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Locked Doors, No Toilets: A Government Shutdown at Our National Parks

National Park Service during shutdown
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A sign on the locked doors of the Red Hills Visitor Center reads: ‘During the shutdown of the federal government due to the lapse of appropriations there will be no NPS-provided visitor services at Saguaro National Park.’

Walking up to the visitor center, my wife and I saw a woman jiggling the door handles in distress. She wasn’t the only disappointed visitor to Saguaro National Park on Saturday, Dec. 29. No park services were available despite the regular flow of visitors, busy trailheads, and crowded lookouts. Even at a small park like Saguaro, it was evident the federal government shutdown was slogging into its second straight week (and counting).

My wife and I are traveling the U.S. and visiting every national park during a year on the road. Thus, we are in a unique position to see exactly how this shutdown affects the parks we visit.

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Since the government shutdown on Dec. 22, nine federal departments and many smaller agencies have ceased operations. Among them is the National Park Service, with park rangers sent home on furlough. While some parks closed completely, others remain open to visitors with severely limited services — no trash collection, sanitation, or visitor assistance. And the NPS website does not reflect any updates or current conditions.

Government Shutdown at National Park

Both of Saguaro’s visitor centers stood vacant and closed. Locked doors on all park bathrooms, including the pit toilets at trailheads, turned away flustered visitors. One park road was closed entirely, gated off because the NPS could not maintain it.

Meanwhile, no flag waved atop the flagpole. Visitors wandered without maps, information, souvenirs, or even a park stamp. All park programs — including Saguaro’s Annual Holiday Caravan and special starlight driving tour — went dark.

The unmanned entrance station to Saguaro National Park. The park gates have remained open during the government shutdown.

While the situation in Arizona caused minor visitor headaches and disappointment, it’s harder to imagine how some of the bigger parks are holding up. Things could get ugly fast with unplowed roads, limited emergency services, and no entrance fees.

Stories of illegal fires and littering have already befallen Joshua Tree. And with visitors attracted by the park’s forfeited entrance fee, trash continues to pile up.

The Shutdown at National Parks: Things to Know

If you have plans to visit a park during the shutdown, exercise caution and do not expect rangers to be around. There will be no or limited services. And with no rangers to check campground reservations, most campgrounds are operating instead on a first-come-first-served basis.

letter on front door of Saguaro National Park
A notice regarding the government shutdown posted in Saguaro National Park

Some parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon, continue to receive funding from outside sources, allowing a few services like trash collection, restroom cleaning, and road maintenance to continue.

Some expect the government shutdown to end this week when Democrats take the majority in the House. Once the shutdown ends, services will begin operating normally.

My wife and I are crossing our fingers that cave tours start up again before we visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park this week. But until this is over, our hope is that parks won’t become too disorderly and that visitors and wildlife stay safe.

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