NOTE: The following article was published in February 2022.
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.
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.
Rebecca Paterson, public affairs specialist at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, says visitors could still experience COVID-related restrictions at the side-by-side parks known for their giant sequoia trees and towering granite peaks. For a full list of open and closed hospitality services in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, click here.
"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 Cave was closed for much of the pandemic, but now, visitors can reserve tickets in advance and take a guided cave tour—as long as they're masked. (Ed. note: As of September 2023, Crystal is closed, and is slated to reopen sometime in 2024.)
One hundred miles north of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite National Park welcomes visitors to its granite cliffs and waterfalls. Camping or lodging reservations in Yosemite also serve as entry passes, but you'll need to book far in advance—campgrounds and hotels tend to fill up fast.
Yosemite's shuttle buses are once again operating, including Yosemite Valley's popular open-air tram tours and the free shuttles to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. (For a full list of open and closed visitor services in Yosemite, click here.)
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.”