Travel | June 6, 2020 6:00 am

California’s National Parks Are Reopening, But With Severe Caveats

Is it even worth taking your big Yosemite trip in 2020?

Yosemite Valley in California
Just because national parks are reopening doesn't mean they'll look the same.
Pablo Fierro/Unsplash

Two more of California’s premier national parks opened their gates this week, with Sequoia and Kings Canyon reopening to the public Thursday, and Yosemite rolling out a “soft opening” (the only visitors allowed Friday either had existing wilderness reservations or Half Dome climbing permits) before it lets in day-trippers next week.

But even once Yosemite joins Sequoia and Kings in letting in casual sightseers, the two parks will just be the latest in list of California parks — Joshua Tree, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles — that have opened with severe caveats, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

A majority of the nation’s parks are now open, but a majority of those openings are now classified as “Limited,” which means that many in-park activities and facilities are indefinitely off-limits. Campgrounds and developed visitor centers remain closed, certain trails are roped off or limited to one-way traffic, and many permits can no longer be procured in person; you’ll have to engage with an online system ahead of time.

It’s more than enough to question why these parks are opening at all. After all, California’s Death Valley remains closed — as do protected areas like Alcatraz, Golden Gate Recreation Area and Muir Woods. And some high-ranking officials have questioned why visitors need to travel in 2020 in particular. Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, issued a starkly candid statement the other day: “Realize if you want to have your once-in-a-lifetime park trip, you may want to do it another year.”

Parks seem intent on getting things going, though, and assessing operations on the fly. For much (if not all) of the summer, gates will have serious caps on admission; in Yosemite, for example, just 1,700 cars will be allowed in each day, down 50 percent. And shuttle services will be abandoned for the year. However, those numbers could increase if visitors prove respectful of social-distancing regulations and the pandemic continues to loosen its grip on the country.

If you’re interested in visiting Yosemite, make sure to purchase advance tickets. And before you go, read our guide to visiting a reopened national park, with tips and requests from actual NPS employees. We understand the desire to get out and look at something big and beautiful, no matter how limited your access might be. It’s been a tough year. Just make sure to observe a few important rules and regulations when you do.

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