I just finished up a winter National Park road trip through California, stopping in Yosemite, Sequoia, and Death Valley – my experience visiting during the 2019 government shutdown is part 1 of this blog post. Stay tuned later this month for part 2: Winter Road Trip Adventures in the National Parks of California – Yosemite, Sequoia, & Death Valley.

First thing first – you should NOT visit the parks during a government shutdown. But wait, you think – you are writing an entire article about visiting them! Before I left for this trip, I was very nervous to visit the parks during the shutdown. If my flights hadn’t been nonrefundable, I would have changed my plans immediately and tried to steer clear. We are only just scratching the surface with recent news stories revealing the effect humans have had during the closure. Stories of trash and human excrement, extreme destruction, and more made my heart ache and I did not to set a bad example on social media for visiting. I decided at the very least I would bring trash bags to pick up any waste I found, do my part to help clean the parks and leave them better than when I arrived, and document my experience so that others could be well informed before considering going as well.

Let’s look at what visiting a national park during a government shutdown is like in general, and then I’ll discuss my experience at each specific park I visited. If you go, which again, despite my experiences I do not condone, you will have NO bathrooms available for use, there will be NO trash pickup (you must pack everything out!), NO visitor services will be available, certain trails and roads will likely be closed (and updates about which trails and roads are closed may not be updated on the park’s website), there will be fewer rangers present in case you get in an accident, get lost, or even just have questions (no one will be answering phones either), and in general visiting the parks will be more hazardous.

Finally, the parks will not be collecting fees – which may at first make it more enticing to visit, but the extreme loss of revenue during the government closure may end up being one of the most devastating results. While parks have steadily increased their entry fees in recent years, this is to keep up with dramatically increased costs of keeping the parks clean, safe, and protected for future visitors. With huge losses in revenue of late, crucial maintenance projects will be delayed, increased cleaning costs will cut into already overwhelmed finances, and this may result in further increased entry fees at the most popular parks to combat recent destruction.

Yosemite National Park

My first stop was in Yosemite National Park, which remained open during the entirety of the shutdown. Lodging facilities were open, and surprisingly the buses were running as well, but there were few rangers present and the visitor center was closed. With fewer rangers to staff such a large area, Mariposa Grove and the surrounding area was closed, and only the valley area was open to car traffic (Tioga Road, which leads east out of the valley, was also closed, but this is usual for wintertime). The few rangers I did see were tirelessly working without pay, and were extremely concerned for visitor safety in the midst of multiple snowstorms in the area. Falling rocks and tree branches, patches of icy road, sudden snow requiring snow tires or chains – all of these issues could cause visitor injury and response time to these would be slow or challenged due to the large area of the park and limited staff.

There were hardly any people in the park (compared to peak summer visitation), which is to be expected from wintertime, but there were still tour buses running through the area. I felt grateful for the recent winter storms, as it likely kept park visitation low, and the few visitors that were present were mostly other photographers, who seemed more aware and respectful of the issues of the park shutdown than the average visitor, or at least more prepared as many I spoke to were locals that had visited during extreme winter conditions before.

However, not all photographers were respectful of the park rules: there were at least two photographers during my time there flying drones, which is NOT allowed in the parks at any time. This was especially bothers me, because it would be one thing if it was just disturbing other visitors’ enjoyment of the area, but the bigger concern is that drones are disruptive and stress-inducing to local wildlife and bird populations. Many of which could be vulnerable or endangered, and this is their only home, their only refuge from encroaching urban development.

Despite my worst fears, I was happily surprised by how clean Yosemite was. Campgrounds had been closed to issues with trash and human excrement, but areas surrounding trash bins and closed restrooms were thankfully clean. I picked up fewer than twenty pieces of trash during the three days I was present in the park, and I visited every major viewpoint and hiked quite a bit around the area. Local volunteer groups doubtlessly made a huge impact on the cleanliness of the park, and were a strong testament to how much the locals love Yosemite and really came together to help protect it during a perilous time.

If you decide to visit Yosemite during a government shutdown or simply post-shutdown, please consider donating to The Yosemite Conservatory in lieu of paying an entry fee or to help make up for revenue loss, volunteer or clean as much as you can, and stay out of closed trails and respect road closures.

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park was initially open, and then closed for the government shutdown. I had planned on visiting between my days at Yosemite and Death Valley, as Sequoia is an ideal halfway stop, so I made a hotel reservation for a single night to break up the drive. When I left for my trip, however, the park was closed and I knew I would not be able to visit, but I kept my hotel reservation to keep with my plan of breaking up my long drive between parks.

Sequoia’s closure was the result of “overflowing trash and unsanitary conditions”, which is extremely disheartening. I don’t understand how people could view such a beautiful area and decide to leave trash or vandalize because there is no one around to stop them. We are responsible for our own actions, whether or not someone is around to witness them, so please think twice before doing something you would not want a ranger to observe. Okay lecture over, continuing on to my experiences:

The night before I was to leave for my hotel near Sequoia, I doubled checked the park’s website to see which roads would be closed in the area, and learned that the park would actually be open on the day I had originally planned to visit. Right before Martin Luther King Day, the Sequoia Parks Conservatory made a donation to open the park for the holiday as a weekend surprise. I would be driving in on MLK day itself, so I would have one chance to visit before it closed again.

