The US government shutdown that started Dec. 22, 2018, has stretched into the new year and created several problems and disappointments. For families who enjoy being outdoors, this includes access to federal lands like national parks. The timing is unfortunate, because most school children are on holiday break, when families are more likely to travel and visit national parks.

Some national parks closed, while others remain open. Parks that are open have limited facilities and no staff. The notice on National Park Service sites is ambiguous:

Government shutdown and national parks

Some private concessions have stayed open.

Visiting the Everglades
Visiting the Everglades

For years, our family has had a tradition of sorts of visiting Everglades National Park around the new year. We have camped or just taken a day trip from our home. The weather is usually good then, and the holiday gives us the chance to take our time and not rush. With the shutdown, though, we worried what we would find when we got there. That’s because we had experienced being in a national park during a government shutdown before.

Camping at a national park during government shutdown
Camping at a national park during government shutdown

Last January over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, we camped at Big Cypress National Preserve with friends who had never camped before. We had made reservations in advance. The morning after we arrived, though, we found the restrooms were locked. A sign on the door indicated the government had shut down, and so park staff were off duty. The visitor center buildings were closed, too. We found some vault toilets open at a picnic area — 17 miles down the road. There was no staff to empty the trash cans, so they filled up. We ended up taking trash and recyclables back home with us.

Shutting down the restrooms was probably a good idea. During the current shutdown, national parks that have left their restrooms open have dealt with cleanup issues. People who love the parks have stepped in to help, though. Volunteers at Joshua Tree National Park in California have maintained restrooms. So have volunteers at Everglades National Park and other nearby federal lands. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California stayed open but announced yesterday it had to close because of “overflowing trash and unsanitary conditions.” You would think that national park visitors are there because they love nature…. Telling rangers and park staff not to work during this time probably makes their jobs more difficult for when they eventually return to the mess.

If you want to visit a national park or other federal lands during the government shutdown, think twice. An Outside magazine article quoted a ranger, saying, “I beg all of you to stay home and not visit your parks until everyone comes back to work. Your experience will be ten thousand times better.” If you absolutely have to go, make sure it is open before you go, and be prepared for the lack of facilities. Help out the situation by taking out any of your own trash at the least, and pitching in to help if you want to be a hero. If your family lives near a national park where you can volunteer, consider helping out.

Family on the beach at sunset during the government shutdown
Our family found a new place to go instead of a national park during the government shutdown

Our family opted to skip Everglades National Park this new year (we can go back another time) and visit other areas instead. One day, we visited a county park a few hours from where we live — a place we hadn’t been before. The next day, we took longtime friends kayaking to a state park.

So check out these other amazing places. Some state natural areas rival national parks. And natural areas set aside by counties can be wonderfully accessible, because most county parks are set up for recreation. Also consider Audubon sanctuaries and visitor centers, as well as Nature Conservancy preserves in Canada and the United States.

Government shutdowns happen from time to time. We wish national parks had contingency plans for when shutdowns occur. Until then, though, use this time to check out natural areas that are new to you.