When COVID-19 took hold of the world the closures came fast. But the idea of a global pandemic shutting down America’s biggest, often extremely isolated natural spaces seemed unfathomable. It turned out that when the world’s health was at risk even Smoky the Bear had to do his part to flatten the curve.
Now, as the Memorial Day weekend kicks off a summer that will almost certainly be full of scenic drives, some national parks are slowly reopening their gates following months of closure. To help you track what’s open, we’re keeping tabs on our favorite national parks. We’ll keep you posted on what’s open (hint: not many), what services are available (if amenities are marked “limited,” chances are it has toilet facilities but no visitors center), and what you’re allowed to do once inside the park. And, in most cases you can drive the scenic roads and hike the trails. But we’ll take what we can get!
Hopefully, this list will change quickly as more and more of these national treasures open up to responsible, respectful, and safe use. The list is current as of the Memorial Day weekend. We’ll be updating as things progress.
Arches National Park, Utah
Status: Closed. For the moment, the closest you can get to Balanced Rock, Devil’s Garden, and the other glorious spires is via Google Earth. Phased re-opening begins May 29.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Amenities: Limited. The visitor centers, entrance fee stations, and South Unit of the park are currently closed. But other than that, this SoDak icon and its rugged geologic beauty is mostly open for business as usual.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Status: Closed. This hiker and kayaker paradise along the Rio Grande is hoping to begin phased reopening in June, so chances are you’ll be able to explore its waters right around the time temps hit 300 degrees in the Lone Star State.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Amenities: Limited. While visitor center occupancy is limited and overnight stays are prohibited, the main park road and all viewpoints to Rainbow Point are open. The majority of trails (other than backcountry) remain open as well, so consider yourself lucky if you’re anywhere near this Utah showstopper. Plan your sunrise around it.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Status: Closed. Phased reopening of this oft-overlooked Utah gem (the least visited of Utah’s famous “big five” parks) starts May 29. Social distancing is a breeze in this park where the ravens outnumber the humans on any given day.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Amenities: No. This International Dark Sky Park combines the best of Utah’s more famous national parks into one lesser-visited package of surprises. While Scenic Drive, the visitor’s center, and most campgrounds are closed, you can still pitch a tent at Cedar Mesa and Cathedral Valley campgrounds.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Amenities: No. Public trails, picnic areas, and roads are open across the park. Still, this isn’t called Carlsbad Picnic Area, so it’s probably not worth a journey just yet unless it’s close enough to justify a day trip.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Status: Closed. The nation’s oldest hardwood bottomland didn’t keep its 500-year-old cypress trees alive through multiple plagues, yellow fever, and the Twilight Zone by taking chances. It remains closed until further notice.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Amenities: Limited. The Grand Canyon has begun extremely limited access. You can enter the south rim viewpoints between 6-10 a.m. for now and go as far as Pipe Creek Vista, Twin Overlooks, Duck on a Rock, Thor’s Hammer, No Name Point, and Navajo Point. The rest of the Canyon is closed. Ditto for visitor centers.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, Tennessee
Amenities: Limited. The nation’s most popular park (on a technicality, but whatever) allows access to most of its sprawling trails though this has always been a park most utilized as a scenic drive, so go forth, but keep an eye on their site for any changes.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Amenities: Limited. Now back in the business of helping claustrophobic Californians “find themselves” after a painful couple months, this gloriously trippy desert playground has opened up its trails, roads, bathrooms, and individual “family” campsites, which in California parlance ranges from actual family units to cults.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Status: Closed. When California emerges from quarantine, make a point to discover this remarkable national park in Northern California’s Shasta Cascades which is rich in rugged wilderness and rare geothermal delights.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Status: Closed. With more than 5,000 sites including its famous ancient cliff dwellings such as Cliff Palace, America’s largest archeological preserve has been around since 7,500 BC. So it can wait out COVID-19.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Status: Closed. Travelers along Route 66 (or Interstate 40) would be wise to pull over at this stunning park that suddenly pops up along both sides of the highway in eastern Arizona. Until the park reopens, however, it’s just more roadside oddities and vintage motel signs for Mother Road enthusiasts.
Pinnacles National Park, California
Amenities: No. This Central California park is one of the lesser-known National Park Service destinations possibly due to the fact that it’s often 100-plus degrees and half of it is in an eroded-out, extinct volcano. Right now, day use passes are a no-no and the park’s largely open only to people helping in protection efforts. Still, the campgrounds are open to people with reservations. So if you scored one a while ago, you kind of have the run of the park. Just, you know, bring a ton of water.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Amenities: Limited. Located on either side of Tucson, this cacti-laden gem has opened all roads and trails though groups are limited to 10. Visitor centers and restrooms remain closed.
Sequoia National Park, California
Status: Closed. Like its neighbor Kings Canyon, the densely forested Sequoia is closed until at least May 25. Highway 180 which runs through it is open for through traffic to private property.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Status: Closed. Renowned for its fabled Skyline Drive, this national treasure encompassing part of the Blue Ridge Mountains is working on a phased reopening. It makes wonder how you open the Skyline Drive in stages.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Amenities: No. Look, it’s not like they named this ultra-underrated park—where the prairies and the Badlands converge where Buffalo roam and the sky’s one big panoramic light show—James Buchanan National Park. It’s named after Theodore Roosevelt. Of course it’s open.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Status: Closed. America’s newest national park didn’t pick a great time for its coming out party. Transitioning from a national monument to a national park in the final days of 2019, the park was forced to shut down just a few weeks later. Thanks a lot COVID: you’re a real jerk.
Zion National Park, Utah
Amenities: No. One of America’s most beloved parks has just started to reopen in recent days with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and many park trails currently open (with Zion’s often-packed shuttles mercifully suspended.)
One of my favorite things about America is our breathtaking collection of national and state parks, many of which boast wonders the Psalmist would envy.