National Parks: Open or Shut Case During the Government Shutdown?

Dec 28, 2018

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Do national parks close during a government shutdown? Well, sometimes.

But the answer is a little more complicated this time around than it has been in the past. The National Park Service is under the funding of the Interior Department, which is one of the agencies that has not yet had its appropriations approved. The end result is that employees of the National Park Service are largely not working because there are no available funds with which to pay them. However, the parks themselves are not physically closed.

Unlike during the government shutdown in 2013, most national park roads are currently open, vistas are visit-able, sights are seeable and attractions are accessible. We were actually on a trip through Utah in fall 2013 when a previous shutdown occurred. When we realized that the threat was likely to become a reality, we altered our plans so that we could get to Bryce and Zion national parks before they closed. We made it to Bryce for a full day before the shutdown started and we were there when park rangers blocked the park entrance and turned cars away.

Entrance closed at Bryce Canyon National Park in 2013 government shutdown.

In fact, as we drove the state highway that goes through Zion, we witnessed park rangers not allowing cars to pull off the road to stop and look at the beauty of Zion. The road could be used for through travel, but not for park enjoyment.

Parking and viewing area barricaded on Zion road in 2013.

We half-jokingly expected the park rangers to require all passengers to wear blinders as the parks were traversed. There was a lot of bad press, negative flak and hard feelings over the way the shutdown was handled in 2013, which has likely contributed to a somewhat different approach in 2018.

Park closure being explained to tourists in 2013.

Current Impact of Government Shutdown on National Parks

Now in 2018, at least during this first week of the shutdown, restrictions for visiting national parks aren’t as severe. The biggest drawback currently is that the normal services provided by the National Park Service will not be available at all locations. Information and some visitors centers are not open. Many restrooms are locked. Trash is not being officially picked up and removed in some parks. There is overnight camping or parking at some locations, but the regular check-in and out processes may not be available. In other words, your previously reserved spot may not be yours.

Mt. Rushmore

Mt. Rushmore’s website says the park roads and grounds are open, but all federal positions are unattended and the sculpture lights will not be illuminated. Xanterra, the private licensed park concessionaire, will operate its facilities as usual. One of the popular attractions, the nightly lighting of the monument, is curtailed until funding is resumed.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island remains open due to funding by the State of New York. This is the third time in five years that this scenario has occurred. The estimated cost to the state is about $65,000 a day. Of note is that Governor Cuomo’s inauguration is slated for Jan. 1 on Ellis Island.


The State of Utah is using state monies to keep its national parks open and functioning with staff from the Utah Offices of Tourism assisting with park operations. The Salt Lake Tribune reports the state has granted $85,000 to the National Park Service.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon in Arizona will remain open and operational because of state provisions put in place as a result of a previous government shutdown. Their website says it best:

“The Grand Canyon will not close on our watch. Period,” said Governor Ducey. “If Washington, DC won’t function, Arizona will. By working together with the National Park Service, and with dollars from our Parks and Tourism departments, we have identified state resources and will make sure the Grand Canyon stays open. Don’t change your travel plans, because Arizona is open for business — regardless of what happens back in Congress.”

Joshua Tree

At Joshua Tree, a very popular destination this time of the year, its Facebook page states:

Campgrounds remain open, but as NPS personnel are furloughed, reservations will not be observed. Vault toilets throughout the park will remain open. Park visitor centers, flush toilets, water filling stations and dump stations will be closed.

In other words, you can still go there, but your camping reservation won’t currently be honored as it is basically a first come, first claimed situation.

Joshua tree
A sunset in Joshua Tree National Park (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

Washington, DC

In Washington, DC, most museums and monuments are open and running on leftover funds and will remain open at least through Jan 1.

The National Christmas Tree has been re-lit, after going dark for a short period, with financial assistance from the National Park Foundation.

And, according to a spokesperson/scheduler for our Texas congressional representative Kevin Brady, White House Tours were not scheduled for the period from Christmas to New Year’s and their availability after Jan. 1 is not yet determined.

Rocky Mountain National Park

A phone call to Rocky Mountain National Park advised visitors to use extreme caution and that any entrance into the park is at the visitor’s sole risk. Vehicular traffic is extremely limited due to recent weather conditions and roads are not being plowed or sanded.

The websites at the various national parks all have information pertaining to the shutdown. The info generally advises that updates to the websites will not be made during the federal closures and that the sites may not reflect current conditions. Check other resources for road conditions and nearby services that might be open.

Fees Are Waived, but …

A small plus side of the shutdown is that, because the park entrances will not be staffed, no fees can be collected. In other words, the parks are free. The downside, as largely already noted, is that the services we rely on are not available. Roads may not be cleared, restrooms may not be open, reservations not honored, trash may be piling up or blowing about and emergency help, if needed, may not be as responsive as usual.

As always, park visitors are encouraged to leave no trace behind as a result of their visit. While this is always good advice, it rings especially true during the shutdown.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Trash is accumulating in some spots as a result of the shutdown. (Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images)

All bets are off if the shutdown continues for an extended period after the new year arrives. Some entities may run out of their “extra” funds and the financial support from the individual states may dry up.

We can only hope the appropriations issues get resolved in the near term and the 16,000 national park employees can resume their duties as caretakers of some of our country’s national jewels. Until then, your best bet is look to social media for firsthand reports of folks visiting some of the national parks and monuments that are not fully operational. A good place to start is the comments section of the official Facebook pages for these sites. You may also need to rely on credit card with built-in travel protections if your lodging reservation is not honored due to the shutdown.

Featured image by Win McNamee /  Getty Images. Images by author except where indicated. 

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