The Vacation Must Go On: Managing Your Trip During the Government Shutdown

by  Alex Schechter | Sep 30, 2013
Bison in Yellowstone National Park
Bison in Yellowstone National Park / Manel Vinuesa/iStock

UPDATE: Five national parks in Utah have re-opened, though the government shutdown remains in effect. CNN reports that since October is one of the busiest months for visitors exploring Utah's stunning canyons, deserts, and million-year-old rock formations, the state has decided to fund the re-opening of five national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion), plus three other sites (Natural Bridges, Cedar Breaks national monuments, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area) with its own money. The sites are scheduled to re-open fully on Saturday October 12 for at least the next 10 days, with plans to continue funding the parks if the shutdown drags on further.

Of the many facets of day-to-day life that will be directly affected by a government shutdown (healthcare, IRS, the military) that begins today, travel and tourism concerns are relatively low on the list. However, for travelers who booked their trip months ago – not to mention tourism offices who rely on those visitors actually showing up – the closures can seriously upset your plans. Though flight and hotel bookings (and, thankfully, public transportation) remain unaffected, some itineraries (especially to destinations in the Western U.S.) will have to be re-arranged entirely.

Of the thousands of worthy sightseeing spots in the U.S., 401 of them are national parks. These include everything from preserves like Florida's Big Cypress Swamp to monuments like the Statue of Liberty to the massive, hugely popular Yellowstone National Park, which receives over 3.5 million visitors per year. A full database of sites can be found here. Below, we've compiled five of the most-visited national park sites, coupled with alternative sites you can visit instead.

Joshua Tree
Fall is one of the best times of year to visit the 700,000-acre desert ecosystem located in southern California. If you had your heart set on staying in one of the site's nine campgrounds to see the visually-stunning scenery up close, there's still hope for you. Though the park will be closed to all campers, you can still enjoy the area's natural beauty by setting up camp at the nearby Joshua Tree Lake Campground. The privately-owned site sits at the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, with views as far as the eye can see of Joshua Tree National Park, a full range of amenities, and basic camping rates from $4.

Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty
Though Ellis Island has remained closed since last year due to Hurricane Sandy damage, folks hoping for a ride out to the Statue of Liberty this month will be sorely disappointed. The National Monument will not be accepting any visitors while a shutdown is in effect, though the Circle Line's popular Full Island cruise ($39 per person) offers a scenic two-and-a-half-hour tour around the island, including a pass by Lady Liberty herself. Alternatively, if it's fun, worthwhile sightseeing spots you're after, NYC certainly isn't short on those.

Smithsonian Museums in DC 
The Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian Institute boasts a network of 19 museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. Luckily, we're pretty much at the end of outdoors activities weather, so shuttering the Smithsonian Gardens won't come as a huge blow, but being turned away from places like the African American History and Culture Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and the Natural History Museum (all of which are normally free) certainly will. If you find yourself in D.C. in need of a culture fix, the fantastic National Geographic Museum charges only $11, while the Newseum, at $21.95, is a pricier option, though where else can you visit a whole museum devoted to the news?

Carlsbad Caverns
Breaking Bad fans are likely all gearing up for pilgrimages to Albuquerque, where the show is set, though anyone hoping to explore southern New Mexico's stalagmite- and stalactite-filled Carlsbad Caverns will have to re-think their itinerary. The 118 caves, often a highlight of many roadtrips through the southwest, will be off-limits, though just 45 minutes away is the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park, which offers visitors the chance to wander through 1500 acres of wild desert gardens – a must for cactus-lovers, or anyone fond of seeing lizards, bison, and roadrunners in their natural habitat!

Established in 1872 as America's first national park, planning a trip to the 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone can take almost as much time as the visit itself. Five separate entrance stations, spread across Montana and Wyoming, serve as the main points of reference for most visitors; getting through them will be impossible, so it's helpful to know your options in the area. For example, those flying into Jackson, WY ought to consider a sidetrip through the stunning Jackson Hole, a 48-mile-long valley offering hiking and biking tours, horse rides, whitewater rafting, and an aerial tram. Meanwhile, if you were planning to arrive via Bozeman, MT, drive 90 minutes south to Gallatin Canyon, a nature-lover's paradise that runs alongside Gallatin River, wide open prairie, and easily accessible campgrounds off of Gallatin Canyon Road.

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