Due to her hospital work schedule, Dr. Amy Evers, a frequent WOW List traveler, usually takes big family trips in the fall. But this year, when she came by some last-minute time off in July, a summer getaway suddenly became an option—and she and her husband and two kids felt that they needed it. They decided on a national-parks road trip from their home in St. Louis to Mount Rushmore, Badlands, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. When she wrote to Ask Wendy to find out who could best help her pull together the details and arrangements for this July trip, we sent her to WOW Lister Melissa Ladvala. Then, when the 11-day itinerary was nearly settled, Dr. Evers’s sister and two nieces announced that they wanted to come too. With Melissa’s help and Dr. Evers’s own ideas (Wolves! Paragliding! Biking!), they ended up with a trip they’ll all remember. We spoke on the phone with Dr. Evers to hear all about their experience—and what it was like to road trip in the national parks during Covid-19.
First, a note: While we at WendyPerrin.com do not encourage travel at this time, we believe it is possible to travel responsibly during this pandemic. We have done so ourselves—and we trust our community of global citizens to make smart choices for themselves and the people they’ll encounter While most travelers want to wait until there is a vaccine for their next trip, some have asked us to help them travel safely and responsibly now—and we are happy to provide the intel and support they seek. We answer their questions every day at Ask Wendy. And we request their post-trip feedback as part of our effort to provide you with a realistic and useful view of the travel landscape right now. We are grateful to Dr. Evers for sharing her family’s experience with us and with you.
What kind of trip was it, and what transportation did you use?
I wanted it to feel more like an independent road trip than a 100% guided itinerary. We had two days with a guide in South Dakota, one with a guide in Yellowstone, and a lot of activities scheduled in Jackson Hole, but they were all separate entities.
My husband and kids drove back, but I flew [because of work]. I got an email from American Airlines saying it looked like it was going to be a full flight and if I was flexible I could change. But I couldn’t. And it was full.
The airport in Jackson was pretty busy, but in Chicago I had a three-hour layover, and the airport was not very full: I was easily able to find a gate not being used. The flight from Chicago to St. Louis was not full. I felt like almost everybody legitimately had their mask on. I didn’t eat or drink on the plane; I left my mask on the entire time. I ate in Chicago, but I had brought food with me, so I didn’t get anything at the airport. For me, the fact that everyone wore masks—I was happy.
Why did you choose these national parks for a family trip?
Firstly, I was thinking about where hot spots were and were not. Secondly, my family doesn’t really ever have a chance to do national parks because we almost always do family trips in November [because of my work schedule]. So this was the time to capitalize on going to parks that are farther north and are not hot spots.
What activities did you do, and how did you feel about their Covid-related safety?
During our guided days in Rushmore and Badlands, the van we were in had Plexiglas between us and the driver, and the guide used a microphone so we could hear.
In Jackson Hole, we did the alpine slide at Snow King. Everyone in line had masks on, for the most part.
At Teton Village, we went paragliding. They gave us a buff and had us wear it the whole time, even while paragliding. To ride up [to the launch point], the pilots don’t go in the gondola with you;, they ride a different one. Of course, when you’re going tandem with someone, they are literally right behind you, but we all had masks on—and there’s clearly good airflow when you’re flying through the sky [laughs]. Everyone loved it.
For white-water rafting, we had to have our masks on in the bus; it wasn’t packed, and the windows were open. On the rafts, people didn’t have their masks on, but we were outside and moving. There was one other family in the raft with us. The company used only their bigger rafts. Ours could have comfortably fit three people in a row but placed only two people in the row so you could be farther away from each other. We were far enough apart and outside, so I felt fine about that.
For horseback riding, it was only our family, so we did not wear masks. We were never really close to anybody other than when I went into the office (where I wore a mask, and the people in the office wore masks too).
When we went rock climbing [just with the family], we had two guides with us. We all wore masks while we were trying stuff on and when we were near the guides, but not when we were climbing because no one was nearby. We used a lot of Purell that day, and the guides were good about reminding us to do it because the ropes are used by other people. I’m not as worried about getting the virus from someone touching something than from someone coughing in my face or talking a lot. So I feel like it was pretty good. So far, knock on wood, everybody’s asymptomatic.
Apart from that, anytime there was downtime in Jackson, we took our bikes out on the many pathways and trails.
What were the accommodations like?
I wasn’t too terribly worried about staying in a hotel: Getting the virus from someone via droplets is more risky than being in a hotel and touching something.
Apart from the hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota, all of the accommodations were strict about wearing a mask. After South Dakota, we stayed in Cook City, Montana, a little town just outside the northeast entrance of Yellowstone, which is the least used entrance but the one closest to the Lamar Valley, where you can see wolves. And we saw wolves! Woo! I was so happy.
In Yellowstone we stayed at Under Canvas because we thought it would be fun to try glamping. Each family stayed in a separate tent.. It was a big hit with the kids. We brought four bikes so my kids could tool around and go to the common tent and get a hot chocolate and come back. They thought it was the best thing ever. At the restaurant, you used a menu from the clean pile and then put it in the dirty pile, and you had to order through Plexiglas, so it was a little more of a self-service feel, but it was fine. It was to minimize the number of servers coming to your table, and the servers all wore masks. For breakfast, you just picked up a grab-and-go baggie.
At our hotel in Teton Village, we had our own kitchen, and I felt totally fine.
What did you notice about how other states were handling the coronavirus situation?
In Wyoming, they were very strict in most locations. Most had masks available to use if you didn’t have one, and they allowed only one family in the elevator at one time.
In South Dakota, they definitely don’t seem to be taking Covid seriously. We experienced that before we even got to Rapid City (our base for Rushmore and Badlands). As we were driving to Rapid City, I ordered from a restaurant for pick-up. They didn’t have curbside pick-up, so I went into the restaurant to wait for the food. I was the only person in the entire restaurant with a mask on, and there was an older gentleman who straight-up harassed me: [Imitating the man with a tough taunting voice] “What are you a police officer?” Outside of that, no one harassed us for wearing masks, and in the hotel the staff wore masks—though the lobby of the hotel was busy. But I would say South Dakota as a state seemed to take it less seriously.
We can help you figure out how to safely plan your own trip and direct you to the right travel specialist for your needs. Write to us at Ask Wendy.