How to Enjoy the Outdoors with COVID-19: Tips for Visitors to United States National and State Parks

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(Last Updated On: October 8, 2020)

By Lukas Saville (Contributing Freelance Writer)

As we continue adapting to a new normal in preventing the spread of COVID-19, outdoor enthusiasts are finding ways to get back outside safely. Being outside isn’t just good for your physical health, it can help combat feelings of anxiety, stress, and worry brought on by the uncertainty of the global pandemic. Following guidelines set by local governments and keeping the wellbeing of ourselves and our neighbors in mind, makes it possible to get your much-needed fix of mountain air. These recommendations are based on official public health guidelines in the national and state parks. However, you can always refer to official websites for additional information.

General Guidelines for Travelers

Presently, international visitors are not encouraged to visit United Sates national or state parks. Visitors from some countries are currently barred from entering the U.S. Others are still advised to avoid all non-essential travel. So consider spending this time planning your trip for years to come. The parks will be glad to welcome you back when it’s time. In the meantime, keep up to date on current travel restrictions to and from the United States.

Inter-state travel for tourism and recreation is generally discouraged. Check the guidelines and rules set by the states where parks are. If they recommend against out-of-state visitors, you can still plan your trip for another time.

Currently, responsible travel within most states for locals is permitted, including travel to national parks, provincial parks, and campgrounds.

Mandatory health regulations

Heading to a state or national park away from your now all-too-familiar living room? There are a few things you’ll have to keep in mind while you move around the parks.

Physical Distancing

The CDC has recommended physical distancing in all national and state parks. You’ll need to keep 6-feet distance between yourself and people of different households at all times, including on trails, near bathrooms, in campsites, and everywhere else. Hiking and adventure travel expert and founder of 10Adventures Richard Campbell noted, “Trail etiquette now includes turning away from passing hikers so you’re not facing one another on narrow sections. Groups are giving as wide a berth as possible to others, and some hikers are wearing masks in cramped sections of trail. It’s great to see fellow hikers look after one another.”

Masks

Mandatory face masks and coverings are required in some of the towns and cities that connect visitors to popular parks. Check if your state requires that you wear a mask or face covering when inside public places (including grocery stores, gas stations, and on public transit) or when physical distancing isn’t possible. Some municipalities require you to wear a mask whenever you’re not at home, which may include while on the trail. More towns and cities near parks and trails may implement this rule, so make sure you have your masks on you before heading out.

Symptoms

If you have any COVID-19 symptoms, you’re legally required to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days. If you’re in close contact of someone with COVID-19, you are also required to self-isolate for 14 days and monitor yourself for symptoms. The trails will be there once you’re healthy again.

Planning your visit

When planning your visit, you need to cover all the usual bases: where you’re going, what you’ll need to bring, what the conditions are like, and who you’re travelling with. With COVID-19 in question, there are a few more considerations before hitting the trails.

Traffic

Consider how busy the trail or area you want to visit will be. Outdoors expert Richard Campbell observed how busy trails in the Rockies had been since the onset of the pandemic: “Despite the relative lack of non-local adventurers, some trails are experiencing more local visitors than normal. Locals are eager to get outside for fresh air after months of staying home, so trails are still fairly busy.” Physical distancing is harder on packed trails, so Richard recommends trying to choose an excursion that sees less foot traffic, going midweek instead of on the weekend, or going early in the morning.

Safety

Now more than ever, it’s best to choose trails that are well within your comfort level. Rescue crews are working on limited capacity. Each rescue they perform could involve a potential COVID exposure and increase demand on the healthcare system in local areas. Stay safe and leave that technical scramble for another time.

Extra things to pack

Besides your usual essentials, national parks are often advising visitors to pack their own “COVID-kit.” Bring hand sanitizer, masks, water, and snacks. Some facilities aren’t offering their full range of services. It is therefore up to you to keep your hands clean and your supplies packed to minimize the need to stop in at local stores.

Travel

Smaller townships near parks may benefit from you avoiding stopping in town unless absolutely necessary. Make your coffee at home and fill your tank ahead of time so you don’t need to pull in at a service station on the way to your hike. This can reduce transmission of the virus to smaller towns that don’t have adequate healthcare facilities in place to deal with outbreaks.

Camping and Reservations

Some newly reopened park facilities, including campgrounds, require advance reservations during the pandemic. Make sure you book your campsite online ahead of time.

Some national parks, like Yosemite, have moved to a reservation-based access system. This change allows them to control the number of visitors in the park at a given time. You won’t be able to just drive up, pay your fee, and enter. Check with your park and see if you need to book your visit ahead of time.

What’s open and what’s closed

Most national parks are using a phased reopening system that can be scaled-back should public health require. About two-thirds of regular parks and services are currently open to some degree. However, this number is subject to change. 

Generally, most trails are open and campsites’ accessible. Also, some public restrooms and visitor centers are open along permitted access of motor vehicles. What’s closed differs from park to park. Park facility closures could include swimming areas and hot springs, shuttle services, events centers, and select campsites.

Armed with all this information, we hope you can enjoy the United States’ vast outdoor adventure sites safely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Choose the perfect hike and go enjoy the outdoors.

How to Enjoy the Outdoors with COVID-19: Tips for Visitors to United States National and State Parks