2 Oct
2013
Ian Plant By
Posted in: General    40 Comments

The Nature Photographer’s Guide to the U.S. Government Shutdown

[UPDATES: Check the comments below for important updates as they come in, both from me and my readers.]

As many of you must know by now, the U.S. federal government is “shut down”—and I put this in quotes because obviously not every government office is closed. Unfortunately for us nature photographers, many of the most beautiful scenic destinations in the United States—the National Parks and National Monuments—are currently closed. Those are the headlines, of which I’m sure you are aware. Don’t despair, however, as plenty of the nation’s scenic treasures are outside of federal lands, and not all federal lands are off limits. For example, I’m currently in the Gunnison National Forest in Colorado, and so far access is no problem.

But right now, it’s not easy to tell what is open and what is closed—the National Park Service’s website (http://www.nps.gov) is off-line, and the Department of Interior’s site has been reduced to displaying that agency’s shutdown plan, written in bureaucratese. The good news is that some things you thought might be closed will be open. The bad news is that some places you’d expect to find open might be closed.

Autumn cottonwood trees, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Here’s some quick tips on what to expect that I’ve gleaned from sources on the Internet and my experience:

  • Federally operated visitor centers are closed—but some gift shops might be open so you can snag that hat you always wanted!
  • BLM field offices that grant permits for hikers will not be operating, so there might be delays in getting advance permits to popular places like the Wave.
  • Don’t be surprised if you see a trail or road “blocked” with tape or a sign because part of it crosses federal land. Proceed at your own risk…..
  • Some roads through National Parks may be open, such as “public” roads (country and state roads, federal highways, etc.), but expect roads behind an entrance station to be closed. So, for example, you should be able to photograph the Grand Tetons from the highway which cuts through the park, but you won’t be able to access any of the interior park roads which pass through an entrance gate. Accordingly, you might be able to access certain National Park areas even if they are technically closed (and with furloughs it is unlikely that anyone will be there to enforce closures). Of course, you can always walk past any locked gates and access closed areas that way, although it is technically not allowed. I understand that during the last shutdown 17 years ago, many people did exactly this, entering the parks even though they were closed.
  • National Forest access will likely be much better. Many roads which cross into National Forests are county or state roads, so they should stay open, and even most forest service roads don’t have gates on them. National Forest areas tend to be thinly-staffed compared to the National Parks, so it is unlikely that there will be enough staff to go out and close areas anyway (especially with much of the federal workforce being furloughed). As I mentioned above, I’m in the Gunnison National Forest right now, and haven’t seen anything closed. National Forests visitor centers will be closed, but access to interior areas shouldn’t be a problem in most places.
  • Some campgrounds on federal land will officially close (no showers or restrooms for you!), but others will remain open because they are privately operated or are more remote. For example, this morning I saw a National Forest campground which was open.
  • Some lodges and hotels on federal land might be closed; others are open if they are privately managed or on private land within a park. Be prepared to find that the hotel you were hoping to get that good shower in may not be accepting guests.
  • River access in certain areas may be restricted; for example, I understand that rafting companies along the Colorado are being blocked from launching using boat launches on federal lands.
  • Don’t expect to see friendly rangers or volunteers on the trail. I understand that staff who work on rescue crews are being  furloughed as well, so try not to break your leg.
  • Just because something is open today doesn’t mean it won’t be closed tomorrow. Implementing the shutdown might take a few days.
  • Tribal, state, and county parks are unaffected by these closures—so if you’re planning to see Monument Valley or Valley of Fire, for example, you’ll be able to. (But shhh – or everyone else will be in on that trick too!)

A good nature photographer is always resourceful, ready to adapt, and has a contingency plan. So in a sense, dealing with government shutdowns is no different than dealing with bad weather. Hopefully, this whole thing will get sorted out soon, but don’t be surprised if the shutdown lasts for awhile. Be prepared, and stay flexible!

We’d love to hear about your own experiences! So leave a comment if you’ve got some intelligence to report. I’ll do the same if I learn anything new over the next few days. Let’s keep the dialogue going, and make this post a place where people can post stories and news for the benefit of all. PLEASE keep politics out of the discussion—partisan flame wars are not allowed!

SHUTDOWN SALE: Since you might have to cancel your trip to your favorite park because of the shutdown, this is a good time to redirect your efforts into brushing up on your technical skills and artistic vision. To that end, I’ve decided to give my readers a 10% discount on all items in my eStore until the shutdown ends. So take advantage of this special offer and your newly discovered free time! Use discount code SHUTDOWN and receive your 10% discount. Act soon—who knows, Congress might actually start behaving (yeah, like that’s going to happen)!

Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (380 Posts)

Ian Plant's photographs and instructional articles have appeared in a number of books, calendars, and magazines, including Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography. Ian writes a regular blog column for Outdoor Photographer online, and he is the author of numerous instructional eBooks and videos. Ian leads several photo tours each year.


