By Carlos Morales
After being closed for nearly eight weeks, Big Bend National Park will open to the public beginning June 1 at 9 a.m., according to the park’s superintendent.
The move comes as park officials have been drafting a document outlining when and how the public will be able to visit park facilities and trails. As it’s written, the plan calls for Big Bend National Park to open gradually and in varying stages.
While some national parks across the country have already begun reopening, Big Bend has been cautious. An important factor: the region’s limited access to healthcare. Park officials are concerned about the impact the coronavirus could have on a remote rural pocket of the state, where the nearest hospital is 3 hours away.
In an interview with Marfa Public Radio, park superintendent Bob Krumenaker says he’s taken the advice of regional, state and federal health authorities who cautioned him to “go slow, make sure it’s working.”
“It’s not as fast as some people would like,” said Big Bend National Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker. “But it’s lightyears ahead of where we are today.”
As it’s drafted, the tentative reopening plan is made of five distinct stages. Officials would wait 14 days between each phase to determine whether to move forward with the next step in reopening or to scale back, according to a document shared with Marfa Public Radio.
At its first stage of reopening, the park will open front country areas. Trails accessible from paved roads would open for day-hiking, including Lost Mine, Window, Emory Peak and Santa Elena Canyon. The park’s visitor centers will stay closed, information booths will be set up in certain areas and park rangers will be present throughout the park to answer questions. Visitors should continue practicing social distancing and are encouraged to wear a cloth face covering.
There’s no camping allowed in phase 1, as the park is open for daytime use only. The river would open for public and commercial day use. The Boquillas Port of Entry would remain closed.
The park’s reopening comes during the summer months, which is traditionally a slower time for visits to the massive 800,000-acre park as temperatures soar into the 100-degree range. But Krumenaker says he still expects to see “a little boost” in traffic.
If a visitor to the park needs treatment at a hospital, park officials estimate it would take at least two park rangers to help take them to Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine. That ambulance, which is the only one for the whole park, would then be out of service for almost 14 hours. Krumenaker said the park has enough personal protective equipment —gowns, n95 maks and gloves — for about 20 transports.
While the park covers a wide swath of land, there are common areas —Krumenaker calls them “pinch points” — where all visitors likely travel through. “The majority of the people during their visit go to three or four places, so it’s going to be incumbent on the visitors to manage themselves.”
“The worry is the person who leaves their home in Austin, or Dallas or San Antonio, or any other place, they feel fine but they’ve been exposed back home. and three days, five days, eight days later they’re here in Big bend and then they get sick. That’s the reason to go slow.”
Krumenaker said his staff will continue to educate visitors about safe practices. But if the region sees an uptick in coronavirus cases or if the park begins to see problems, park officials may scale back or evaluate whether it’s safe to keep the park still.
Here are the trails opening for day-time use:
Chisos Mountain Trails: The Window, Window View, Lost Mine, Emory Peak, South Rim, Laguna Meadows, Pinnacles and Boot Canyon.
East Side Trails:Dugout Wells, Rio Grande Village Nature Trail and Boquillas Canyon.
West Side Trails: Sam Nail Ranch, Burro Mesa, Ward Spring, Chimneys, Mule Ears Spring, Tuff Canyon, Dorgan-Sublett and Santa Elena Canyon.