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper, and paper towels.

Extra tip: Carry a small bottle of liquid soap for use in public restrooms. Soap and water should be your first choice for handwashing, according to the CDC. Use an alcohol-based hand rub that contains 60 percent alcohol when soap and water are not available.

9. Buy a parks pass. You can purchase individual park-entry permits and make campsite reservations through An annual national parks pass ($80) or a lifetime Senior Pass (for ages 62 and older, $80) can be purchased through the USGS Store online. These are physical passes that can take up to two weeks to deliver, so buy them ahead of your trip. With pass in hand, you can be waved through entrance stations.

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Rather than Everglades National Park in Florida, consider Congaree. The swampy park features old-growth hardwood forests, laced by boardwalks and canoe trails. Summer is hot and humid, but the weather is great from September right on through fall. Outfitters rent canoes and practice social distancing on guided trips. The park campgrounds are closed, but the nearby Barnyard RV Park is open. | Photo courtesy National Park Service

10. Be as self-sufficient as possible. Carry an ice chest and as much food as is practical to reduce food stops. 

11. Consider traveling by RV. Whether you rent one or own one, RVs are the most self-sufficient way to go. You can stock up on food, cook it yourself, and never worry about finding an open restroom or available shower. Inquire at your local AAA branch for discounts on EL Monte RV rentals and to make sure you have the proper roadside assistance and insurance coverage. 

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Rather than Yellowstone, Grand Teton, or Mount Rushmore, consider Badlands. This is wide-open prairie country carved into dramatic formations and narrow canyons by 500,000 years of erosion. The South Unit is closed, but the North Unit—site of the park’s scenic Badlands Loop Road—is open, along with the campground and all hiking trails. | Photo courtesy National Park Service

12. Be prepared for extra restrictions in gateway towns. Many national park gateway towns are requiring face coverings on visitors in public places. Examples include Springdale, Utah, near Zion National Park; Estes Park, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park; and all of Sevier County, Tennessee, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

13. Avoid using cash. Use contactless payment to minimize cash exchanges at counters. Credit cards can be wiped clean; that’s not so easy with cash.

What’s open, what’s closed, what else to expect

Even though the park may be open, indoor facilities such as visitors centers and museums are likely to be closed. However, most parks are finding a way to be visitor-friendly—for example, manning an information table outside the visitors center or stationing rangers at various locations to answer questions.

Not all park entrances are open. For example, Grand Canyon’s East Entrance and the Desert View entrance are temporarily closed due to lockdowns based on health concerns in the Navajo Nation. Similarly, the Blackfeet Nation has closed the east entrances to Glacier National Park in Montana.

Food services will be limited. Some restaurants inside parks are restricted to takeout, and others are closed entirely. Some convenience stores are closed. Larger grocery stores may be open, but it’s best to arrive at the park with your cooler fully stocked.

Shuttle buses may not be running. Yosemite’s shuttles and tour buses, for example, are down for the season, as are the shuttles at Grand Canyon. Zion’s shuttles are running, but you’ll need to purchase a ticket in advance in order to board.

Face masks will be strongly recommended, although at this time they are not mandatory. Park lodges may have stricter policies.

Other changes:

  • Park lodges may be closed or limited. Many parks with lodging have kept at least one location open.
  • Not all campgrounds will be open, and those that are may limit the number of available sites to allow for social distancing.
  • Ranger programs are likely to be curtailed or eliminated. 

National parks enthusiast Robert Earle Howells also writes for National Geographic Traveler and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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