After six months of sheltering in place, we had no idea what to expect back on the road as RVers. We used to be a well-oiled machine after more than six years full-time on the road, but COVID-19 upended so much of what we once considered normal. Visiting national parks and other National Park Service (NPS) units was always a priority for us, but closures and new procedures left us with uncertainty. Should we wait to visit national parks? Would campgrounds have more openings than they used to? Could we find junior ranger booklets and passport stamps?
Following the best practices we’ve learned to help keep our family and others safe, we decided the only way to answer our questions was to get our (hiking) boots on the ground. In our first two-and-a-half weeks back on the road, we visited five NPS units: Crater Lake National Park (OR), Lassen Volcanic National Park (CA), Craters of the Moon National Monument (ID), Grand Teton National Park (WY), and Yellowstone National Park (MT/WY/ID).
Quick terminology lesson: the National Park Service oversees many kinds of units. National parks are just one type. There are also national monuments, national historic sites, national seashores, and others. There are 62 national parks in the United States, among 419 total National Park Service units.
Though they’re all within the northwestern portion of the country, the five units we’ve been to over the past couple of weeks cover five states and diverse physical landscapes. Combined with our pre-COVID knowledge (we’ve explored 27 national parks and 70 total NPS units since our son Caspian was born in December 2016), we have a good feel for what to expect in this strange, new world we live in. We hope the following insight empowers you to make the best travel decisions for your own family when it comes to visiting national parks during the COVID-19 era.
1/ National Parks and Their Campgrounds Are Still Busy
All of the National Park Service units we’ve visited have been relatively busy. We have been traveling during the tail-end of summer, leading up to Labor Day weekend, but most public schools have been in session the whole time.
Because “in session” means different things in different school districts, with many opting for distance learning, I suspect some families are taking their children on the road this semester. I know there are a lot of new RVers in general, and likely others are taking road trips just because they can–due to remote work and/or remote school.
All that to say, don’t expect to have NPS units all to yourself, and don’t expect to drive in and find an open campsite. Where campgrounds offer reservations, plan in advance like you normally would. If reservations aren’t available, then arrive early in the morning to claim a site, and always have a Plan B. We’ve found Sunday is often a good day to find sites, and Wednesday is usually a quiet day before the build-up to the weekend.
2/ Junior Ranger Booklets and Passport Stamps Are Available, But Research Beforehand
Caspian has his own National Park Service Passport that holds all of his stamps, and getting these stamps is an important part of our visits. We have been able to find stamps during the COVID-19 era, with research.
At Crater Lake, individual stickers with stamps on them were available at the park store. At the other units we’ve visited, stamps were handed out on small pieces of paper, which we had to hang onto until we could get our tape back at the RV. Rangers gave out these paper versions outside visitor centers.
If you look on a particular unit’s official website, it usually mentions where passport stamps are available.
As far as junior ranger booklets, they’ve been available at every unit so far, usually outside visitor centers where the rangers are. Swearing in has ranged widely. We had to mail in our Crater Lake booklet. Caspian was sworn in by a ranger at Lassen Volcanic. At Yellowstone, the ranger “deputized” Eric and me, saying we could give Caspian his patch once he earned it.
Also expect changes to the requirements for junior rangers. The booklet may say one thing, but the ranger may tell you another thing because of closures at the park.
Flexibility is the word of the year!
3/ There Are Many Closures and Limited Services
Wherever you go, expect closures and limited services. A few we’ve experienced:
- All visitor centers closed. This means no exhibit access or introductory films. At Craters of the Moon, portable toilets were set up outside. At places like Yellowstone, free-standing restrooms are still open all over the park.
- Limited ranger access. In general, we’ve seen fewer rangers driving around units, or available on the ground to offer guidance and insight. This is for their protection. Your best bet for finding a ranger is to visit a visitor center, where rangers are usually available outside under a tent.
- No guided ranger events.
- Road and trail closures. We’ve seen more road and trail closures than normal. I have two hypotheses for this: units taking advantage of lower visitor volume to do construction/maintenance, combined with fewer rangers available to monitor visitors.
What does all this mean? Research ahead of time. Go to the official website for the unit you want to visit. Alerts will be in red at the top of the screen. Read them carefully and compare them to a map of the park.
You may not have cell service in the unit, so you’ll want to plan ahead to make the most of your visit and avoid surprises.
4/ You Can Find Solace in Nature
There’s been so much loss this year, in many respects. Even now that many areas are trying to reopen and find a new normal, we all know it isn’t the same.
Going out into nature at these National Park Service units is one place the world feels right. The flowers, trees, waterfalls, and wildlife are untouched by the events that have rocked our world in 2020.
Find solace there.
5/ Be Part of the Solution
For better or worse, the National Park Service has changed policies at its units–at least for the time being. Depending on a given unit’s closures, you may put off your visit until later. But if you decide to go now, then please be part of the solution.
Recently, we waited in line to go into the art gallery and store at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Masks were required to enter the store. One middle-aged man walked confidently to the front with no mask and attempted to enter. The employee calmly and respectfully reiterated the store policy, which was clearly posted on signs. She said she was happy to shop for him, but he could not enter without a mask. The man belligerantly tried to push past her to get in, as though to make a point.
This is not the place to make a point. Everyone is doing the best they can. Rangers and employees are putting their health at risk, so we can recreate at our national parks. Let’s be kind and patient, and keep our National Park Service units open by working together.