As fall approaches and temperatures cool down, crowds descend on many national parks to witness the annual ritual of leaves turning shades of red, yellow and orange. But because of the pandemic, visiting autumn hot spots such as Acadia, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks is a bit more complicated.

There is social distancing, closures and other state regulations to consider this year, on top of the usual ethics and standards travelers should keep in mind when visiting natural wonders.

The first thing to know is that national parks are undergoing a phased reopening on a park-by-park basis. Check individual park websites to ensure attractions and facilities are open. Policies vary among parks, especially regarding mask use. For those traveling out of state, research state guidelines. A few states such as Maine require some visitors to quarantine or provide negative test results.

Here is what else to consider as you plan your visit.

Choose the path less traveled

Over the past decade, visits to Great Smoky Mountains National Park have increased 25 percent and are still increasing, park spokesperson Dana Soehn said.

“Even during the pandemic, we are continuing to see that rise in visitation,” said Soehn, who cited a 7 percent spike in visitors from June 2019 to June 2020. “We saw that increase not only at iconic locations but even at formerly lesser used areas.”

How to safely visit national parks this fall
Tourists photograph fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains. (iStock)

Even though there are 380 miles of roadways in the park, traffic congestion is the biggest issue during the fall since most use is concentrated on a 60-mile stretch. Even when there is no pandemic, it’s wise to consider trails and hikes that are less popular.

Planning and flexibility are essential to avoid crowds. Soehn said if people think about scheduling their visit early in the morning, midweek or in the afternoon period when most traffic is leaving the park, then they can likely go to some of the more-popular areas and have a less crowded experience.

Consider low-contact activities

Following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, using facial coverings is strongly encouraged and may even be required in some areas, especially on crowded trails where social distancing can’t be maintained.

If you are considering camping, Soehn said, park campsites in the Smokies were assessed to ensure sites are properly spaced and that facilities are cleaned regularly.

“One thing we are asking people to remember when you come into the park is to recreate responsibly because of the COVID crisis,” said Sally Hurlbert, management specialist for Shenandoah National Park. She recommends choosing lesser known trails and alternate park entrances away from large cities to avoid crowds.

“There’s just a lot of trails that are beautiful, and in the fall, no matter where you go it’s going to be pretty,” Hurlbert said. She also asks people to avoid lingering at popular summits and encourages hiking on overcast or slightly rainy days.

Shenandoah National Park. (iStock)

One of the best ways to socially distance is a canoe or kayak trip. “My favorite activity in the park is actually paddling, even though we’ve got a lot of hiking trails,” said Greg Cunningham, chief of interpretation, education and visitor services at Congaree National Park in South Carolina, famous for its flood-plain forest filled with giant hardwoods and pines.

He suggested taking advantage of the marked 15-mile canoe trail along Cedar Creek that winds through the park.

Leave no trace

One of the biggest concerns with higher traffic is an increase in trash. Because of the pandemic, there has been a decrease of volunteers in the Great Smoky Mountains who assist with cleaning roadsides and trails.

“We are trying really hard to remind people that their actions inside the park affect not only the aesthetics of the park but also us taking care of critical resources that people come to enjoy,” Soehn said.

She stresses the importance of not throwing organic matter such as apple cores or sandwiches onto trails or roadsides because it attracts wildlife and increases the likelihood of human and bear interactions. Recently at Shenandoah, visitors have been leaving plastic bags of dog waste along trails and trash next to half-empty trash cans. Visitors should take all trash with them or place it inside trash cans.

Know your limits

A pandemic is not the time to try a challenging hike or new activity. “One of the biggest things is to remind people to know their limits,” Soehn said. She encouraged people to postpone these activities so first responders can focus on the pandemic. Planning and situational awareness are key to fall travel. Cunningham encourages visitors to call, email or talk to staff members before any activity.

“That’s what it all boils down to whether it’s a pandemic or not,” he said. “It’s all about making wise decisions and coming prepared with what you need for the experience and being flexible enough. It’s the same thing if there’s a thunderstorm coming.”

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