Travel in the age of COVID: US National Parks
Travel is an enormous part of my life. As the head of travel experience at Classic Journeys, when I’m not talking to guests about their travels, I’m joining them—on small tours, big corporate trips and everything in between. In my personal life, after a trip to Fiji with my mom at age 13, I’ve spent every moment I can exploring the world, from living in Japan and France to visiting around 40 other countries, from Turkey to Tahiti.
Like all travel-lovers, I’ve felt an ache to get out and see the world even more than usual since the moment the COVID stay home-orders were announced. And that ache has been building. To fill the void, I did a lot of armchair travel. I organized photos from past adventures—trekking with tribes in Papua New Guinea, hitchhiking in Jordan, and hiking to the Everest base camp in Nepal. I recreated recipes from Classic Journeys cooking classes in Thailand and Tuscany. And I took amazing virtual tours of National Parks, which reminded me that as much as I love flying to faraway places, there are all kinds of amazing places right here in the U.S. that I hadn’t seen yet, or for many years.
Like my favorite long-haul destinations, there are places here in America offering a totally different landscape, climate, change of pace, cuisine and culture. And I can reach them by road, without a passport.
I usually travel without hesitation. But as keen as I was to see the world again, I was a little nervous. I’ve gotten used to being home after months of ‘lockdown’. (I’m not a fan of that word, but it did feel like that a lot of the time.) My COVID bubble consists of going on walks with my toy poodle Ernie, beach volleyball, and backyard dinners with a select few friends. I began to second guess my desires. With everything going on in the world, should I be travelling at all? Would social distancing and mask mandates make traveling less fun? How are hotels, restaurants and National Parks going to adapt without losing their appeal?
With all that said, once shelter in place was lifted, the craving for travel, and the curiosity of what it would be like in this ‘new normal’, overwhelmed my concerns. Social media was filled with other people enjoying trips, and I had watched enough Netflix shows and done enough gardening (I am growing pumpkins!) for what felt like a lifetime. It was my turn to travel.
With a list of destinations ready-made (having heard amazing stories from friends and Classic Journeys guests), I got approval to work from the road, asked a friend to take care of the pumpkins, packed up my car, added the ‘new normal essentials’ like facemasks and hand sanitizer. And started driving.
The road trip
If you had asked me this time last year whether I wanted to do a 2000+ mile drive, on my own, the answer would have been a resounding ‘no way’.
Not in a million years.
I’d tell you that I am a frequent flyer, not a road trip kind of person. The farthest I had ever driven was from San Francisco to San Diego, and that felt more than long enough!
Deciding to drive among seven states and eight national parks was a giant leap. But I guess this is a year of seeing life in a new perspective, doing things differently and being outside of our comfort zones.
Speaking of doing things differently, I am usually a minimalist packer, the kind who flies with just carry-on. But for this trip, I decided to prepare for anything. So I packed plenty of food and water with me in case rest stops, stores or restaurants weren’t open.
I didn’t need to worry. I barely used any of what I packed. While things are different – people are finding ways to adapt and keep things open. All gas stations were open (masks mandatory) and I found plenty of places to eat along the way.
Some people swear they can only sleep in their own bed. But I LOVE staying away from home—whether it’s in a villa hotel in Tuscany, glamping under the stars at a private encampment in Morocco, or a boutique lodge in the Costa Rican rain forest, the location, décor, and staff all add to the experience for me. I can be happy in a simple motel if it’s done well, but I’ve also stayed in some unbeatably luxurious places, particularly as part of my work travels representing Classic Journeys. While I was researching where to stay (job skills certainly came in handy here), I couldn’t help thinking of my favorite places around the world and what makes them so memorable. In this new normal, will the Four Seasons in Istanbul have the same electric buzz to it? Will the iconic Strand Hotel in Myanmar hold onto that air of historic elegance? Until I can revisit them (believe me, I will), I was interested to see how hotels have adjusted here.