40 Comments

  • I live near Moab, Utah which is home to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as close to Hovenweep, and Escalante/Grand Staircase National Monuments and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area which oversees the Grand Canyon. The economic impact for the small communities which surround these national treasures is huge. If anyone is in the area, ask a local where you might find alternative places to see wonderful sights and continue your stay. You may even find something totally unexpected and more spectacular than a Park view as well as make some new friends.

  • Living in Silver Gate (just outside the NE entrance to Yellowstone) is going to make it difficult for me, at least I can go through to Gardiner since I have a resident sticker. Right now I am enjoying the Solitude of Grand Teton National Park, was told today visitors are not allowed to stop and take photos or recreate in any way. This morning at Oxbow there were only 5 photographers there, unheard of for this time of year!

  • I highly recommend going to places that aren’t officially nature protection sites like national parks etc… Places like White Pocket AZ and Bisti Badlands NM spring to mind.

  • I would recommend Nevada’s “Valley of Fire’ and all the places around Page AZ.

  • While the big names are going to be closed, I like think of this as a great opportunity for folks to go out and explore a local state park that they overlooked. They might not have the grand vistas or big names, but many have worthwhile natural wonders that are commonly overlooked.

  • I was in Jackson, Wy the past two days. You can still get decent shots of the Tetons south of the entrance, but the entrance itself is barricaded. I hate it for those with plans that way.

  • Though it is not “nature,” all the monuments and Smithsonian museums here in DC are closed and the monuments in the national mall are generally barricaded. You can walk around but not get too close to them. Likewise, Skyline drive through Shenandoah National Park nearby is reportedly closed to the public despite this being the start of the peak season for fall colors.

  • Whatever happened to the land of the free? Come to the UK. We’ve had the “right to roam” since 1935 and Countryside & rights of way act since 2000 which grants us right of access to most mountain, moor, heath, down and common land in England and Wales – Scotland has even more freedom to roam.

    Look up the Kinder Trespass (http://www.kindertrespass.com/), maybe you need to organise a similar action in the US and take back your freedom to enjoy unhindered the wild areas of your country once more.

  • Ian Plant

    NPR has a good article on which public lands are closed and which are open. National Parks and Monuments are closed, but National Forests and BLM lands will remain open to public access. http://www.npr.org/2013/10/03/228719015/national-parks-close-as-other-public-lands-stay-open

  • Ian Plant

    A reader left the following comment on my Facebook page:

    “Boat ramps, campgrounds and other access areas operated by the Army Corps of Engineers in Southern Illinois along with federally operated refuges and National Forest areas were gated or barricaded yesterday.”

  • I live right outside Yosemite NP, and even though all the entrances to the park have gates, all the gates are open, as the park is required to allow through traffic on the main roads. So Highways 120, 140, and 41 within the park are open. No stopping is allowed, at least technically, but of course many people are stopping anyway. There are rangers on duty — the law-enforcement rangers who are considered essential (and working without pay) — who can and will tell you to move if they find you stopped, but I’m sure that there are not enough of them to do this very effectively. Any roads that are not through roads are closed, so you can’t get to the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, or the Mariposa Grove.

  • The word is the road to the Maroon Bells is closed. Only a hundred or so photographers per day head up there this time of year.

  • I have been told all National Forests are technically “closed” but they are not patrolling them.

  • FWIW, though Federal government websites may be offline, you can still get to earlier versions of them (and many others) via the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine”:
    http://blog.archive.org/2013/10/02/governmentblackout/

    This won’t fix the government shutdown mess — only common sense could do that — but it could be helpful if you need to access basic information on those sites.

  • I live, and usually photograph, right on the other side of the continental divide from Gunnison, in Chaffee County, Colorado. I’ve not heard of any closures around here. No national parkland, but some spectacular terrain with deep canyons and “fourteener” peaks.

  • The Smokies is closed as you would expect. US 441 connecting Cherokee with Gatlinburg is open, but communications indicate even the pullouts are closed. All trails in the park are closed including the Appalachian Trail.

    Three visitors centers are open outside the park since they are operated and staffed by the non-profit Great Smoky Mountains Association. The association reports store sales are down by 80-90% or $35-40,000 per day. This translates into a daily impact of about $4000 in state sales tax.

    The nearby Blue Ridge Parkway is open but all visitors centers and businesses on government lands are closed.

    The regional trail clubs are cancelling work parties and trail maintenance since the government closure suspends workmen’s compensation insurance and medical insurance in case of injuries while volunteers work on trails.

    Probably one of the most bizarre actions is that unmanned webcams have been turned off.

  • Ian Plant
  • I live near Blacksburg in southwestern Virginia. The Forest Service is closing any area with a bathroom. Forest Service roads that are normally not gated seem to still be open. This will make sense to locals. We couldn’t take the dogs on their walk around Pandapas Pond, but could drive to the trailhead for the Poverty Creek Trail complex.

    Thanks for the tips on Acadia. We’re supposed to go there in two weeks. We were looking for alternatives, but may chance it.

