A COVID-safe road trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
For the Aspen Times Weekly
You can’t overstate the extent to which travel has been disrupted by the pandemic. For us vagabond-wannabes, those memes of people hopping on a treadmill with a suitcase to emulate getting on a moving walkway at the airport doesn’t seem like that crazy of an idea.
I’ve always thought that the anticipation and planning of a trip is just about as fulfilling as the journey itself. So when the virus unwelcomely changed our lives forever, it seemed the squelched sighs of defeated travel dreams could be heard everywhere. In my social circle alone there were African safaris, 40th birthday girls’ trips to Mexico, Scottish distillery excursions and Patagonian trekking adventures canceled with no sign of return. So what’s a travel junkie to do in these times?
It’s no secret that Americans have hit the road for car trips in unprecedented numbers in the past several months. AAA predicted in June that of the 700 million estimated trips planned for the remainder of the year, 97% of them would be by road. It’s no accident that your Instagram feed is inundated with trends the likes of #vanlife, #ontheroad and #homeiswhereyouparkit, just to name a few. You can’t keep antsy Americans sheltered in place for long.
With my own plans for a Mexican getaway thwarted and the road trip seed planted, I decided to pivot my thinking to national parks.
It’s amazing how many are a day’s drive or less from our valley, and it’s practically a crime how many I haven’t visited. However, COVID-19 presented some understandable concerns about the safety and practicality of tackling some of these novelties. I really didn’t want to sacrifice my health to see Old Faithful with 10,000 of my closest friends. She’s been erupting every 45 to 90 minutes for hundreds of years, so I could probably afford to wait. But maybe with my own extra precautions I could justify the exposure? I vacillated back and forth and eventually decided to go for it.
Yellowstone and then the Grand Tetons. That was my plan.
I would head up from Aspen with two buddies and our dogs. Campsites and hotels at these parks are notorious for being booked out a year in advance, so I wasn’t optimistic when I started looking for lodging two weeks before the trip. But it turns out the virus worked in my advantage because people were canceling their reservations left and right. I booked two nights in Yellowstone campgrounds and one in the Tetons and decided to wing it for the rest. If you’re flexible, you can make a last-minute plan work right now.
From Aspen, it took us about 10 hours to Bridge Bay campground in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. Due to the pandemic, the park closed about half of the campgrounds to try and limit numbers and exposure. However, when we pulled into our first campground (with 432 sites!) there was a giant open field with RVs, tents, unsupervised barefoot children and campfire smoke creating a familiar hippie haze. I felt like I had entered the festival grounds at Coachella. My expectations for responsible social distancing were turning out to be severely off the mark. Luckily, when I followed the park-issued map to our reserved site, it was on a little wooded loop with appropriately distanced sites. We set up our tents and started bonding with our bear spray canisters before finally falling asleep with sweet dreams of grizzly bear attacks.
In 2019, Yellowstone was the sixth most visited national park. This year’s numbers are still tallying, of course, but according to nps.gov, Yellowstone has already surpassed last year’s visitor numbers for the month of August. The key to avoiding those astronomical numbers of people and the crowds they inevitably create is getting to the highlights as early as possible. We got to Old Faithful around 8:30 a.m., about five minutes before an eruption, and the people were minimal.
There are lots of signs in the park alerting social distancing rules, but there is no enforcement. I found that most visitors didn’t wear a mask. I’m on the mask-wearing team, so I found this pretty frustrating at times. However, almost all visitor centers, hotels and restaurants in the park were closed to the public, and the few buildings that were open required masks.
After visiting the Old Faithful area, we headed over to Grand Prismatic Springs. The later it got, the more traffic jams there were, and parking lots were a nightmare. Be prepared for the possibility of impatient, angry people and horrible driving. We decided to take the middle of the day to avoid the masses and head to our next reservation at Canyon Campground. The spot was pretty much empty in the middle of the day, so we enjoyed a relaxing setup and some lunch before heading out again. A big section of the road in the park was closed all summer, so traveling to different sections of the park took longer than normal. We headed north with a quick stop at Mammoth Hot Springs and then made our way to the Lamar Valley in the northeast part of the park for some bison viewing. Possibly the most COVID-19-friendly activity, viewing these monoliths from the car was a highlight of the trip.
The next morning we again rose early to head to the famous Yellowstone canyon and waterfall. There were barely any people at the lookout points this early and parking was a breeze. Some of the points and famous hikes were closed, so we had to change our hiking plans on the spot. After some further buffalo viewing and lunch by the huge Yellowstone Lake, we headed out of the park to Headwaters Campground in the northern part of Grand Teton National Park. Here we stayed in a camper cabin — a one-room structure at a campsite. There’s no electricity or plumbing in these, just bunkbeds, a table and locking doors to keep the bears out. I found these to be my preferred mode of camping in the parks. They were easy, comfortable and dog-friendly without being much more expensive than a regular campsite.
Unfortunately, you end up having the same masses that are spread out in Yellowstone bottleneck into the much smaller Grand Tetons National Park. Hoping to hop on the Jenny Lake Ferry for some waterfall viewing and Cascade Canyon hiking, we spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find a place to park. I’m sorry to say that at one point, I was one of those cars stalking people walking out of the visitor area hoping to snag their spot.
Finally in the ferry line, the staff keeps things moving pretty fast even though the boats are only at half capacity. Once across the lake and beyond the first waterfall attraction, the crowd began to thin out to more tolerable numbers.
Jackson Hole was our next destination for lodging with showers (most showers at the campgrounds are closed) and bit of Wyoming dining. Being so close, it’s a welcome respite from the chaos in the parks.
It was also an ideal point to say farewell to my crew. They headed back to Aspen while I spent a few more days in the parks traveling solo. I spent that time mostly exploring the Tetons’ less populated spots. I found that the best resource available are the park workers themselves. One particularly delightful elderly worker pointed me to a little-known peaceful beach on Jackson Lake where I headed for a little lunch and a game of fetch with my dog. I think it was the only time I was completely alone during my whole trip to both parks.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in both parks, but the experience was exhausting. I think all the planning, driving and people made the experience much more mentally taxing than I expected. My wanderlust itch has been scratched, but I’m finding the old anticipation of those far-away lands knocking on my door again.
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