Over the past decade, national parks, forests, and other public lands saw a surge in visitors for camping and other recreation. The popularity of getting outside and enjoying all the outdoors had to offer was booming. Then came the pandemic, when many in the US shifted to exploring locally or taking road trips. In the last year, there has been an explosion in the number of guests to our natural lands. While more people getting outside is arguably a good thing, the crowds have also caused issues and headaches for those who manage and protect the spaces we all love so much.
With summer travel well and truly underway, 2021 is expected to be the biggest year on record for parks, forests, and campgrounds.
We reached out to multiple land managers across the country who work to protect access to the outdoors to hear what they want visitors both new and old to know before heading outside this summer.
Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests
Best known for the area around Crested Butte, Colorado, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests cover more than three million acres west of the Continental Divide. They are home to some of the best views, trails, and campsites in the Rocky Mountains.
Popular demand for dispersed camping areas recently forced rangers to make a change to camping near the Crested Butte area and create more designated sites. Officials say that should not discourage people from visiting but that everyone needs to do additional planning.
“I encourage folks when they’re planning their trip to look at the entirety of the map. The Gunnison Ranger District is 1.3 million acres alone, and there are wonderful opportunities,” said Matthew McCombs, a District Ranger in the Gunnison District, which covers Crested Butte. “In addition to the fact that there are more opportunities in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests and to consider all these opportunities.”
McCombs says the key is getting there early and having a backup plan if camping is full in one area.
For many western states, including Colorado, wildfires will also be top of mind this summer.
“2020 was a devastating fire season in the state of Colorado, and things are shaping up based on current conditions; it could be just as challenging this year,” said McCombs. “The number one way to substantially reduce the potential for large devastating wildfires is for our visitors to use fire responsibly.”
California State Parks
California State Parks offer experiences as diverse as the state. With 280 different parks to choose from, some of California’s state parks work as good alternatives to international attractions like Yosemite or Joshua Tree National Parks.
Once a hotbed for the pandemic, California has been slow to reopen compared to some areas around the country. Visitors should expect to see some closures if they travel to the Golden State.
“Before heading out to visit a California State Park, we ask that visitors plan ahead to find out what is open and what restrictions are in place, wear face coverings, practice physical distancing and avoid crowds,” said Ray Lennox, the superintendent for what’s known as the Colorado Desert District in southern California. Lennox represents parks such as Cuyamaca Rancho and Palomar Mountain State Parks in the San Diego area. “Many of our park units are experiencing heavy use, and as a visitor, you can help alleviate the impact on park facilities by helping us keep our public outdoors clean and free of litter.”
While many campgrounds have reopened in the state, some group sites and a few buildings and facilities remain closed or are limited in capacity.
While Lennox says his focus is solely on the parks in his district, it’s a good idea to get a reservation no matter where you’re going.
“Campground reservations for California State Parks are always recommended and can be made by visiting ReserveCalifornia.com,” said Lennox. “You can also contact the local park unit to check the availability of walk-up, first-come-first-serve campsites.”
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park, located on Maine’s coast, is one of the most popular parks in the country. With its proximity to millions of people in the Northeast, the park is notably busy in the summer and even more so over the past year.
The popularity of Acadia has park officials working on updating the park’s planning page regularly. Visitors to the park who hope to visit this summer should make their plans as soon as possible, the park recommends, including booking their campsites on recreation.gov.
Crowds at Acadia National Park lead many visitors to use shuttles to popular areas, and park officials say to keep current health guidelines in mind.
“Consistent with CDC recommendations, people who are not fully vaccinated must continue to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces,” said Christie Anastasia, with Acadia National Park. “All people, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask on all forms of public transportation.”
Bridger-Teton National Forest
Bridger-Teton, a massive forest covering 3.4 million acres in Wyoming, is the largest National Forest in the lower 48 states. However, despite its size, nearby attractions like Grand Teton National Park have brought a growing number of visitors to the area. Because of this, some camping areas are now almost out of the question for visitors.
“These particular locations near Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park have become unfortunately almost unavailable to most campers traveling to this area,” said David Wilkinson, the Recreation Technician and Travel Planner for the Jackson Ranger District in Bridger-Teton National Forest. “They are crowded, often noisy, and dusty throughout the summer months. They do not have many services, including nearby water.”
Similar to other recreation areas, officials are warning visitors to plan ahead.
“The developed campgrounds fill quickly, as do the designated sites (undeveloped) in places like Toppings (Upper Teton View), Spread Creek, Shadow Mountain, Curtis Canyon, Buffalo Valley. If you arrive later in the day, expect sites to be filled,” said Linda Merigliano, the resource manager for Bridger-Teton.
