A Grand Canyon park ranger's plea to the public: "please, stay home!"
During the time of COVID-19, there are quite a few National Parks that remain open to the public. We spoke with a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park to get a detailed view of what’s happening on the ground in one of America’s most popular parks. Our source requested to remain anonymous to protect their job. This interview took place the week of March 23, 2020.
Question: How is Grand Canyon National Park handling the COVID-19 crisis?
Answer: The park has been closing visitor services bit by bit as we can. It is Spring Break, and visitors are coming from across the US and risk spreading the virus to park staff and visitors. It’s frightening to see how many visitors are still coming to the park, crowding the rim, and acting as if there is no pandemic. Especially since we’ve pulled staff from manning entrance booths for their safety, there is minimal crowd control. The National Parks in general are already short-staffed and unable to deal with a pandemic. I do not feel like we have the ability and resources to keep visitors safe, nor to protect our natural and cultural resources from the people crowding into the park.
Q: How is park staff specifically affected by the crisis?
A: Around 2,500 people live & work at the Grand Canyon. A third of those people live below the poverty line and many don’t have health insurance. We are 1-1.5 hours away from any social services, and our community cannot afford to be swept by this virus. We have a tiny medical clinic that will be overloaded quickly. Our one small school has closed, and our small food pantry is already empty. In the course of the job, staff interacts with thousands of people, and the infection risk is off-the-charts. We can't manage to have "fewer than 10" people at one location nor can we manage "social distancing". I have seen the most oblivious behavior from visitors: how can they not know we are in a pandemic, or do they just not think they can get sick or make others sick?
Park staff have been exposed to visitors from all over the world for several weeks. Everyday we get an update on the number of people from our community who have contracted the virus, the number of people in the county who have it, and the number who have died. The Navajo Nation has requested that all of their people return home and shelter in place: they have more courage than the political leaders of Arizona.
Q: How could people respond better to the pandemic with regards to the National Parks?
A: People don't seem to realize that the same reasons that sporting events, restaurants, Disneyland, movie theaters, etc. are closed are the exact same reasons why it is unsafe to visit national parks at this time. "Fresh air" and being outside is all well and good: sharing that space with others is not. Please, PLEASE ask the public to stay away from the parks at this time. Despite what the Secretary of Interior is saying, most of my colleagues at the Grand Canyon feel the park should be closed.
I want to enjoy our public lands, and I want others to enjoy them as well. Now is not that time. Only a tiny percent of people ever get into the backcountry: most are crowded into small areas. Now is not the time to come to national parks. Please, America, stay at home.
Update as of 4/1: Grand Canyon National Park has been closed to the general public indefinitely.
How America's National Parks are responding to Coronavirus
The novel Coronavirus has most Americans staying in their homes, going a little stir crazy, and looking for things to do to pass the time that still adhere to social distancing guidelines. To that end, spending time in the wilderness is a good alternative activity. How are America’s National Parks handling the crisis, and how should we enjoy them responsibly during this historic time? On Wednesday, the Department of Interior secretary David Bernhardt waived entrance fees for the National Park system, in order to make it easier for Americans to get outside. In most of the vacation towns surrounding some of the remote parks, hotels have been closed, preventing people from traveling from far away. Should you want a National Park adventure near your home, that is an affordable option. In a press release, the National Park Service said that “The NPS is modifying operations, until further notice, for facilities and programs that cannot adhere to this guidance. Where it is possible to adhere to this guidance, outdoor spaces will remain open to the public.” Each park is taking different steps to mitigate the risk of the virus, as determined by each park's superintendent. Parks that are in cities and see heavy crowds, such as the Statue of Liberty or Smithsonian Museums, are closed entirely. Parks that see heavy crowds in more remote locations have opted to encourage social distancing by closing shuttles, visitors centers, and sometimes the park entirely. For example, in Zion National Park, the shuttle system has been closed down, causing long lines for parking. If you do decide to travel to a National Park, please do your best to be mindful of your personal impact. Continue to follow social distancing guidelines, as well as good Leave No Trace guidelines. We urge you to check the National Park Service website for the National Park of your choice to be sure you are aware of any contingencies that need to be made.
