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What You Need to Know About California's National Parks

The Golden State's celebrated national parks and federal lands are open, but plan ahead to ensure the best possible trip

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California's national parks and monuments preserve some of the world's most spectacular scenery, so it's no surprise that people flocked to their wide-open spaces during the COVID-19 crisis. The parks' wildly beautiful landscapes and fresh air provided much-needed solace from the world's troubles.

This summer, the National Park Service expects even greater numbers of visitors to travel to national parks, so it's wise to do a little research before you head out.

Christine Beekman, chief of interpretation at Point Reyes, California's only national seashore, says the best way to stay up-to-date on your favorite national park is to download the National Park Service's new app.

"The NPS app picks up your location, so as you drive closer to Point Reyes or any other park, you can pick up real-time information on that park," she says.

The NPS app has information on popular sights, trails, tours, and interpretive programs as well as interactive maps and itineraries for 423 national parks across the country. Beekman notes that "many national park units have spotty connectivity, so we encourage folks to download information from the app before they enter the park."

Visitors can also refer to each park's social media accounts, especially Twitter, for updates on road conditions and weather events that might affect their trip.

Since California celebrated its full economic reopening on June 15, visitors also need to remember that national parks are managed by the federal government, not the state. Even though national park roads, trails, and sights are open, some facilities and programs may still be under pandemic-related restrictions or closures.

"Across the country, some national park visitor centers, shuttle buses, ranger-led activities, and partner businesses like restaurants have not yet reopened. That might be due to federal COVID guidelines or it might be a shortage of seasonal staff," Beekman says.

At Point Reyes National Seashore, the flagship Bear Valley Visitor Center is open, but the much smaller visitor center at the 150-year-old Point Reyes Lighthouse is closed.

"We do not have adequate ventilation in that building and it's a very small space," she says. "As long as the CDC guidelines recommend adequate ventilation and physical distancing and we are not able to meet those guidelines, that building will remain closed," Beekman says.

Rangers hope to reopen the lighthouse, its stairway, and museum by mid-summer. "The best way to find out when the lighthouse will open is to check the app or the park website," she says.

Most Point Reyes visitors have been good-natured about park closures or restrictions, Beekman says. "Everybody's out there enjoying these same beautiful places, and everybody's learning to be flexible," she says. "If plan A doesn't work out, there are so many other beautiful places to go just down the road."

Rebecca Paterson, public affairs specialist at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, says visitors should also expect COVID-related restrictions at the side-by-side parks known for their giant sequoia trees and towering granite peaks.

"Most indoor spaces will continue to operate at reduced capacity to allow for social distancing," she says. Visitor centers are operating on "a hybrid approach, with interpretive rangers providing information outdoors. Indoor exhibits will undergo a phased reopening over the course of the summer." Many in-park restaurants are not offering indoor dining, but most are serving takeout food. (For a full list of open and closed hospitality services in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, click here.)

Free shuttle buses are running in Giant Forest, home of the world's largest giant sequoia tree, the General Sherman. But shuttles are permitted to carry only a limited number of riders on a reduced number of routes, and riders must wear a face mask.

"Visitors to the parks should bring their masks," Paterson says. "Face coverings are required for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, in some locations, such as on the shuttle bus and on the tour of Crystal Cave."

The marble cave has been one of Sequoia National Park's most popular attractions since it opened in 1940. Crystal Cove was closed in summer 2020, but this year, visitors can reserve tickets in advance and take a guided cave tour—as long as they're masked.

One hundred miles north of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite National Park welcomes visitors to its granite cliffs and waterfalls this summer, but day-use reservations are required for all vehicles entering the park. (Click here for reservations.) Camping or lodging reservations in Yosemite also serve as day-use reservations, but you'll need to book far in advance—campgrounds and hotels are running at reduced capacity.

Yosemite's shuttle buses aren't operating, including Yosemite Valley's popular open-air tram tours and the free shuttles to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. To see the massive trees, you'll have to hike two miles each way. (For a full list of open and closed visitor services in Yosemite, click here.)

Despite these disruptions or modifications in service, most national parks are expecting record numbers of visitors this summer. Paterson suggests people arrive early in the day to avoid long waits at entrance stations and plan on extra time to find parking at major sights and trailheads.

Beekman says Point Reyes may possibly set new records this summer. "If there's one thing we learned from last year, it's that being outside is safe, it's enjoyable, and it's wonderful in so many ways," she says.

With more people visiting national parks, it's important that everyone read and understand the National Park Service's Recreate Responsibly principles, she says. They detail the "10 Essentials" that visitors should carry with them for their personal safety, and explain good-neighbor policies like "if you brought it, take it with you" to help reduce trash in the parks.

"As long as folks continue to have that joie de vivre of being outside and caretaking their awesome public lands,” she says, “it's going to be a great summer.”

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