National Park alternatives include Utah's Goblin Valley State Park. (Photo: Tom Till/Utah Office of Tourism)
In these bizarre times, it's best to keep an open mind, especially when the government suddenly throws a wrench in your national park vacation plans.
As Budget Travel's Digital Editor, I've been keeping track of how the recent shutdown has affected the travel industry—and it isn't pretty. Most, if not all, of the country's national parks and monuments have been closed. You're not even allowed to stop to take a photo on roads that happen to go through national parks.
Camping enthusiasts around the country were given a 48-hour grace period to vacate the parks, while others who held reservations for national park lodges were technically allowed to stay, though they were not permitted to hike or otherwise enjoy themselves while inside the park.
Still, all is not lost for those seeking take a trip anytime in the foreseeable future. In the coming days, prepare to be flexible with your travel plans and check in with state or county tourism offices, local outfitters and guide services for updates and insider tips on what's currently open and available in the area you want to visit.
Has the shutdown shut down your national park vacation? Try these alternative state parks and nearby local attractions instead:
Rather than mourning the closure of popular parks like Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion, the Utah Office of Tourism came up with a list of 50 Awesome Alternatives to Utah's National Parks, a lineup of state parks and other points of natural beauty and historical significance that are also worth a visit.
Among the many alternatives to visiting Arches and Canyonlands are Dead Horse Point State Park, Edge of the Cedars State Park, Goblin Valley State Park (pictured above) and Goosenecks State Park. Those for Capitol Reef include Anasazi State Park, Horseshoe Canyon and Otter Creek State Park. Most of these parks feature the same kind of red-rock cliffs and rock formations that the parks are known for, if on a smaller scale.
Alternatives for visiting Bryce Canyon include Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park and Red Canyon. The roads into the giant Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management) are open and most trails are accessible, as are those on Forest Service land. Just remember that without rangers to guide or provide assistance to travelers, recreation is at your own risk. Local travel agencies in surrounding towns like Escalante or Kanab or state park rangers may be able to help if you have questions.
Alternatives to Zion National Park, near St. George, include Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Gunlock State Park, Quail Creek State Park, Sand Hallow State Park and Snow Canyon State Park. While they don’t have exactly the same spectacular cliffs and canyons that Zion does, they are all colorful and beautiful in their own right.
All Navajo Nation Tribal Parks in Utah and throughout the Southwest are open, including Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park, Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park (government services at Lake Powell are closed, however), Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Four Corners Monument, Bowl Canyon Recreation Area, and Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park.
Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore are both closed at the moment, but that doesn't mean your trip to this part of the country is ruined. Custer State Park is located just an hour's drive south of Mount Rushmore and is one of those places where reaching it is half the fun—there are plenty of twisting mountain roads, gorgeous views, and incredible wildlife encounters to keep you on your toes. This is one of very few places on earth where you can actually get stuck in traffic because a herd of buffalo decided to cross the road, so keep those cameras handy!
Once inside the park, opt to spend the night camping in the South Dakota wilderness or visit one of the Custer State Park Resorts—I stayed at The Game State Lodge, a beautiful historic property that once served as the "Summer White House" for President Coolidge in 1927 and was later visited by President Eisenhower in 1953. The best part: it's the launching point for Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours, a spectacularly intimate way to get up close and personal with the park's diverse wildlife—we drove right up to a grazing herd of bison, past fields of noisy prairie dogs, and ended the night with a traditional chuck wagon cookout.
Rather than harp on how you won't be able to get a close up shot of Mount Rushmore, visit nearby Crazy Horse Memorial, soon to the be the world's largest mountain carving. It’s located about a 30-minute drive southwest of Mount Rushmore, just 10 minutes outside of Custer. Luckily for visitors, Crazy Horse Memorial is privately funded, meaning no matter how bad things get in D.C., it will still stay open. Don't leave without trying the Tatanka Stew at The Laughing Water Restaurant; it's delicious!
Visit the museum to learn more about one of the Sioux's most famous leaders and to view Native American artifacts from around the area. You can even take a $4 bus ride to the foot of the mountain for a closer look at the stone carving, still a privately run work in progress, or you can make a personal donation of $125 or more (per person) and get an escorted trip to the top of the mountain carving to meet the famous warrior face to face.
While all 13 National Park Service units in New Mexico—including Carlsbad, Gila, White Sands, Chaco and Bandelier, among others—are currently closed, the bright spot is you can still visit portions of Petroglyph National Monument since the Boca Negra Canyon and Piedras Marcadas Canyon sections are technically owned by the City of Albuquerque's parks division.
Another good thing about New Mexico: there are several opportunities to explore Pueblo culture on tribal lands. A great day trip from Albuquerque is the Sky City Cultural Center at the Acoma Pueblo, located 60 miles west of the city center, where tours are given daily and you'll get a chance to meet the locals of the longest-inhabited city in the U.S.
If you prefer to stay closer to town, take a ride on the scenic Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway for some of the best views in New Mexico, and stop by the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for a taste of Albuquerque's unique history and culture.
Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial at Honolulu's Pearl Harbor is a major bucket-list item, but unfortunately, it's not possible as long as the Congressional craziness continues, however, you can still visit the Battleship Missouri Memorial next door. You'll be able to experience a special complimentary pier-side interpretation of what happened the morning of December 7th, 1941, from the 1,000-foot long pier located a few hundred feet from the closed USS Arizona Memorial. You also have the option to pay admission for access to and tours of the battleship itself.
On nearby Ford Island, the Pacific Aviation Museum gives visitors a look at the way the area was impacted by the attack on Pearl Harbor—you can still see bullet holes in the outer walls of some of Ford Island's buildings if you look closely enough.
- Travel Destinations
- Travel & Tourism
- Zion National Park
- Badlands National Park