Camping in the West? Like Everything These Days, It’s Complicated

Camping in the West? Like Everything These Days, It’s Complicated

In the West, cabin-feverish parents yearning to take their children into the woods, couples trying to escape quarantine pods, and all campers who miss their beloved outdoors will this summer find a complicated camping landscape, one of new and conflicting laws, closings and reopenings, and strict requirements on social-distancing and hand-washing.

When the pandemic hit the United States in mid-March, Western states shut down in a staggered fashion, leading to the unprecedented closure of national and state parks. There were so few visitors that rarely seen pronghorn antelope in Death Valley grazed near a visitor center and bears roamed in public areas at Yosemite. Some parks now have recently reopened, in limited ways, but the experience will look “very different from what you might be used to,” as Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said earlier this month.

Credit…Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

“It’s literally changing on a daily basis,” said David Basler, vice president of membership and marketing for the National Association of R.V. Parks and Campgrounds, an outdoor advocacy group. “Every state is different. In some states, every municipality is different.”

The reopening rules and phases not only vary according to state, but also whether the park is state or national, on private or public land, or federal land belonging to the National Park Service, Forest Preserve or Bureau of Land Management.

Campers might consider creating spreadsheets to keep track of these reopening dates. Zion National Park in Utah reopened, but only one of its three campgrounds is operating. Colorado’s state-park campsites are open, at half capacity and requiring advance reservations, while its Rocky Mountain National Park plans to phase in its Moraine Park and Glacier Basin campgrounds in early June. Montana’s state parks are open for camping, but the Montana side of Yellowstone National Park remains completely closed. (The Wyoming side, including Old Faithful and other landmarks, is open, but not for camping.) In California, the 700,000-acre Angeles National Forest, home of Mount Baldy, Mount Wilson and a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, is scheduled to reopen its campgrounds over the next few weeks, but state camping remains prohibited.

State parks in Washington and Oregon are also closed indefinitely, though public camping is available at out-of-the-way, B.L.M.-run “dispersed” sites, and only for two weeks or less. The tricky part is getting there as many parking areas and trailheads have been closed for weeks.

“It’s really designed for the tent camper or backcountry camper who has skills,” said Chris Havel, a spokesman with Oregon’s state parks and recreation department. “It tends to be a little more primitive.”

Whether directed to these rugged woodspeople or car-campers stuffing sleeping bags into S.U.V.s, almost all reopening public campgrounds are broadcasting the same messages: Stay close to home; bring water, food and whatever else you need; and avoid taxing local resources.

“Plan as if you are going to the moon,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife tweeted in mid-May.


Credit…Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

Even before the pandemic changed all the rules, interest in camping was booming. The number of households in the United States that camp increased to 39 million in 2018 from 32 million in 2104, a bump of more than 20 percent, according to a KOA Kampgrounds’ North American Camping Report. Parks officials say they are receiving a spike in inquiries this summer.

“It has been super, super stressful,” said Bob Mergell, an administrator for Nevada’s state parks, which are closed for camping until the state announces the second phase of its reopening plan.

“For every phone call or email that I get thanking me for trying to keep stuff open, there’s another email telling me I’m an idiot for keeping stuff open,” Mr. Mergell said.

With international border restrictions, a vastly reduced number of domestic and international flights, and many hospitality businesses, including amusement parks and resorts, still closed, this is a travel season that’s never been seen before. Some parks anticipate that summer vacationers will flock to campgrounds and other outdoor recreational areas, especially those close to home, to get away.

Some types of camping sites are ideal for social-distancing, some officials say, because they encourage families to stay within their own sites and vehicles. And as Mr. Mergell, who has worked for parks for 30 years, said: “More than anybody, I recognize the benefits to physical and mental health to be outdoors and go out in nature and decompress.”

“We believe this is the summer of the great American road trip,” said Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing officer for Xanterra, which manages campsites for Yellowstone and operates lodges and concessions facilities in Grand Canyon, Zion and other national parks. “People can control the environment in their cars and R.V.s and vans.”

The interest can be see in private campgrounds and R.V. sites such as Soledad Canyon, in Acton, Calif., near the San Gabriel Mountains, which offers water and electricity for $73 per day.

“All private parks in California are open and have been all along,” said Dyana Kelley, chief executive and president of CampCalNOW, a trade group for R.V. parks and campgrounds. “The phone has been ringing like crazy.”

For those willing and able to pay more, glamping may be an option. Seven miles north of Moab, Utah, outside the gradually reopening Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Under Canvas rents private luxury tents, including linens, lounge chairs and high-end takeout meals, with nightly rates ranging from $300 to $400.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 27, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

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      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

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      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

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      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.