What is Three Rivers without Sequoia National Park? Since March 25, Sequoia has been just a view from Three Rivers. It’s a place that can be seen but not touched except by some extremely happy and somewhat baffled wildlife, both great and small.
For nearly seven weeks, Sequoia, along with many others across the nation, has been closed to humans due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. And the number-one question on most people’s minds around these parts is: When is Sequoia National Park going to reopen?
This is also a question being addressed by local Park Service personnel, Delaware North (the parks’ concessioner), and many other stakeholders who rely on Sequoia being open and operational. And the answer is: No one knows.
The answer to this query is dependent on several factors:
• The lifting of California’s stay-at-home order;
• When the documented cases of COVID-19 in Tulare and Fresno counties (the two counties bordering Sequoia and Kings Canyon) show a 14-day declining trend;
• When the parks acquire the necessary amounts of PPE (personal protective equipment); and
• When a risk assessment satisfactorily concludes that CDC guidelines have been met and that there are adequate supplies, sanitation, and staffing to keep employees and visitors safe and virus-free.
A phased approach
Sequoia and Kings Canyon will reopen in phases, according to Woody Smeck, superintendent. For now, “there are too many variables,” he said, so there is no set reopening date.
“Securing masks continues to be our biggest challenge,” he continued.
A “preparation phase” is currently underway. Essential seasonal workers are beginning their jobs. These include law enforcement, search-and-rescue personnel and other medical responders, maintenance and sanitation workers, and employees to open campgrounds and other facilities support. The bulk of these seasonals, about 250 in total, will begin work May 24.
Beyond this preparation phase will be the first phase of opening the local parks to visitors. Phase one will consist of day-use activities. Roads will be open for windshield-touring, trails will be open with some limitations, restrooms will be available, and informational materials — maps, newspaper, and more — will be distributed at entrance stations.
Subsequent phases will include overnight stays at campgrounds, the opening of visitor centers and concessions (from food to shopping to lodging), and the operation of the free in-park shuttle and the Visalia-to-Sequoia shuttle.
A new way of doing business
The biggest changes visitors will notice include:
• All campgrounds will be on the reservation system (www.recreation.gov) to ensure campers are dispersed.
• Touchless features (toilets, sinks) and electrostatic disinfection are being added to restrooms.
• Hand-sanitizing stations will be located throughout the parks.
• The parks’ newspaper, usually a seasonal publication, will be updated as needed to include safety-specific information and notifications.
Take a hike
The Wilderness Office is receiving applications for, and processing, permits for overnight stays in the parks’ backcountry. Requested dates are dependent on when the parks reopen. It is currently acceptable that those backcountry travelers with permits from other jurisdictions whose itinerary includes traveling in Sequoia or Kings Canyon may utilize the parks’ trail system (example: Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers).
Delaware North has a tentative reopening date of June 15, but this depends on many factors. And when the doors do open, this, too, will be a phased approach with markets and food-to-go becoming operational initially, then the lodging.
Just like everything in life these days, all of the above is subject to revision, reassessment, and modification. But, overall, in the coming weeks, the public can expect a gradual increase of access to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in accordance with federal, state, and local public health guidance.
For a list of the open/closed status for all national parks, click here. Remember, the COVID-19 situation remains fluid and subject to daily changes, which means some information can quickly become outdated and materially inaccurate.