I think I can now consider myself a hotel connoisseur in the age of coronavirus. After being at home for four months straight, on this two-week trip I have stayed in:
3 big chain hotels
2 independent lodge hotels
2 motels (one riverside, one pioneer)
A hip downtown art hotel
2 cute apartment rentals
1 canvas glamping
1 riverside tipi
From Arizona and Utah to Wyoming, South Dakota and California, I was struck immediately by how every hotel requested that guests wear masks and practice social distancing. Signs were posted on every entry/exit and everyone was abiding by them. Rather than being overly aware of having to wear a mask or stand in a certain place, the excitement of being a new place was the main focus, like it would and should be on a normal trip.
Hotels had stickers on the ground to coordinate where people stand when queuing to check-in, so it was really easy to keep the appropriate distance and gave me an extra feeling of security.
Every room I had was extremely clean on arrival and kept equally so throughout my stay. There was often a certificate, showing who had cleaned it and when. I know hotels have stepped up their cleaning and sanitization processes, with hospital grade disinfectants, regular cleaning of surfaces and so on. There were no cups or glasses in the rooms, or magazines like you might usually have. Instead there was often a QR code so you would take a photo which would take you to a website with information, or the room service menu.
Many hotels had signs requesting that only one party be in the elevator at one time – and everyone seemed fine with this. Since I was traveling alone, sometimes I wondered if people would just try to join me because I wasn’t in a larger party, but everyone was very respectful. No one seemed put out by having to wait an extra minute to get to their rooms. In fact, it may have even been faster because you didn’t have to wait as the elevator stopped at every floor and people came in and out.
Food is one of my favorite parts of travel. Just writing this brings memories of a picnic in Peru after piranha fishing on the Amazon (I caught the biggest fish of the day!)…of the Burmese tea leaf salad I could devour almost every day for three weeks…and of an unforgettable private omakase dinner with my mom in a Kyoto tempura restaurant.I wondered whether I’d be able to enjoy it as much as usual. I know this pandemic has hit restaurants hard; would any even be open? And if they were open, would social distancing diminish the overall experience? As I mentioned, I packed a lot of food and water, preparing for the worst.Good news! I was able to enjoy some amazing restaurants along the way. I looked up some of the best places to eat in each city and made sure to reserve a table. Just as in hotels, there were arrows at some of the restaurants to control the flow of traffic so that crowds didn’t form while waiting for food. And when not seated, I had to wear a mask. Most of the time, everyone else was wearing a mask too. I noticed that for all restaurants that had printed menus, there was someone who was sanitizing each menu and making sure that menus weren’t being passed from one party to another without being sanitized first.
Most places were still offering the option of takeout or outdoor dining. Happily, just like we’ve seen all around where we live and work in La Jolla, many had expanded into covered areas on the street by creating their own semi-permanent terraces. I loved this! It made the atmosphere even better than sitting indoors. Because of Covid, so many places that typically wouldn’t offer outdoor dining are now offering it. This has been really nice (especially with Ernie) and I’d rather be outside anyway, Covid or not!
The National Parks
Marcia, who guides the Classic Journeys Bryce, Grand Canyon and Zion tours always told us that the best time to enjoy the Grand Canyon crowd-free is early in the morning. The whole park is already less crowded than ever before—even in the middle of the day—but I woke up early anyway. It blew my mind. It doesn’t seem real. I don’t even have the words to describe how striking it is. It was a wow way to start the trip.
Before I arrived at Zion, everyone I had spoken to who lives in and around Zion National Park told me that it wasn’t crowded at all. That sounded too good to be true! They were right though. True, there are still a lot of people visiting and it seems that everyone on my Instagram has gone to Zion this year. But, without the mass of tourists, especially international tourists that are usually here, it is so much quieter. I know that the Zion narrows was practicing social distancing before it was a phrase, by limiting the number of people who could hike the trail throughout the day. The park has adapted really well to social distancing on top of that. The shuttle bus that takes you to the trails is running with advance ticketing and limited capacity, and when you’re waiting to get on the bus there’s social distancing and masks required. The other way to reach the trails is by bike, and the rentals were very on top of sanitizing bikes between uses.