Campers can call an automated phone message service at 307-739-5500 for current conditions.
Officials also remind visitors to check on their campfires and ensure everything is out before leaving a campsite. Also, there is a five-day stay limit in many areas, and rangers will issue citations for those violating the rules.
Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests
Sitting just west of the Denver metro area, Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, which cover more than 1.5 million acres, are the start to Colorado’s mountains and surrounding areas like Rocky Mountain National Park. Their proximity to the Front Range makes them two of the most visited forests in the country.
Wildfires tore through parts of the forests last year and heavily damaged parts of the wilderness. About 25% remains closed now.
Officials also had to make some changes to their recreation plan, including closures to overcrowded campgrounds and new regulations to keep everyone safe as more and more campers headed to the area. That’s why officials here are focused on asking visitors to do research before heading out the door.
“A big message for all public land managers is know before you go because things are changing this year,” said Reid Armstrong, the Public Affairs Specialist for Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. “For example, you wouldn’t go to the movies without first doing a little research on what movies are out there, what are the good ones, what times are the movies? How do I buy my tickets in advance? That kind of stuff, so that’s the same kind of message we’re trying to say about a day hike or camping in the National Forest.”
Other concerns for this summer include visitors staying within their limits and being prepared. With resources like emergency services already spread thin, they need people to avoid putting themselves in dangerous situations.
“Try to stay within your abilities,” said Armstrong. “This is especially relevant to people who are trying a new activity for the first time or are visiting from outside the area for the first time and are maybe new to the Colorado climate or elevation and some of the technical climbs that we have.”
Buffalo Gap National Grassland
Located in Wall, South Dakota, Buffalo Gap National Grassland is part of the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands. Located near Badlands National Park, Buffalo Gap has some popular dispersed camping areas with plenty of prairie land that occasionally drops away to dramatic views.
“Keep in mind that we have a road system that is identified on our MVUM (Motor Vehicle Use Map),” said Alex Grant, a Buffalo Gap district ranger. “You must stay on the road and not drive across the pasture. Please pull next to the road, completely off the road, in the location you wish to camp, and ensure you do not block the graveled road.”
Visitors should expect popular camping areas like Nomad View to fill up quickly, but officials say they can still find plentiful camping in other areas, like the Pinnacles. Grant says the best way to find a place to stay is to stop by the Visitor Center in Wall and follow their guidelines.
“Practice Leave No Trace ethics. Pack up your garbage. Scatter your fire ring,” said Grant. “Be mindful of weather in our area; it can change quickly. Summer storms can become dangerous, so be mindful of conditions prior to your arrival.”
Florida State Parks
While Florida may not top many lists for a summer visit, the Sunshine State is still expected to have plenty of visitors looking for waterfront campgrounds this summer. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that oversees Florida’s State Parks, says there are some simple steps to take to ensure a good time.
- Bring sunscreen, bug spray, and light and/or moisture-wicking fabrics.
- Use reusable containers for drinking water.
- Be mindful that summer temperatures may be too warm for campfires or cooking fires.
The state also launched a new online reservation system at the end of May to help visitors secure a campsite. Additional details can be found here.
“For the smoothest experience, guests are encouraged to make reservations as far in advance as possible,” said Alexandra Kuchta, the Deputy Press Secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “Parks near beaches or freshwater springs are typically the most popular among campers. Guests with flexible travel plans might consider making multiple reservations at separate parks to create a full itinerary.”
Florida has 175 state parks, trails, and scenic sites.
Prescott National Forest
Like many places in the American West, fire safety is top of mind in Arizona’s Prescott National Forest. The more than one million-acre area in north-central Arizona is currently under stage one fire restrictions. These restrictions mean no campfires outside of developed areas with fire rings, no recreational shooting, and no smoking within 30 feet of any plants or dry grass.
Besides fire restrictions, visitors should also expect to see additional campers this year.
“The use levels we are seeing on the Prescott Forest far exceed use we have ever seen,” said District Ranger Todd Willard of the Verde District.”Be prepared for many other users in the forest. Have plenty of water, food, and medical provisions.”
Willard recommends calling district offices to find out if reservations are available. He says to also keep different options in mind.
“Consider undeveloped, dispersed camping opportunities to get away from the crowds and have a more secluded experience,” said Willard. “If possible, consider going camping or recreating during the week when use levels are typically lower.”
You can find additional information and fire restrictions on their website.