In July, we had the pleasure of embarking on a 7,000-mile RV road trip, exploring eight national parks in the North American West: Capitol Reef, Death Valley, Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. T&T doesn’t just create itineraries from our home office in Grand Junction, CO; rather, our crew becomes personally acquainted with the campgrounds and hosts, RV rentals, outfitters and guides, and routes to make sure that we’re creating the best possible itineraries for our clients.
Before setting off, we knew taking a journey during a global pandemic would look very different from past trips. We dove in, prepared with face masks and social distancing guidelines, and we were curious to see how different parks handled throngs of visitors and their thousands of reservations. This was also an important opportunity to research what changes we may need to make for our clients traveling in 2021.
We’d love to share what we saw, what we learned, and what we’re planning for 2021. Below are some key takeaways from our four weeks on the road!
We’ve already shared that RV rentals across the country have risen dramatically since April. It makes perfect sense: Families can easily maintain a self-quarantine bubble while traveling. It’s not uncommon to see RVers in every park, but even we were surprised at the sheer number of recreational vehicles populating the parking lots and campgrounds.
Some parks are effectively managing visitors…
We were pleasantly surprised with our time in Yosemite. They required reservations to enter the park and had constructed open-air booths in strategic locations to provide maps and information and allow rangers to safely interact with visitors. Popular narrow trails were configured for one-way traffic to enable proper distancing, and there were personnel at key intersections to enforce the rules.
A few places we stopped in (especially bustling mountain towns that thrive on summer tourism) seemed to have a hard time keeping up with the traffic. Otherwise serene boardwalks were congested with visitors, and a few of our favorite restaurants were uncomfortably crowded (though we could take advantage of take-out).
Instead of taking a page from Yosemite’s book of outdoor booths, a few park visitors’ centers were either closed or only allowed a few people in at a time, resulting in long lines in the hot sun. We were almost completely shut out of one park because they canceled some reservations at the last minute; luckily we used our close, long-term relationships with campground hosts to call in a big favor and nab a great site just outside of the park.
Initial drawbacks turned into meaningful visits
Because Sequoia wasn’t running its usual shuttles, we rode our bikes into the park. At first, we weren’t happy about climbing the extra steep, two-mile hill to reach the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Once we arrived, however, the effort had made the trip that much more meaningful, buoyed only by the lack of crowds and incredible surroundings.
We scouted a new whitewater location and outfitter near Yellowstone and unearthed a beautifully quiet, slightly off-the-beaten-path campground in Lake Tahoe. We also discovered a couple of unique opportunities to use bicycles to explore hard-to-access areas.
There was a huge perk to traveling during the pandemic…
We were able to take pictures of extremely popular scenic overlooks without a single human in them!
What else we learned from our COVID road trip
We had to be adaptable. In a typical year, our RV national parks trips are planned to the T, with wiggle room for changes families might want to make while on the road. On our trip, we had to make some less-than-ideal compromises and get creative with problem-solving.
We’ve been visiting national parks for more than 25 years, and we are one of their biggest champions. Experiencing these truly awe-inspiring places during such difficult times has further deepened our belief that getting outdoors and experiencing nature’s grandeur helps restore what is best in humanity and that our national parks are a national treasure worth protecting fiercely.
The surge in outdoors-focused family vacations born out of a global pandemic will come with a great challenge. The renewed enthusiasm in visiting parks will lead to greater scarcity in campsite availability. Even though RV rentals and sales are on the rise, the parks’ real estate is finite. We know that demand for RV travel and national park reservations will increase for a limited number of sites.
How we’re making RV vacation planning easier—even with the challenges
This pandemic has caused us to take careful stock of how we approach trip-planning. We’re retooling our process to make it easier for our families to sign up and book their preferred dates as early as possible. We’ve also made deposit requirements and cancellation policies more flexible: We only require a $500 deposit to book a trip, and we allow any prepaid amounts to apply to a future trip if needed. We are also researching alternate ways of navigating parks whose shuttle systems remain shut down.