Wide and still open spaces: though campgrounds and facilities close, outdoors ‘a great place to be’ in pandemic

After going a little ‘stir crazy’ indoors, the Hull family took a trip to one of their favorite trails — a 3-mile road that takes visitors along the Shoshone River and close to the base of the Buffalo Bill Dam. Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune.

POWELL — Rock and Christine Hull and their five kids couldn’t take another day inside. Even during normal weekends, the best thing to wear off the boredom and anxiety for the Powell family is a long hike. 

So they loaded up and headed west to practice some outdoor social distancing on Friday.

 “We were going stir crazy,” Rock said. “I never thought I’d hear the day that they [the kids] said they miss school. They want to go back.” 

The Hulls headed for one of their favorite trails. Called the “best dam hike in Cody,” the 3-mile route follows the original road to Yellowstone National Park and takes you near the base of the Buffalo Bill Dam. The views are spectacular as visitors are led through a narrow canyon on the banks of the Shoshone River. 

Even on a busy day, there’s never a crowd and you can stay far enough from others to qualify as an isolated, germ-free adventure. 

While the region hunkers down due to COVID-19 social distancing, the Hull family is doing everything they can to keep the family engaged. The kids have online school, but that only gets them through half the day. Rock and Christine have added music lessons to the schedule. They have a piano and guitars, so that’s what everyone is learning. 

“I play a little guitar. What I don’t know, YouTube makes up for,” Rock said. 

Without the option of outdoor recreation, even the most creative families will start to feel claustrophobic. The trip was the family’s first out of the house since Park County started closing ranks to fight the coronavirus. 

Wyoming is wide open, with many isolated areas for recreation. State and national parks in the Cowboy State have gone out of their way to remind you of their opportunities — though many developed facilities have been shut down. 

“Time spent outside can be soothing and calming,” Nick Neylon, Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites & Trails deputy director, said in a news release last week. “Without the constant bombardment of news alerts and headlines, we get a chance to catch our breath and find some peace in nature.” 

However, on Monday, the department announced it was closing all of its overnight facilities amid “a growing influx of campers flocking to our state parks due to National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and surrounding state campground closures.” 

Most visitors centers and facilities are closed around the state — if not the entire country. 

Some, like Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, are closed to all visitors until further notice. 

“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners at parks and recreational trails is the number one priority during these times,” a news release from the Park Service reads. 

The decision to temporarily close Yellowstone came after the Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin, Gov. Mark Gordon and others voiced concern about visitors potentially spreading COVID-19 and overwhelming local stores and health care facilities. Amid Yellowstone National Park’s closure and current federal guidance to “avoid discretionary travel,” the Park County Travel Council put out a scheduled Monday press release about “Road tripping to Cody and Yellowstone National Park from wherever you are.” It spelled out routes to the Cody-Yellowstone area from different parts of the U.S. 

“We are sure once people are able to travel, road trips will be very popular,” explained Travel Council Executive Director Claudia Wade, adding, “This might be a bit premature, but we are postponing our advertising campaign until May, and want to keep Cody Yellowstone in the minds of potential travelers.” 

Just east of the park, the Shoshone National Forest has closed its campgrounds and restrooms. 

In a news release last week, forest officials said they were “temporarily discouraging continued recreational use on the national forests.” 

However, on Friday, Shoshone spokeswoman Kristie Salzmann clarified that, “We understand that nature can offer solace in this stressful time, so, at least for now, trails remain open on the Shoshone National Forest.”

She added that, “we ask you to take the safety of first responders into account should you decide to recreate” in the forest. 

Bighorn National Forest officials announced Monday that they were closing most developed recreation facilities (including campgrounds) to “discourage dispersed recreation use” and reduce congregation at trailheads, facilities and parking lots. Bighorn forest staff are not providing public services like bathroom facilities, trash removal or parking lot maintenance. 

“Personal responsibility is now more important than ever,” said Acting Forest Supervisor Erin Phelps. “We ask that visitors please be prepared and recreate responsibly.” 

At the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area’s South District outside of Lovell, all trails remain open “to provide healthy outdoor options for the public,” along with the Trail Creek and Horseshoe Bend campgrounds and the Barry’s Landing and Kane boat ramps. 

However, “these areas continue to be monitored daily and could be subject to closure,” Bighorn Canyon officials cautioned Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, the Horseshoe Bend ramp is closed due to low water and the canyon’s Lovell visitor center has been shuttered due to the pandemic as have many facilities in the North District at Fort Smith, Montana. 

Cities and states have been increasingly opting for “shelter in place” rules. Jackson town councilors voted Friday to approve an emergency stay-at-home ordinance. Allowed “essential activities” include outdoor recreation in Jackson, but in Washington state, officials have instructed folks “don’t air out or leave your sealed shelter until you are told to do so.” 

All wildlife areas, water access and state lands have been closed. 

So far, there’s been little indication that Wyoming will place its outdoors off-limits. Shortly after Park County had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Dr. Billin used an appearance on KODI-AM’s Daybreak program to urge people to stay home whenever possible to avoid coming into contact with other people and potentially spreading the virus. 

However, “there’s no reason why you couldn’t take an excursion to the mountains right now,” Billin told the local audience on March 18. “The mountains are a great place to be.”