Visitors are finding plenty to enjoy at De Soto National Memorial despite limited park services due to a continuing federal government shutdown.
Vistas of the Manatee River and Tampa Bay, hiking trails and historical structures remain accessible to the public.
However, the visitors center that gives the park’s sites historical context with a film and exhibits is closed. Park programs like history talks and demonstrations are canceled. Bathrooms are locked up, and trash cans are beginning to fill up and give off foul odors.
The parking lot is also blocked off.
On Wednesday afternoon, more than 20 cars lined a residential street in front of the closed park gates. License plates from Georgia, Vermont, Maine, Indiana, Arizona and Ontario dotted the row of automobiles in between Florida tags.
Stuart Dodson, a part-time resident who splits his year between Florida and West Virginia, said the shutdown was not putting a damper on his visit to DeSoto National Memorial. He also noted that the park was very busy.
“In fact, I’ve never seen so many cars here,” Dodson said.
Dodson and his little terrier named Riley took to the nature trail for a walk in the warm weather.
Signs posted at the front gates and throughout the park warned visitors that they entered at their own risk.
“While this area is accessible to the public during the lapse of federal appropriations,” the signs read, “the National Park Service is unable to fully staff the properties under its management. Any entry onto NPS property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor’s sole risk.”
The notice also stated that visitor services including guidance, assistance, park maintenance, programs and information will not be provided during the shutdown.
For some, it was a disappointment.
Michael Kroener and his family were visiting the area from Virginia Beach, Va.. Kroener has visited DeSoto with his two young children before and says they always enjoy the visitors center.
“It does make a difference,” Kroener said of the shutdown. “The visitors center is very educational; it’s good for the kids. And the restrooms being closed is inconvenient.”
“The only difference is I have to pee in the bushes,” said one local visitor who chose to remain anonymous.
In some parts of the country, the impacts of the shutdown at national parks have been more extreme, including overflowing trash bins, exposed human waste and fights breaking out over prime camping spots with no one to intervene.
In South Florida, a non-profit called the Florida National Parks Association that works in partnership with the National Park Service has kept most services going at four large parks: Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Park.
If the government shutdown continues, conditions may get worse at DeSoto National Memorial.
But for now, it is not stopping visitors from making the most of things.
A group of women paused to study the signs at Camp Uzita, a replica of a village that Hernando de Soto and his men occupied during their invasion of Florida.
A pair of senior couples in tropical prints stopped to gaze out over the water.
People walked their dogs along the sea grape-lined nature trail, past cardboard cutouts of conquistadors and Native Americans in the trees.
And, on a grassy hill in front of the closed visitor’s center, a family spread out a blanket for a picnic.