April is typically one of the busiest months of the year at Joshua Tree National Park. Not this April.
On April 1, Joshua Tree closed to the public, ashave shut their gates.
"Basically, we could not guarantee that the people inside the park were going to be safe, because they kept on congregating in such large numbers," said David Smith, the superintendent of Joshua Tree, a park that's nearly 800,000 acres.
But as we've been seeing at parks across the country, people still want to hike the popular trails.
This was the scene at now-closed Zion National Park just a few weeks ago:
In addition, some of our most popular parks are near some of our most vulnerable towns.
Bradon Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, was afraid the hospital in Moab – a 17-bed hospital, with zero ICU rooms – would be overwhelmed if COVID-19 ripped through the small community. So, he pleaded with the Park Service to close nearby Canyonlands and Arches.
"We love you all, but now is not the time," Bradford said.
Taking a road trip to enjoy our national parks – what have been called "America's Best Idea" – just isn't the best idea right now.
Four years ago, I took the mother of all road trips:. But while I was out on the trail, I discovered there are a surprising number of ways you can enjoy the Great Outdoors … indoors.
When I visited Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park, measured to be one of the quietest places in the entire country, scientist Kurt Fristrup mentioned that his team had also been collecting some of their favorite noises.
"We try to capture a 'Greatest Hits' sort of album of all the unusual or particularly significant or interesting sounds that we get in parks," said Fristrup.
Go to nps.gov/sound and you can hear some of those greatest hits. You can listen to a coyote giving chase …
NPS: Coyotes Chase
A thunderstorm at Big Bend…
Or cue up the curated "PARKTRACKS" mix, when you need to calm down in-between conference calls.
When I visited Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park, I hung out with ranger Fiona North. Now you can do the same thing, thanks to Google's Arts and Culture project, following Ranger North deep down into a glacial crevasse.
Now is also the perfect time to delve into the fascinating histories of our parks. For example, if COVID-19 had occurred back in 1919, a doctor would have most likely recommended treating the virus with a bath down in Arkansas. Online, you can read about how the water at Hot Springs National Park was once thought to cure everything from rheumatism to syphilis.
At several of the parks, including Joshua Tree, rangers like Sarah Jane Pepper are offering Skype Field trips for students. Our parks are giant classrooms.
Sometimes, it can be comforting just to be reminded that these places are still out there. That's why so many of our "Sunday Morning" moments of nature come from our national parks.
My new book, "Leave Only Footprints," is about the powerful impact the parks had on my own life. While writing it, I frequently found inspiration in the words of writer John Muir, who argued that "wildness is a necessity. Going to the mountains is going home."
For now, I'm staying "parked" inside, like we all should be. But when this has all passed, I can't tell you how excited I'm going to be to get out of the house … and head home.
For more info:
- Joshua Tree National Park: The Virtual Experience
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Natural Sounds (National Park Service)
- Weather sounds (National Park Service)
- Google's Arts and Culture: Kenai Fjords National Park
- Google Street View: Grand Canyon National Park
- Hot Springs National Park
- Southeast Utah Health Department
- "Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park" by Conor Knighton (Crown), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon
Listen to an excerpt from the audio book of "Leave Only Footprints"
Story produced by Conor Knighton. Editor: Mike Levine.