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You Can Socially Distance for Free at National Parks, But Should You?

Rocky Mountain National Park and others across the country will be free to visit for the time being.EXPAND
Rocky Mountain National Park and others across the country will be free to visit for the time being.
Scott McLeod / Flickr

If you're already experiencing coronavirus cabin fever, you're not alone — and if you're looking for a safe way to get outdoors and get some exercise in these strange, uncertain times, the National Park Service says it's here to help.

All entrance fees to national parks across the country will be suspended until further notice, the Department of the Interior announced today, March 19. While many parks have shut down visitor centers and other spaces according to public-health guidelines, most outdoor areas remain open, the agency notes.

"This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says in a statement announcing the waiving of fees. "Our vast public lands that are overseen by the Department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing."

But the move isn't exactly getting rave reviews, even among outdoor-recreation and public-lands enthusiasts. The National Parks Conservation Association, an independent advocacy group, cautioned against a flood of new visitors overwhelming the nation's parks in the wake of the announcement.

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"The Park Service should be waiving fees, but not to make parks more accessible," says NPCA president Theresa Pierno. "Waiving fees prevents park staff and visitors from having close interactions during this ongoing pandemic. We remain concerned about the health and safety of park staff and visitors and strongly urge everyone to follow the guidance of public-health experts before planning a trip to any park in order to protect themselves and their communities."

For its part, Rocky Mountain National Park — much of which is already a wintry wasteland at this time of year — has shut down its visitor centers and campgrounds until further notice, following guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a statement released earlier this week, park officials didn't sound exactly enthusiastic about a bunch of stir-crazy Denver refugees flocking to RMNP in the coming weeks to escape their homebound isolation.

"Now is not the time to engage in extreme winter mountaineering activities or to travel solo into the park’s wilderness," its statement reads. "'Spring' in the Colorado Rockies is 'winter' elsewhere."

Even as businesses in hospitality and other sectors reel from a statewide shutdown of most gathering spaces, officials with the Estes Park Chamber of Commerce told the Associated Press that the community — which does not yet have a confirmed case of COVID-19 — is "not encouraging visitation" right now. On its website, Visit Estes Park says it is "encouraging residents and visitors alike to take precautions to prevent transmission of COVID-19."

One thing that everyone agrees on: If you do end up visiting Rocky Mountain National Park or another national park in the coming week and months, follow CDC guidelines and other relevant public-health advice while you do it.

"The NPS urges visitors to do their part when visiting a park and to follow CDC guidance to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by, most importantly, staying home if you feel sick," RMNP says. "Please maintain a safe distance of six feet between yourself and other groups; wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze."

And the park has one other piece of advice for you during these unusual times: If you can't visit in person, you can always do it virtually. "Research shows that even photographs of nature help ease stress and anxiety," the park's statement notes, recommending that nature lovers check out its social media pages and selection of webcams.

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