‘The parks are opening, and rapidly.’ But it’s complicated

By Rob Hotakainen | 05/14/2020 01:29 PM EDT

The National Park Service is responding to President Trump’s call to rapidly reopen sites. But national parks have widely different ideas about the safest ways to resume normal operations and protect visitors from the coronavirus.

Grand Canyon National Park is planning to partially reopen to visitors after being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Grand Canyon National Park is planning to partially reopen to visitors after being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. National Park Service

Six weeks after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona will begin a temporary weekend reopening tomorrow.

Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming will follow suit with a partial reopening Monday, while Big Bend National Park in Texas will wait until June to welcome back visitors.

The plans announced yesterday by the National Park Service are the latest response to President Trump’s directive to get the 419 national park sites up and running as soon as possible.


At a White House event yesterday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the president his department is "moving forward" and working with state and local officials to get the job done.

As an example, he cited Yellowstone National Park’s planned phased-in reopening, set to begin next week (Greenwire, May 13).

"You know, you gave me clear direction to work with governors to open things up," Bernhardt told the president (Greenwire, April 27).

"So you’re getting those parks open yet?" Trump asked.

"Absolutely," Bernhardt replied.

"So I hope everybody is listening," Trump said. "The parks are opening, and rapidly, actually."

More than 150 national park sites began closing in mid-March with hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic (Greenwire, May 1).

Parks are responding in a variety of ways to get back in business.

At Big Bend, officials said the park will remain closed through May as they plan a "cautious and phased" approach to maintain safety and to avoid overwhelming medical health services.

"Big Bend National Park is 100 miles from the nearest hospital, and while the park community has fortunately been disease-free, the public health consultants we are working with remain concerned about the vulnerability of employees, residents and visitors should anyone become symptomatic with COVID-19 while in the park," said Superintendent Bob Krumenaker.

At Grand Canyon, Superintendent Ed Keable said the park will partially reopen tomorrow by increasing visitor access to some viewpoints on the South Rim. The park closed April 1 at the request of local health officials after an employee at Grand Canyon Village tested positive for the coronavirus (Greenwire, April 2).

Under the first phase, park officials said the South Rim entrance will reopen tomorrow through Monday from 6 to 10 a.m., and visitors will have limited day use access to viewpoints, picnic areas and some restroom facilities. The east entrance to the South Rim will remain closed, along with the North Rim, which closes every winter. Officials said they are planning to increase access to the park for Memorial Day weekend.

"This initial reopening phase will increase access to our public lands in a responsible way by offering the main feature of the park for the public, the view of the canyon, while reducing the potential exposure of COVID-19 to our nearly 2,500 residents," Keable said.

At Grand Teton, acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said the park would increase recreational access and offer some limited visitor services when it reopens Monday. That will include access to primary roads, some restrooms, day hiking on some trails, and riverbank and lakeshore fishing. Park visitor centers will remain closed.

"We ask all park visitors to do their part to take preventive actions as they enjoy the park by maintaining social distancing and following all [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and local health guidance," Noojibail said.

In North Carolina, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Wright Brothers National Memorial said they would partially reopen May 22.

"We are pleased to be part of the community’s thoughtful efforts to welcome visitors back to the Outer Banks and incrementally provide services and experiences," National Parks of Eastern North Carolina Superintendent David Hallac said yesterday.

Zion National Park in Utah reopened yesterday, while Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado said it would welcome visitors back May 27. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee reopened last weekend (Greenwire, May 11).

Yellowstone’s split approach

Yellowstone’s reopening, announced yesterday, is particularly complicated.

While Bernhardt told Trump yesterday that the Interior Department is "right on the shoulder of the governor" in following states on park openings, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly is contending with competing viewpoints.

Wyoming recently lifted a 14-day self-quarantine order for out-of-state visitors on nonessential business, but one remains in Montana.

Most of Yellowstone is in Wyoming, with small portions overlapping in Montana and Idaho. But typically about 70% of traffic into the park passes through three gates in Montana. The three gates will open no sooner than June 1 to help communities near Yellowstone get ready for an influx of visitors, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) said yesterday.

"While our economy certainly relies upon and we appreciate our visitors, we also want to ensure that those visitors don’t bring problems, meaning their infections, from their home state to our state. And when they do, we want to make sure that Montana is prepared," Bullock said at a news conference.

The other 30% of visitors go through two entrances in Wyoming. After those gates open on Monday, only the southern half of the park — including the Old Faithful geyser and popular thermal features nearby — will be accessible at first, and then only for day use.

Sholly said he’s comfortable with the split approach.

"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," he said.

Restrooms, gas stations, trails and boardwalks will be first to open. No camping, lodging, restaurants or tours will be available at first, though park officials will immediately begin looking at offering camping, cabin lodging, take-out dining and other limited services, Sholly said in a conference call with news media and regional business owners.

The Associated Press contributed.