National Parks Set to Reopen Amid Fears of Traffic and Trail Congestion

Zion, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other national parks are set to reopen this week. Park advocates think it may be too soon.

(Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

(CN) — National parks that shuttered during March and April amid coronavirus fears are slowly opening their gates, with Zion National Park in southern Utah opening on Wednesday and more to follow.

The parks reopening comes as President Donald Trump continues to exert pressure on all aspects of the United States to begin reopening again after much of the country endured lockdowns during much of March, April, and the beginning of May.

“Starting May 13, Zion National Park will begin providing Day Use recreational access to select areas within the park,” Zion National Park said in a release Wednesday morning. “This action supports the White House guidelines for Opening Up America Again, and our continued coordination with the State of Utah, southwest Utah elected leaders, park partners, and local businesses.”

Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first and arguably most iconic national park, is also set to reopen its gates on Monday, as the park will open its Wyoming entrance that provides access to the southern half of the park. 

Wyoming has recently lifted many of its shelter-in-place restrictions, including a requirement that out-of-state visitors self-quarantine for 14 days.

Montana, which also hosts an entrance to Yellowstone on its northern end, continues to maintain several of its social distancing restrictions. Same with Idaho, which hosts a park entrance but currently has stricter measures in place than Wyoming, including a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out of state visitors.

For Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly, the diversity of approaches among the states presents the opportunity for the park to execute a sort of “soft opening.”

“I would prefer it’s not just a light switch and the park is open and we get inundated and overwhelmed and aren’t able to handle it,” Sholly told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Yellowstone saw about 4 million visitors in 2019 and can get swamped with visitors during summer months. 

Zion is also one of the parks with high visitation numbers, with 4.4 million visitors traveling through the gates during 2019. 

While Zion is open, it is also ratcheting up incrementally, with the Zion Lodge, campgrounds, and some of the park’s most popular trails still closed. The lodge has tentative plans to open up on May 21.

Zion joins Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, two other magnificent national parks in Utah, in opening on a limited basis. Canyonlands and Arches National Parks are currently slated to open on May 29.

Grand Canyon National Park is preparing a soft opening of its own, as the South Rim South Entrance will open up Friday for limited hours to allow visitors to take in some of the viewpoints in a day-use capacity. 

All of the parks will feature aggressive signage that calls for park-goers to maintain six feet of physical distancing while visiting the outdoor spaces. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee opened May 9.  Visitors hungry for an outdoor experience flocked to the park, causing concerns about traffic and the potential to aggravate the Covid-19 outbreak. 

“Our volunteers and seasonal workers, we’re working to phase them back in as we phase the reopening of the park,” Chief Ranger Lisa Hendy told NBC News in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 

In California, none of the state’s trove of national parks appears close to opening.

The state’s most iconic and visited national park, Yosemite National Park, has not provided an opening date. Other parks, like Lassen Volcanic, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree, also have yet to provide projected opening dates.

Aramark, the concessionaire that runs several lodgings and restaurant operations in Yosemite Valley, told employees to prepare for many services in the park to be shuttered through 2020. 

Several park advocates want to see the parks shuttered until firmly established that the park employees and visitors are not harmed by flocking to crowded viewpoints or narrow trails.

“It’s critical that until it’s safe, parks already closed should remain so,” said Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. 

While Covid-19 has prompted wide shutdowns of outdoor spaces around the world, there remains a debate about the danger of outdoor transmission of the disease. 

recent study of the outbreak in China found that outdoor transmission of the disease is rare, but does occur. 

The study analyzed 318 outbreaks where three or more people were infected and identified only a single instance of outdoor transmission where one infected individual stopped to have a conversation with a noninfected person and transmitted the disease. 

Residents have often flocked to beaches, parks, forests, and other outdoor spaces to escape the monotony of their home environment during the prolonged pandemic, prompting state and local officials to close such areas. 

These moves have incurred notable backlash among residents who vow to defy such orders, particularly given the dearth of scientific evidence that outdoor spaces present any tangible danger. 

Public health officials warn that more information and studies are needed before people get complacent in the outdoors, and recommend maintaining six feet of distance at all times.

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