We’ve heard from a number of travelers who are wondering whether an RV trip in the American West will allow them to socially distance while seeing some of the most beautiful parts of our country. So we called WOW List candidate Dan Wulfman to get some up-to-the-minute intel. Dan has spent more than 25 years creating soup-to-nuts RV trips that include the vehicle rental, campground reservations, driving directions with interesting waypoints, and reservations for horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and more. In fact, Dan had been traveling by RV with his own family right at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, when national parks were closing down and interrupting many spring breaks. Now that parks are reopening, Dan has been back out on the road to see what “open” really means for those traveling this summer and beyond.
Back in March, Dan advised all of his travelers who had trips booked in the coming months, or who were trying to plan something last-minute, to postpone for 2021. He’s actually recommending that they start planning those trips now, because campgrounds are already filling up for next summer in places such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Says Dan, “RV sales and rentals are exploding, but they’re not building any more beautiful campsites within walking distance of national treasures like Yosemite’s Half Dome, Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos, or Grand Canyon’s…grand canyon.”
Dan took to his RV again in July, covering more than 7,000 miles and visiting eight national parks, and his experiences confirmed his cautious tack: His original campground reservation inside Yosemite was canceled by the park because it was deemed too close to adjacent campers. And he didn’t even know if he’d be quick enough to snap up one of the park’s limited day-use passes until he’d already spent two days driving there. In the parks he toured, Dan found mask use sporadic. “I’ve never been in a hurry to leave Jackson, Wyoming, before, but this time I couldn’t wait to move on,” he told us.
Here’s what else we learned that travelers should think about before hitting the road:
Many RV-friendly destinations are still off-limits.
While some parts of the country are starting to open up, stay-at-home restrictions are being lifted on a state-by-state—and sometimes county-by-county—basis; places that are open now may have to close if a second wave of COVID-19 hits. Many national parks are still closed, or have only reopened portions of their roads, trails, and services. And it’s unclear if social distancing is even possible at the iconic sites that so many RVers want to visit, from the boardwalk around Old Faithful in Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim viewpoints. Check to see if your intended destination is both open and welcoming visitors.
You may have to sleep in a Walmart parking lot.
If you don’t yet have reservations—and even if you do—your options for where to bed down each night will be limited: Many national and state park campgrounds booked up long ago for the high season, and few travelers are bothering to cancel their reservations, since they’re so hard to get but relatively cheap. Even some of the parks that currently allow day visitors remain closed for overnight camping. There are organizations that help you park on private land, but those too will be subject to local restrictions, which may ebb and flow over the course of the summer. And while some private RV parks are technically open, their fire pits, pools, playgrounds, and restaurants remain closed—so there isn’t much to do once you get there.
It’s hard for a novice to plan a successful RV trip at the last minute.
A scrappy, experienced RVer can probably monitor which parks and campgrounds have reopened, jump on whatever last-minute availability appears, rent a vehicle (options range from Cruise America‘s large fleet to platforms such as Outdoorsy and RVshare, which connect renters with private RV owners), and pull together a pretty good trip. But newbies don’t know which RVs drive like an SUV and which feel more like a semi truck, and will be far less prepared if things go wrong (as is likely, given the current circumstances). Sure, you can “boondock”—parking on open land without water, electric, or sewer hookups—but what happens if your holding tank overflows?
Don’t expect luxury.
Are you now wondering what a “holding tank” is? That’s where an RV stores the wastewater from the sink and toilet, and those tanks need to be emptied every few days. It’s not a messy process—you simply hook up a hose to a campground’s dump station—but there’s no butler who will come do it for you. On an RV trip, you’re also responsible for the grocery shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, and of course the driving. This kind of trip is meant to be an adventure, not a day at the beach (unless you manage to find a campsite near a beach that’s open for sunbathing).
Activities that require anything but your own two feet may not be available.
Some of the companies that run the seasonal activities many travelers love to take part in out West—rafting, horseback riding, jet boating, canyoneering—are operating with reduced staff. This means that fewer tours are operating, and private experiences are in high demand.
Despite all of these caveats, having a private sanctuary that only you and your family enter is an appealing option to some of us who are ravenous to travel. Just keep in mind that undertaking an RV trip this summer or fall is going to require a generous dose of flexibility and a mindset that, whatever happens, you’ll simply be happy that you’re not still at home.