A park ranger’s guide to visiting national parks during a government shutdown
Shutdowns aren’t as simple as they used to be.
By Mark D. Kaufman February 8, 2018
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park
James St. John, via Wikimedia Commons
During a government shutdown—when Congress fails to pass a budget that keeps large parts of the government running—rangers everywhere chain the gates of their national parks. The usually welcoming visitor centers shutter their doors. Campgrounds go unpatrolled. Bathrooms go uncleaned.
There have been 12 such shutdowns since 1981, and there’s been little ambiguity about these strict closures. But the early 2018 shutdown brought a new dose of uncertainty to a once straightforward process. Just before the January furlough, the Trump administration announced that from now on national park sites—a total of 417 parks, monuments, battlefields, and so on—should now try and stay open during a shutdown, especially those in the “open air” (as opposed to museums).
The top of every national park website said it best: “For your planning purposes, some parks in the National Park System may have areas that remain accessible to visitors; however access may change without notice, and some parks are closed completely.”
The ensuing confusion is understandable. In January, the Statue of Liberty National Monument closed completely. The Grand Canyon stayed open, but visitor centers therein remained closed. Alcatraz Island National Landmark was open, but operated only by non-park service employees.
That particular shutdown lifted after just a few days, but Congress’s short-lived budget fix is set to expire on today. In all likelihood, they’ll extend another budget fix through March. But should this climate of will-there-or-won’t-there-be-shutdowns continue, here’s how you should navigate an ambiguous and inconsistent system of park closures. You can take it from me—I’m a former park ranger.