15 National Park things to do during COVID-19

Those of us who love to travel and explore, we are unhinged. We shelter-in-place knowing we will be seeing, traveling, and exploring our favorite (and new places) soon. When? We plan, we scheme, we dream. Now, we must wait. We are not the personality types inclined to wait.

Why do we love our National Parks? What do they hold that keep us charmed, command our attention, and incite us to prioritize placing ourselves in them? For me, it’s the exploration of wild spaces. I love them. I love the idea of non-human interference in the natural world. My favorite place is Canyonlands National Park because of the days we spent without ANY observation of humanity except for contrails in the sky, and ancient petroglyphs and dwellings. I love the idea of observing nature un-influenced by man.

@Kristi Brister National Park 2016

It’s theoretically a perfect time to visit these special places. It’s spring, my kids are out of school. It would be such a great time to take them, to educate them, to immerse them…and everyone else is home. It’s never been so tempting to throw our packs in the car, drive, and hike. So, why not?

My resolutions for 2020 included making index cards with all the national park trips we have left, identifying the ideal time to visit, and the approximate budget we would need for each. We had planned trips to the US Virgin Islands, Isle Royale, Voyageurs, and Indiana Dunes for 2020. Our goal is to visit four to five per year so that we can see them all before our son graduates from college.

We will be lucky if we manage one this year, and that is difficult. We’ve moved a great deal and National Parks have been one goal, one thing our family looks forward to doing. It’s “our thing”.

Guadalupe National Park Brister Family

Do you know what could be worse? Let’s imagine some scenarios. First, let’s say we go now to Grand Canyon National Park. Actually, Grand Canyon is closed due to COVID-19 (including all visitor facilities, trails, and roads). Before closing, a concession employee who lived at the park tested positive. How many visitors were exposed?

So, suppose we attempt to access Kaibab National Forest near it and one of us is injured or lost. If we have to call for rescue, first responders will need to don preciously resourced PPE. They will also be responding to our injury, not the needs of the local population. There isn’t enough PPE at this time to cover the basic needs of hospital medical personnel, let alone first responders. Selfish desires cannot take precedence. Unfortunately, one particular nurse from Colorado was recently disoriented on a trail in Utah with her child and this specific example occurred. She’s a nurse, she needed a break, she is an avid hiker. It doesn’t matter.

We are all stressed, we are all anxious, nature soothes…until it doesn’t.

I am in great shape, I have been running and doing my yoga diligently. My husband is working from home. He could watch the kids, as I hit some hiking trails in New Mexico. I need the respite, it would be so good for my soul. Suppose we add another layer, suppose I pick up the virus at a gas station along my travels and become an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 (asymptomatic means shedding the virus in the absence of clinical signs or symptoms). I go, I have a fantastic time. I stop at my favorite restaurant in Santa Fe. They have curbside, I exchange my credit card. They swipe my card, but the waitress forgets and itches her nose before washing her hands. She could give it to the cook when they both touch the same surface. The cook’s mother might live in my rural hometown in Utah. The cook might be worried about his mom, he goes to visit on his weekend off. He carries the virus unwittingly with him. He’s been careful. He wears gloves at work and should be fine. Should be. He transfers the virus to his mom when he hugs her. He leaves in two days. A week later, his mother comes down with a fever. She goes to the local hospital where my sister works. She’s an asthmatic. The hospital is busy, she is trying to care for her patients because that is her life’s calling. The PPE is running short, they take measures to conserve, but people are beginning to flood the hospital weeks from now. She catches it…and like many rural communities that surround our wild places, there aren’t enough ventilators for her. What now? Is my sister going to lose her life because someone needed a break, needed to explore the great outdoors?

Stay home. Nature waits, it peacefully exists. MAYBE NATURE NEEDS A BREAK FROM US! Perhaps right now mother grizzly crosses the road in Yellowstone National Park with her two cubs. The tourist chooses to save human lives and is staying at home. The tourist isn’t there to swerve and accidentally hit one cub. Maybe both cubs survive now. My sister survives.

Now is the time to plan, not go.

Here is a list of  15 things you can do instead of visiting our wild spaces during the COVID-19 Pandemic:

  1. Look at National Park pictures on Instagram.
  2. Read posts on your favorite tourist site.
  3. Explore campgrounds virtually through NPS.gov.
  4. Study the ecology and history of National Parks on NPS.gov.
  5. Watch videos on YouTube of your favorite places.
  6. Go through your old pictures and finish your photo albums.
  7. Make a slideshow/movie of your pictures and share with family/friends.
  8. Help your kids earn an online Junior Ranger Badge.
  9. Plan a detailed itinerary for your next visit.
  10. Explore trails on websites like AllTrails.
  11. Figure out how to use your GPS (finally) through online tutorials.
  12. Go through and organize your camping gear.
  13. Explore wilderness first aid education online.
  14. Take a walk around the neighborhood with your pack and imagine you are there.
  15. Write your representatives asking them to protect and fund our National Parks

We will get through this together, and then we will explore together. Our children will roast marshmallows and ride bikes through the campground making new camping friends. We will share our wine or a beer with a fellow explorer. We will laugh and smile. We will see the sunrise and set in beautiful places; and my sister, daughter, mom, and nephew (all asthmatics) will be there to see them too if we do the right thing and stay home.

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