Entering into the park, there was a ranger at the gate, handing out park maps, who cautioned me to carry chains and that there would be limited staff on hand to assist with any weather-related issues. A very small area of the park was open, due both to the shutdown and due to the recent snowstorm that had left the top of the park covered in a thick layer of snow. The visitor center, the Giant Forest Museum, and a few restrooms were open, the former two with limited hours.

As I reached the Giant Forest and General Sherman Tree trail, I was surprised by the number of cars parked and the high number of visitors, especially in light of the very snowy conditions. Many families had decided to visit and enjoy a snow day (as the valleys around the park were simply rainy). It was nice to see so many families out enjoying nature, but I was shocked and dismayed that most of had decided to sled around the Sherman Tree trail instead of hike the fenced path. There are a few designated sledding and cross country skiing areas of the park where sledding is welcomed, but this particular trail and area was not one of them.

No rangers were present in the area, but the trail was clearly fenced and there were signs around about staying on the trail to protect restoration areas. I only had a few hours in Sequoia, so I could not speak to the other areas that were open, but I was disappointed by the behavior of the other visitors, especially since the park was opened for the holiday as a special occasion.

If you decide to visit Sequoia during a government shutdown or simply post-shutdown, please consider donating to The Sequoia Conservatory in lieu of paying an entry fee or to help make up for revenue loss, volunteer or clean as much as you can, and stay out of closed trails and respect road closures.

Death Valley National Park

My last stop of the trip was to Death Valley, the day after my visit to Sequoia. Death Valley encompasses a huge area, and I saw the fewest rangers yet in the three days I was present in Death Valley.

The damage to Death Valley during the government shutdown was immediately apparent. In multiple areas, delicate desert ecosystems were marked by off-road vehicles. Deep tire marks in the plains and playas will scar the landscape for months, maybe years to come, and likely stressed, injured, or killed animals that burrow underground. I did not have enough time to visit the Racetrack, but other photographers showed me pictures of deep tire marks crisscrossing the area, where signs clearly mark no motor vehicles are allowed. The Racetrack is well known for its rock trails, which were driven over, and some of the rocks were even chiseled into and written upon. Mere footprints in wet conditions last for months here, so these treads will likely last for a long time until enough rainfall can “reset” the playa, although since it is such a dry area, this may not happen at all.

Restrooms were pretty disastrous too, bursting with trash and human waste. Workers and volunteers cleaned up, repaired, and assessed the damage, even posting a video of the before and after of a restroom cleanup, which took two hours to clean (!). Many visitors left trash next to dumpsters, where heavy wind and wildlife dispersed out the trash before it could be safely disposed of by the rangers left working. I picked up the most trash at Death Valley, around forty pieces spread out around different areas I hiked in.

In many areas, vegetation will need to be replanted and it will take a long time for marks of human destruction to fade, due to the low rainfall of the area. While I was there, I saw few other visitors despite winter being a more popular time to visit due to drastically lower temperatures than summer. The temperature differential between day and night was pretty shocking though; it felt like winter weather at night with 20-30 degree F temperatures (with extremely icy winds!), but during the day it easily rose up to 60-70 degrees F. This is to be expected in deserts in winter, but if it is your first time visiting, you may not think to prepare for both weather extremes. Having fewer rangers meant no phones were staffed, so any questions visitors might have would go unanswered. Death Valley is pretty isolated too, so you would not know what conditions were until you arrived.

I hiked the Mesquite Sand Dunes on two separate nights during my time there, which could easily have been treacherous for a solo traveler and fewer rangers around. The area is very large and parts of it have very few visitors, so twisting an ankle or getting a snake bite (less common in winter than other months) could be very dangerous. I only mention these things so you can start to think through potential scenarios where a shutdown could make conditions riskier than they might normally be, especially if you travel solo as I often do.

If you decide to visit Death Valley during a government shutdown or simply post-shutdown, please consider donating to the Death Valley National History Association, the official non-profit partner, in lieu of paying an entry fee or to help make up for revenue loss, volunteer or clean as much as you can, and stay out of closed trails and respect road closures.

Stay Tuned for Part 2

Thank you so much for reading through this piece. It is not a fun subject to discuss, but I am passionate about the national parks and keeping them protected and beautiful for future generations. Despite the many concerns I had with the shutdown, I enjoyed my time at the parks and I’ll be returning soon to explore more. Shutdown or no, I will always bring trash bags to leave the parks better than when I arrived, and I hope you will consider to do the same.

Please keep these shutdown issues in mind with any future visits you do; while the government has since opened in the time I returned from my trip, there is every chance it could close again, and even if it does remain open, the destruction during the closure will likely affect the parks for years to come. You can make a difference with donations, volunteer work, or even just educating fellow visitors to act respectfully.

On a more positive note, stay tuned later this month for part 2: Winter Road Trip Adventures in the National Parks of California – Yosemite, Sequoia, & Death Valley. I will detail what to do, where to stay, and what to photograph for your next visit there – hopefully not during a shutdown! Until next time, enjoy the beauty of the outdoors and thank a park ranger for all that they do

Sign up for my newsletter to be notified of future blog posts such as Part 2 of this winter national parks piece! You will also be notified of upcoming workshops, shop sales, and more. Plus, get 5 free Lightroom presets and my free travel packing checklist when you sign up!

Read Next:

  • Part 2, Winter Road Trip Adventures in the National Parks of California – Yosemite, Sequoia, & Death Valley: coming soon!