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Have a Fun and Safe Adventure in our National Parks!

The year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of an agreement between the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) and the National Park Service (NPS) to protect, promote, and advance health in our parks. USPHS Commissioned Corps' team of specialized engineers strengthens public health infrastructure in nontraditional settings like Indian country and national parks. The USPHS Commissioned Corps is one of the nation’s uniformed services — a branch committed to the service of health. These men and women serve in agencies across the government, as physicians, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, scientists, engineers and other professionals. Many of us have seen the work of the USPHS officers and the Park Service professionals as we have visited, in record numbers, our national parks during the pandemic of 2020 and carrying over into the summer of 2021.

This long-standing relationship of public health and our national parks began back in 1918 with a Sanitary Survey in Yellowstone National Park by an assistant sanitary engineer. There were unsanitary conditions in the drinking water and wastewater systems. Improvements were recommended and today we still see that relationship keeping all of us healthy and safe as we visit national historic sites and parks. More information here on these men and women who work behind the scenes for all of us.

National parks have been crowded this summer as the number of Americans who are vaccinated against COVID-19 rises. Even though the parks are busy, travelers can still find ways to enjoy nature. The CDC has noted that being physically active is one of the best ways to keep the mind and body healthy. In most areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with members of their household.

Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a recent article in The Hill to "Enjoy nature. It's good for us, and it has very low risk of spreading the virus." There has been decades of research revealing the benefits of spending time outdoors. Other research shows that time spent in nature reduces blood pressure and stress levels.

The pandemic has also had many negative impacts on the National Park System. From overuse of the resources to lost opportunities for seasonal employees, volunteers and interns. Abe Miller-Rushing, science coordinator at Acadia National Park said “one of the greatest impacts of the pandemic for national parks is all of the lost opportunities for education and employment that national parks and partner organizations provide for people starting their careers.” According to the data released in the April 12, 2021 report, 47,946 individuals had their careers affected. Including youth volunteers, interns and conservation corps members.

Other negative impacts were the decline in visitors in some areas, such as the 87 percent decline in park use in the early stages of our pandemic. Many remained very low until the spring of 2021. One example is that for 2020 Denali National Park and Reserve got less than 10 percent of its normal visitors.

Parks near urban areas saw huge increases because of the need to get into the outdoors. Some of us escaping the four walls of our home/offices/zoom screens and others needing a place for our stir-crazy family members to expend their energy. Indiana Dunes National Park saw an additional 150,000 visitors in 2020. Long term research will be able to determine what affects these changes will have on wildlife, resources, pollution and infrastructure. Some parks have limited access due to the strain on all of the afore mentioned systems.

Other parks were able to pivot to online educational opportunities. In April of 2020 Yellowstone National Park created a virtual tour of a Walk to Canary Springs. Link to that tour is here. There was snow on the ground and the vista is amazing. Gratitude to Dave Kruger at the National Park Service! Jim Peaco shares a walk to Dragon’s Mouth Spring at Mud Volcano. It’s fascinating to walk down the boardwalk, and through Jim’s camera lens, anticipate the moment the actual steam comes out of the rocks and the hot water flows down the hillside. Here is Jim’s video. By following these links you can access many resources and photos on the National Park website. The site address is .

Texas National Parks

During 2020 due to pandemic my husband and I hitched our bikes to the back of our car and headed out to two fantastic National parks found in Texas: Padre Island National Seashore and San Antonio Mission National Historic park.

My first excursion was to Padre Island National Seashore, which separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline, dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats teeming with life. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history, including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.

This summer 1,405 visitors came to cheer on the 232 Kemp’s ridley hatchlings that were released by Padre Island park officials. You can watch a video of a turtle hatchling entering the ocean here. Padre Island National Seashore does not require reservations, but if you would like, you can purchase an entrance pass online before visiting the park. If you are staying overnight in the park, you would need to purchase the 7-day vehicle pass as the 1-day vehicle pass expires at midnight.

The next park that I explored was the San Antonio Mission National Historic park. The Hike & Bike Trail along the San Antonio River connects all five missions in San Antonio: The Alamo, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next. This is a safe and incredibly fun way to visit the missions.

The Hike & Bike Trail winds alongside the San Antonio River through old neighborhoods and farmlands. The paved pathways that connect the missions along the river are for pedestrians and cyclist only. The Hike & Bike Trail is an easy walk or ride and is suitable for children. If you would like to visit the park you can take a look at the Mission Riverwalk Maps to get an idea of where to find water, restrooms, trail access, viewpoints and more. Remember to bring plenty of water and sunscreen and be sure to bring your mask. Masks are required in federal buildings, in the conventos, and on conveyances.

If you plan to venture out to the national park systems this summer and fall, public health measures are in place across the National Park System including capacity limits, entrance reservations, one-way trails and/or temporary closures in response to local conditions. While most of the 423 national parks are available to visitors, some may not have the ability to offer the level of service available before the pandemic.

According to CDC recommendations, people who are not fully vaccinated (less than 2 weeks past your final dose) must continue to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. All people, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask on all forms of enclosed public transportation and in healthcare settings on Department of the Interior (DOI) lands.

For the health and safety of others, please choose another time to visit a park if: 

  • You are experiencing COVID-like symptoms such as a dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing, and/or loss of taste or smell.

  • You had close contact with someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 in the last 14 days.

  • You are self-isolating or self-quarantining because you may have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 or are worried that you may be sick with COVID-19.

You can read more tips about traveling this summer in AARP Bulletin 's article here.


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