Is 2021 the year to venture back to America’s national parks?

Is 2021 the year to venture back to America’s national parks?

For most of the last year, Dan Stark has been cooped up in his home in south-west Portland, Oregon. But with spring upon us – and Stark’s first vaccination shot – he and his family have been dreaming of summer vacation. “We’ve been talking about what our Covid freedom trip is going to be,” he says.

The family settled on plans for an RV trip the first week of July, by which time, they reasoned, they’d all be vaccinated. Stark began looking into parks the family had yet to experience and set his sights on Montana’s Glacier national park, known for its dramatic mountain views and stunning alpine lakes.

As the weather warms and more people are vaccinated, many Americans are making similar plans. But is 2021 the year to venture to a national park?

Visitors to Mount Rainier national park walk toward a sledding area.

Pick your park wisely

The answer depends on what you’re looking for from the experience, and which park you’re planning to visit. Glacier, for instance, is one of the more popular national parks; between 2014 and 2019, Glacier was the 10th most visited national park, bringing in between 2 and 3 million visitors annually. In early April, the National Park Service announced that Glacier, along with Yosemite and Rocky Mountain, two other busy parks, will require visitors to obtain a day use pass before entering the park beginning in late May.

Stark says that once he began researching a trip to Glacier, he also saw signs of high demand: other planners, posting in online forums like Reddit, discussed the competitive permit application process and closed campgrounds. Visitors looking to make firm reservations and avoid the hassle of permits may be better off traveling to smaller, less thronged parks.

If permits and reservations seem like a fair trade for popular parks’ beauty, local communities are likely to be eager for your business. In Montana, the visitors are already beginning to trickle into the Glacier national park area, says Robert DesRosier, Blackfeet Nation’s director of emergency management. The tribe, whose lands are located near the park’s eastern entrance, is preparing to ramp up everything from law enforcement to solid waste processing over the summer. “We’re expecting, just by the indicators and discussions we see, Glacier national park is going to be a huge draw.”

That will be a big change from 2020. Last year, the Blackfeet Nation closed several roads on the western edge of their reservation, which borders the park, in efforts to protect the community from the spread of Covid. But now that 95% of the Blackfeet Nation has received at least one dose of vaccine, the tribe reopened those roads in March. DesRosier hopes that visitors will aid in the economic recovery of the community. “[Covid] really devastated our nation, and we’re still having a hard time,” he says. “As far as tourism goes, we are wide open right now but we do reserve the right, if we had another wave or a variant that causes a lot of cases, we’d consider locking down again.”

Joshua trees are seen near Joshua tree national park in California.

Katie Griffith, a climbing guide living in Joshua Tree, California, is also hopeful that more park visitors means more business. “Every job I’ve had living here depends on people coming here,” says Griffith. “The more people who came over the holidays, the more money I was making at the cafe I worked at, and the more people who come and hire guides, the more work I have.” Lately, she says, Joshua Tree national park has seen a bounty of tourists for spring break season. “As long as people are being respectful of the town, and practicing ‘leave no trace’ principles, and following Covid protocols, I don’t personally have a big issue with people visiting.”

Conditions may change rapidly

If you do plan to visit a national park, be prepared for changing conditions – and don’t expect your visit will look like your pre-pandemic trips. Glacier, for instance, has not yet finalized decisions about which campgrounds will be open this summer, or whether the park’s shuttle buses will be in operation. In other popular parks, like Yosemite, shuttles, tours, and some visitors’ attractions will be closed for the summer, while dining areas will operate with Covid precautions, including social distancing.

Others are learning from last summer. After a busy 2020 season, Washington’s Rainier national park plans to use the same system it did last year: providing visitor information and maps outside instead of in ranger stations, limiting capacity of buildings, and keeping concession stands take-out only, says Terry Wildy, the park’s chief of interpretation, education and volunteers. If you are set on visiting a national park – especially a well-trafficked one – know that Covid precautions will probably make operations a bit different from your pre-pandemic visits.

Yosemite Valley in November.

Another change you might notice: fewer employees on hand. Yosemite, for instance, has cited decreased personnel housing as a reason for eliminating tours and facility availability. On a recent weekend trip to Yosemite, Levi Gadye of Oakland, California, says, he noticed that no employees checked his national park pass on their way in or out of the park’s gates. “On a Saturday, that’s highly unusual,” he says.

He also didn’t see any rangers while hiking the Mist Trail, one of the park’s most visited. Gadye says he realizes the park’s employees are overloaded but that the result is that the “park feels a little less regulated”. That, he worries, might mean less enforcement of national park no-nos like littering. (The National Park Service did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.)

As for Stark, he and his family have decided to scrap their plans for Glacier. “The more I read, the more difficulties seemed to pile up,” he said. Instead, they’re considering quieter parks, such as Lassen Volcanic or Redwoods national park, or even just parking their RV at a lake for the week – a place to enjoy the serenity away from throngs of people.

“There are literally thousands of beautiful uncrowded spots with just as much beauty that we could be more than happy settling upon,” he said.

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