    • Karen: GO on up to Maine. There are /lot’s/ of things to do and see and photograph in the area that will still be accessible and very worthwhile. When we go up there, usually for a week or so at a time, we generally only spend a couple of days in the park itself. Also, there are many places to visit within an hour or so of Bar Harbor that will present interesting photographic opportunities.

  • Here’s a link to an article from the local paper this morning about how folks are just going around the barricades in Acadia NP, the foliage is at just about peak color now.
    http://www.sunjournal.com/news/maine/2013/10/06/visitors-determined-enjoy-closed-acadia-real-probl/1433205

  • I am so happy that got up to Haleakala the day before the shutdown. Here on Maui, the Seven Sacred Pools and the wildlife refuge are shutdown, too.

  • At Acadia National Park, only those who park or operate a motorized vehicle on park property are being charged, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. are being allowed to remain in the park, if discovered by a ranger.

    http://fenceviewer.com/site/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=83135:uneasy-riders-are-cited-on-closed-roads-in-acadia&Itemid=938

    Many are enjoying a special benefit — the Park Loop Road is free from car traffic.

    http://www.pressherald.com/news/Cyclists__rollerbladers_rule_Acadia_s_roads.html

  • Ian Plant

    Breaking News: Utah National Parks to reopen, state stepping in to provide funds! http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/11/us/utah-parks-reopen/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

  • Just returned from South West USA National Parks trip yesterday after almost three weeks travelling round the Parks. Fortunately managed to gain access to Parks in first 10 days but for last week we had to contend with visiting State Parks. Thank goodness they were open. Unfortunately had to miss Zion, Death Valley, Kings Canyon and Sequoia and Yosemite. The latter being the biggest disappointment. Had no warning of these closures and created a “black cloud” over the whole trip. Not being an American citizen I wont comment too much on the politics of this closure but considering the National Parks are considered by many to be America’s best idea and for the benefit of the nation I find it very strange that this closure of the parks was ever allowed. Could affect my and many others future travel plans to the States.

  • Ian Plant

    In Acadia, barriers are up but folks are walking in to plenty of places. Word is that rangers aren’t harassing anyone unless they drive past the barriers. Plenty of photogs up here doing their thing.

    • I have been hearing about citations: http://www.onlinesentinel.com/news/maine/Rangers-issue-citations-for-Acadia-National-Park-closure-order-violations.html
      and somewhat disappointing reports of rudeness on the part of rangers. I can see the frustration when there was uncertainty on their compensation, but now that that has been removed, I know how I’d behave as a ranger…

      I have a trip planned there soon and planned on just biking or hiking in from outside the park, but it seems like recent reports indicate they’re getting more restrictive. Scheduling a meeting with a federal judge is not my idea of a successful vacation, so I think I might chicken out. Quite frustrating given the comments of Jonathan Jarvis, I would have hoped there would be unspoken rules for “acceptable usage” but I’m having trouble figuring out what those might be, or if they even exist.

      FWIW, a buddy went on a hike of Old Rag last week, and many cars were parked along the road (obviously the usual parking situation has…deteriorated) and they came back to what seemed like friendly notices reminding them that the park is closed. I’m responsible enough in terms of LNT ethics that I could enter a park in this manner and justify it to myself, but I fear they will be more stringent in their citations as the shutdown drags on and more people try to enter to see leaves, or just commune with nature.

      • I should update that I just found out they are towing cars that are parked near the no parking signs at Old Rag, and they are posting rangers at some of the more popular boundary access trails, like Old Rag and White Oak Canyon, in order to turn back would-be hikers…

  • Ian Plant

    Some encouraging signals coming from DC about the shutdown. Maybe too early to read the tea leaves but perhaps the parks will be open for business again soon!

  • Thanks for the update on Old Rag & White Oak. We were hoping to hike in Shenandoah, but it sounds like the rangers there are stricter than Acadia. Does anyone have any other hiking suggestions for near Shenandoah?

  • Ian Plant

    Reopening as early as Saturday are the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and Rocky Mountain National Park: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/11/20926440-statue-of-liberty-mount-rushmore-other-national-parks-to-reopen-during-shutdown?lite

  • Here’s my blog post about the back ways in and around Acadia from a locals perspective-http://nateparkerphotography.com/blog/2013/10/acadia-national-park-may-be-closed-but-that-doesnt-mean

    • Thank you, Nate!!

  • Ian Plant

    Going to be a wild ride today in DC, let’s all cross our fingers and hope the shutdown will be resolved soon so we can all get back to (legally) enjoying our federal lands!

  • Ian Plant

    Great Smoky Mountains to reopen until end of weekend (open until the 20th): http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/10/smoky_mountains_re-opening_thr.html

  • Ian Plant

    Rumor has it that Congress is close to passing a bill that will end the shutdown (at least for now) . . . Better take advantage of the Shutdown Sale while it still lasts!

  • Ian Plant

    Current deal working its way through Congress would fund the government through Jan. 15. Seems that everyone expects it to pass, but we may all be back here in a few months!

  • Ian Plant

    Bill has passed Congress, President will sign, and federal lands will be open soon. The shutdown is over!