Celebrate Fall In 6 Ultra-Autumnal National Parks
If you associate fall travel with perfect weather, elbow room, and a dose of vibrant foliage, you’re thinking like a Budget Traveler. So, what makes a national park ideal for autumn? Our criteria includes moderate temperatures, a low risk of tropical storms, and either small crowds or a hack or two to manage the hordes. And by choosing a national park for your getaway, you’re guaranteeing value – each park is adjoined by affordable lodging, and ample camping opportunities abound. Here, six national parks that provide something special in October and November–and one that’s even balmy and inviting well into December. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina Best Time for a Fall Visit: October through mid-November Hands-down the best national park for fall foliage, the Great Smoky Mountains are also a balmy place to enjoy hiking and camping into mid-November. At press time, vibrant colors are already starting to pop in the higher elevations, but the foliage forecast for 2019 suggests that the park’s maples, oaks, and autumn wildflowers will peak in November this year, leaving plenty of time to plan your trip. Bear in mind that autumn is a peak season for visitors to GSMNP – it can be as busy as summer. But we’ve got a hack for that: It’s a good idea to see the sights early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid crowds and traffic. Midday, explore one of the park’s gateway communities, such as Gatlinburg, TN, which Budget Travel named one of the Coolest Small Towns in America. We’re also quite psyched that the state of Tennessee has installed “colorblind viewfinders” in the park, which will help visually challenged visitors experience the vibrant colors as Mother Nature intended. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas Best Time for a Fall Visit: October through mid-November Fall can be a time to discover a national park you’ve never heard of before, and the Guadalupe Mountains, east of El Paso, fit the bill. Here, you’ll experience gorgeous mountains, canyons, and even desert sand dunes, all accessible via miles of hiking trails. Don’t miss the chance to hike to the “Top of Texas,” elevation 8700ft, on the Guadalupe Peak Trail (and be ready for some Instagrammable moments at the top). Visit the ruins of a stagecoach station at the Pine Spring visitor center, and see a restored ranch and its accompanying museum near the Smith Spring trailhead. Though Texas may not be especially known for its fall colors, the hardwood trees along the McKittrick Canyon Trail in Guadalupe’s northern section put on quite a show starting in mid-October. And consider stretching your stay with a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, about a half-hour’s drive north, in New Mexico. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia Best Time for a Fall Visit: October through mid-November An easy escape from Mid-Atlantic and Southeast cities like Baltimore, DC, and Richmond, Shenandoah National Park is a good idea any time of year, but in autumn you’ll find fewer crowds, moderate temperatures, and the vibrant colors of the park’s maples, sumacs, and sassafras. Ideal for hiking, or just auto-touring the majestic Skyline Drive, Shenandoah is also one of the finest environments in the US for birdwatching and viewing the night sky. Drop by the Dickey Ridge visitor center for a schedule of upcoming ranger-led programs, which include talks about the park’s history and wildlife, hands-on programs, and ranger-led hikes that can feel like the ultimate outdoor classroom. Yosemite National Park, California Best Time for a Fall Visit: October and November Yes, Yosemite is spectacular year-round, but autumn is a sweet spot during which temperatures in the Yosemite and Wawona Valleys can remain in the 60s and 70s but summer crowds have vanished. (That being said, it’s important to remember that at higher elevations, lows in the 30s and the chance of snow arrive with fall, so short-term closures of some roads and areas are possible after September.) Enjoy independent or guided hikes and iconic sights such as Half-Dome, El Capitan, and Vernal Falls (rivers and waterfalls, including the famous Yosemite Falls, tend to run low or even dry in fall). In mid-October, you may spot some fall foliage among the park’s sugar maples, black oaks, cottonwoods, and dogwoods, but overall the forests of Yosemite are filled with evergreens, whose deep greens can evoke a feeling of endless summer on a sunny autumn day. Zion National Park Best Time for a Fall Visit: October and November We’ll be honest: The number-one reason to visit Zion in October or November is the cool temperatures, a relief from summer’s mind-blowingly intense heat. Minus summer’s heat and crowds, Zion is a perfect place for taking in the splendor of red sandstone cliffs by day and stargazing by night (the state of Utah has taken exceptional measures to reduce light pollution). The park is closed to private vehicles, and a spectacular shuttle system takes you to trailheads and other points of interest. Epic hikes such as the Narrows are the main draw here. Stop by a visitor center for a weather update, as flash floods can occur any time of year and pose a danger to hikers. And though Zion is not exactly a leaf-peeper’s mecca, October visitors will see their share of reds, yellows, and oranges. And the park is one of the finest for camping, with ample BLM sites available free of charge. Looking for something a little more luxe? Glamping sites just outside the park’s borders are increasingly popular. Everglades National Park, Florida Best Time for a Fall Visit: November and December If you’re looking for a national park to visit in late fall, the Everglades, Florida’s peerless natural environment featuring beautiful waterways and wildlife that includes black bear and gators, is ideal. Though temperatures in this region of Florida tend to be balmy year-round, starting in November, the dry season begins, lasting into April. Dry season means it’s not as hot and humid as the summer months (dry season temperatures range from highs in the upper 70s to lows in the mid-50s), the risk of tropical storms is, at least in theory, over, and pests such as mosquitoes and biting flies vanish. Wildlife viewing is enhanced in fall, as animals gather around ever-shrinking watering holes, and birdwatching is exceptional as many feathered species head to South Florida to escape the approaching chill up north.
