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What to Do if Your National Park Vacation is Ruined by the Government Shutdown

October can be a wonderful time for national park visits.  The crowds and heat of summer have faded, and the colors of autumn brighten the landscape.  Sadly, this year’s government shutdown has closed all 401 national park sites around the country.  How long the shutdown will last is a great unknown.  So what do you do if you pull up to the gate of a national park on your long-planned vacation, only to find the way is barred?

There are no substitutes for our national parks.  They are set aside and protected as national parks for a reason: these lands are of national or international significance.  But knowing that doesn’t help much if you’re in your rental car on your vacation, trying to figure out where you should go when your plan has been foiled.  Here are a few ideas for alternative destinations.

If you were planning to visit Muir Woods National Monument:

Luckily for you, there are many California state parks that protect lovely redwood stands.  One of my favorites is Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 65 miles south of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  There are ranger-led walks on October weekends.  If Big Basin is too far south, Samuel P. Taylor State Park is much closer to Muir Woods.

ImageIf those don’t suit you, here’s a series of maps showing the locations of California state parks that protect coast redwoods.  You may find a good alternative that works with your schedule.  And if your main interest is in getting out and hiking, the Bay Area is a great place to be, even during the shutdown.  Check out Bay Area Hiker for ideas.

If you were planning to visit Yosemite National Park:

For giant sequoias, try going to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, northeast of Stockton.  The largest tree in the park is the Louis Agassiz Tree in the South Grove.  At 250 feet tall and over 25 feet in diameter six feet off the ground, it isn’t quite as massive as the General Sherman or General Grant Trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but trust me: the Louis Agassiz Tree is plenty big enough to evoke awe and inspiration.

It doesn’t look anything like Yosemite, but it’s not far away and it’s an amazing place: Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, just 13 miles east of the Yosemite entrance near Lee Vining, protects a salty, alkaline lake and the otherworldly tufa towers formed from calcium carbonate.  Though it’s a state reserve, Mono Lake is surrounded by national forest land, and I’m not sure if or how the federal government shutdown might affect it.  I’d definitely call ahead.

If you want a big, clear, deep mountain lake, there’s always Lake Tahoe.

If you were planning to visit Grand Canyon National Park:

Feeling up for a hike? Visiting Havasu Canyon is an awe-inspiring experience.  This canyon is located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, west of the main access points to the South Rim.  Havasu Canyon is only accessible by hiking, horseback riding, or taking a helicopter ride.  You’ll go eight miles in to the village of Havasupai, then continue on to see some of the prettiest waterfalls you’ll find anywhere in the world.  Access is regulated by the tribe, and reservations are a must; you’ll pay exorbitant fees if you show up without booking ahead.

If you were planning to visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial:

There are views of the presidential faces from Highway 16A.  You won’t be able to get as close as you would if the memorial were open.  The nearby Crazy Horse Memorial is a privately-funded site, not a federal one, and so remains open.  For gorgeous Black Hills scenery and great wildlife watching, Custer State Park is unaffected by the shutdown of the federal government.  And you won’t want to miss the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a great place to take in the changing colors of fall in the northern Black Hills.  This road has wide shoulders, gentle grades, and a low speed limit, making it ideal for cyclists.

If you were planning to visit Glacier National Park:

Hope you brought your passport, because just across the border in Canada is the stunning Waterton Lakes National Park.  Many facilities closed in September, and more are due to shut down after Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in mid-October, so you’ll definitely want to call ahead.

If you were planning to visit Badlands National Park or Theodore Roosevelt National Park:

I’d suggest visiting Makoshika State Park in eastern Montana, near Glendive.  At 11,538 acres, Makoshika is the largest state park in Montana.  It’s open year-round, so you’ll be able to take in some beautiful badlands scenery and learn about fossils.

If you were planning to visit Yellowstone:

This one’s tough. I worked at Yellowstone for eight seasons, and can truly say there’s no place in the world that compares.  Lots of parks have pretty scenery, lots of parks have great wildlife … but this is the only place that has those things and the largest number of geysers and thermal features in the world.  That said, Hot Springs Park in the town of Thermopolis, Wyoming will at least hint at what the area around Mammoth Hot Springs looks like.  I think of Thermopolis as being like what Yellowstone would look like if it had been domesticated: there are manicured lawns and constructed thermal fountains.  But it’s still a pretty and pleasant place, with an interesting history all its own. Image

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but hopefully this will give you some ideas about great ways to spend your vacation outdoors, even if you can’t do the trip you had planned.

There’s one more thing I want to say: please don’t blame the national park rangers.  Believe me, they want to be working, sharing the places they love with the public.  It’s not their fault the park is closed, despite what this Congressman seems to think.

Do you have suggestions for alternative destinations for frustrated national park visitors? Share them in the comments.

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