Bryce blew my mind. The colors were insane. Like a rainbow of colors. I just stood there in awe. When I did the Navajo loop trail (one of the most walked trails) there were a number of times where I was the ONLY person around. That’s unheard of in normal times. I felt like I was having a truly exclusive, once in a lifetime experience. Even on the small handful of occasions when there were more people, I found everyone extra courteous.
If I had not known the geyser trail in Yellowstone was one of the most popular trails, I’d have thought I had discovered a true secret gem! There were people around Old Faithful and the first part of the trail, but as I walked just a little bit further, I was (once again) the only person on the trail. Our local guides often tell me that they have a 90-10 rule; 90% of all people drop off in the first 10 minutes of a walk. That was certainly true here.Because many of these national parks have just a few roads, I’ve heard from friends and family who’ve visited during the normal peak season that often there is traffic and sections tend to bottleneck. I didn’t run into this AT ALL. In fact – I really haven’t had any traffic at any time during this trip. The only time I’ve run into stopped traffic was when there was a bear crossing the road – which was really neat to see!
Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone was impressively uncrowded. In Grand Teton National Park, there was NO ONE. It’s totally stunning, with great plains, grazing bison and the backdrop of these stunning snow-capped mountains. Though they didn’t have to worry about the crowds, they seemed very well prepared for them, with social distancing signage in the top lookout spots. All park rangers wore masks and stood the appropriate distance away when talking with you, while still being friendly and helpful. I was essentially alone almost all of the time I was there.
Just looking at them, I could have easily been persuaded that the rock formations here were painted polystyrene boulders, belonging to a wild western movie set! Then you walk up to and over them and you see they are real! The actual Joshua trees have been social distancing for hundreds of years, all spaced six feet or so apart in the desert. The park is really neatly set out, so you can drive right up to the different trails, then get out and walk. They have made all the loops ‘one way’, to help social distancing. I was here around noon on a Saturday (peak day and time), and there was no traffic getting into the north entrance. The popular Skull Rock formation was the only area where you had to navigate a few other people, because everyone wanted to climb over the rocks and take photos. A few times I would have to stand aside so somebody else could pass, but there was always space to do that and people would put their masks on to pass you. Most of the time it was just I, along with maybe a lizard or two and a million Joshua trees!
Safe, socially distant, spectacular travel works. I covered a LOT of different destinations, a lot of hotels, and a lot of restaurants, stores and gas stations. From the whole trip, there was only one place (Deadwood, SD), where it seemed if they hadn’t heard we were in the middle of a pandemic. That said, I managed to stay comfortably socially distant. Everywhere I went was well adapted to social distancing. Almost everyone I saw wore masks, or had masks to put on if they had to pass you.
Humans are fantastically adaptable and creative. Restaurants have built and decorated outdoor patios, to form a really unique dining experience (one had made lantern lights from solo cups!). The food is as delicious as ever.
COVID safe practices don’t take away from the travel experience. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out at all. Ultimately, even though I had to wear a mask and stand in socially distant lines, all of the precautions made me feel reassured rather than put out. And even though we are all social distancing and wearing masks, I somehow felt more connected to the other travelers. In the past, you wouldn’t think anything of standing right next to someone as you’re trying to get the best view over Bryce. This time, I noticed I was making eye contact with everyone, since they couldn’t see my smile. And people were being courteous, patiently waiting their turn and not crowding.
Drives are very much a part of the trip experience (a great part!). Rather than just a means to reaching your destination, a road trip takes you through awesome scenery you wouldn’t otherwise see. It gives you time out to reflect on life, listen to podcasts (Bloomberg’s travel genius podcast is great), appreciate the sunset. And, with everything going on in the world, it gives you a feeling of control, within your own clean, safe bubble.
I can fix a car tire. I had to learn how when I had a slow leak in the black hills of South Dakota! Thank you, YouTube!
Having part of a National Park, utterly to yourself, is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. And I enjoyed it several times over.
The U.S. is an incredible place to travel. International travel will always be my passion. Now, domestic travel is too. There are otherworldly landscapes, right on our doorstep, waiting to be discovered and I don’t think I will ever underappreciate them again.
I am a road trip kind of person. If you asked me today if I want to do a road trip, the answer will be absolutely, “when are we leaving?”