American Airlines Is Adding More Flights to National Parks in the US
American Airlines has announced that it is adding more flights to Montana and Alaska, which will enable travelers to visit national parks there. This means that it will offer 17 routes to both states next summer. The airline will add four new seasonal flights to Montana from Philadelphia, New York City and Los Angeles. Based on the success of its new service to Glacier National Park Airport in Kalispell, it is also switching to a larger aircraft on the Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago flights. “National parks are a huge attraction for many families,” said Vasu Raja, vice president of network and schedule planning. “As soon as school’s out next year, our customers will have more than 145 weekly flights to and from Montana to choose from. This summer, we launched three new flights to Glacier National Park in Kalispell, and next summer, we’re expanding with more services to discover the natural wonders.” The airline will also introduce three new routes to Alaska. It is providing two new ways to get to Alaska’s second-largest city, Fairbanks, through Dallas Fort-Worth and Chicago. The new routes will serve travellers who are looking to explore Denali National Park, check out caribou or learn about the unique glaciers. With the daily service beginning in May 2020, the airline is offering one-stop connections from 56 new cities. It is also introducing a new service between Chicago and Anchorage. You can check out the flights on American Airlines' website here.
How to Plan a Trip to Glacier National Park from Seattle by Train
In a remote region of North America, there’s a place where trekking across glaciers and through alpine meadows are a common pastime. A destination where wildlife outnumber people and bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and bears are common sights. Nearly 9 hours from Seattle, Glacier National Park only seems possible by sacrificing long hours behind the wheel. Many Seattleites and visitors to the Pacific Northwest opt for exploring the Olympic Peninsula or North Cascades instead. However, West Glacier and Whitefish are both a straight shot from the city by train, making the trip both budget-friendly and easier on the environment. Though taking the train to Glacier may simplify some things, it still requires a lot of planning, from purchasing train tickets to securing campsites. There are also a number of factors to consider to keep the trip affordable, particularly during the summer months. Getting There The Amtrak Empire Builder from Seattle to Glacier operates year-round, with one-way prices available for as low as $50, depending on the date. If your budget allows for a Superliner Roomette – starting at about $200 – it’s worth it for the extra space and included meals. The most common route is from Seattle’s King Street Station to West Glacier Station. However, if you’re traveling in the busy season, taking the train to Whitefish may help you save on accommodations. The train trip is about five hours longer than taking the same route by car, which is why many people opt for the overnight ride. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to plan alternative means of transportation to reach the park. What to Pack For backpackers, a lot of your trip should be planned around Apgar, as that’s where you’ll most likely stock up on food and supplies. In addition to packing bear spray, a food storage bag and the usual camping necessities, you’ll want to have an idea of how far you want to go in order to decide how much food and water you’ll need to have on hand. There are food options at lodges throughout the park, but they often have long lines during peak season and are not as budget-friendly. Water purifiers and lightweight camping stoves are also worth considering for those planning longer trips. Even if you’re planning to “glamp” or stay in a budget hotel, it’s important to carry many of the same essentials for long hikes or bike rides through the wilderness. Once You Arrive During the busy season, traffic in Glacier National Park may be enough to make you thankful you took the train. One perk during peak season, however, is the number of shuttles and tours operating throughout the park and surrounding areas, including a free shuttle service that runs the full length of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Another popular pick, the Red Bus Tours operate from early June through late September with departure points at Apgar Visitor Center, Lake McDonald Lodge and several other locations. There are also shuttle services that cart hikers directly from the West Glacier Train Station to Lake McDonald Lodge and the Village Inn. Biking is another inexpensive option for those who prefer to get a workout in. Rentals are available on the Gateway to Glacier Bike Path, less than a couple miles from the West Glacier entrance. The trail is paved and spans a little more than 10 miles from West Glacier to Hungry Horse, with lots of places to stop and eat along the way. If you’re staying in Whitefish or the surrounding area, the Glacier Express Shuttle travels back and forth between Whitefish and Apgar. There’s also a 24-hour taxi service that runs year-round throughout Flathead County with pick-up locations at Glacier National Airport and the Amtrak stations in both Whitefish and West Glacier. Where to Stay When booking campsites, the most important consideration to make is how you’ll get there. If they aren’t accessible by foot, make sure there’s a shuttle or taxi service that makes stops in an area that’s within walking distance of where you plan to stay. Backcountry permits can be obtained at any of the ranger stations and are $7 or less per night. If you plan on going north of Goat Haunt Ranger Station, you’ll also need to make sure you have your passport handy. If you prefer not to camp, the Belton Chalet is a convenient option, as it’s located directly across from West Glacier Station. Glacier Guides Lodge, Apgar Village Lodge and Glacier Raft Company’s accommodations are all on the less expensive end, as well as some of the yurts at Glacier Under Canvas. For those visiting in the off-season, be sure to check which lodging is still available. When to Visit Glacier National Park experiences some of its most stunning scenery (and lowest prices) during the shoulder seasons. Autumn is ideal for colorful foliage photos and floating on the river, while late Spring is a good fit for avid bikers and those who don’t mind a little snow. Cross-country skiers and snowshoeing enthusiasts should also take advantage of the low prices in January and February. It’s still possible to visit Glacier from July through September, but you have to be more strategic in order to save. Make sure to book all transportation far in advance and research which campsites allow reservations. Also note that most tours, shuttle services and park lodges don’t operate outside of peak season.
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