After spending almost six straight months in my home state of Michigan – something that hasn’t even come close to happening since 2012 – my fiance and I finally ventured out into other parts of the country for the first time since the pandemic changed life as we all know it. Along the way, I found myself startled at times, immensely relieved at others, and overall pleased with our decision to road trip.

The trip in question was a much anticipated visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming. We’d originally intended to fly out there in May and visit some sites in Idaho in addition to the parks, however that was one of the first dominoes to fall when the pandemic hit. After we made the decision to postpone our wedding, I was determined to do something with the vacation time I’d originally asked for to use for a honeymoon. I plotted out a few options – Michigan’s fantastically underrated Upper Peninsula, upstate New York, the Smoky Mountains, etc, but didn’t think Yellowstone was practical until I remembered that my parents had driven us out there in the late ’90s when their four kids ranged from 2-13 and hauling a popup camper. Suddenly it seemed a lot less crazy, so I pitched it to my fiance as an outside chance – I really thought it’d be the least likely option he’d go for – but to my surprise he liked the idea and I set to planning.

Man standing on a rock formation in Badlands National Park

With all the options I presented, I wanted to focus on outdoor attractions rather than cities with museums and more crowded spaces. Hiking in the mountains seemed like a much better option than anything indoors this year. The resulting trip was fantastic and incredibly refreshing after not going anywhere for so long.

I normally go a little bit overboard when planning a trip and adding covid into the mix complicated things even further. Here’s what I did differently (and what I could’ve skipped) to plan a vacation during the pandemic

Note: whether or not you choose to travel right now is a very personal decision and varies greatly by economic and health circumstances. For travel safety tips, I’d refer you to the CDC website or your own country’s health website.

The biggest difference is that we drove instead of flew. This added a lot of boring hours looking at corn fields, but I felt better about the decision – and it had been ages since I’d done a proper road trip anywhere. Because we were coming from the east, we cut out the Idaho stuff we’d originally planned and filled some days with things in South Dakota like the Badlands and Black Hills instead.

Because park services were limited, I checked the hours for each visitor center and restaurant – and wrote them in a notebook since cell service is limited there – in the national parks so we’d know when and were we’d have the opportunity to gas up or get food. This is not the time to underplan your trips – do your research and check for covid updates wherever you’re thinking of going. Lots of facilities are still closed or operating with reduced hours and/or services, so this is some crucial research to make sure you don’t waste your time or find yourself without a way to get food or gas up. I did so much extra research for this trip – and if you knew how I pour myself into planning a normal trip you’d know how much that means.

The limited services had me concerned about being able to find food when needed so I packed a box of quick meals like Easy Mac and Cup Noodles in addition to buying an immersion heater for water. We never needed the food as the takeout restaurants available in the parks were more than adequate for us and lines were never long, but I did end up using the immersion heater daily to make my morning tea in the room. I would’ve skipped the food box but still kept the immersion heater and saved a lot of space in the car. (This is not to be confused with the normal snack bag with candy, nuts, and chips, which is always indispensable on any road trip.)

Woman wearing a mask on a boat in front of mountains

Limited services mean some things will take longer. For example, the open air boat shuttle across Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park was running at half capacity to keep passengers spread out. Though the boats were loaded and unloaded quickly and the staff did a great job fitting groups into the seats that weren’t blocked off, the line was still lengthy and efficiency alone can’t make up the difference when you’re running at half capacity. Be prepared to be patient wherever you go.

On the flip side, you may get lucky and experience way lower than normal crowds. Due to the limited capacities and lack of other travelers, we enjoyed way thinner crowds at Yellowstone than you would normally see. Likewise, crowd reports from places like Disney World have rides that normally pull wait times of more than an hour as walk-ons or having almost no queue.

We ate outside – a lot. We were lucky that the weather was absolutely fantastic for our trip, and the impending cooler weather in the Northern Hemisphere will make that even more difficult to pull off. In the National Parks, it was mandatory – all of the restaurants that were open were take-out only. We dined on patios elsewhere or went through drive thrus when we were on the road.

Dog seated beside a table begging for food

The begging dogs at a ranch we stayed at made us feel right at home.

Stuff was closed that we wanted to see. This kind of hurt, especially at Yellowstone, when we missed out on educational exhibits at the visitor centers. Obviously the natural wonders were the main draw and we absolutely enjoyed them, but being a nerd, I missed being able to pop in and learn about the geology that leads to the thermal features and history of the area. I’m still disappointed that my fiance didn’t get to see inside the famous Old Faithful Inn since the lobby was closed – and that we didn’t get to splurge on a room in this fantastic hotel.

We packed a lot of masks – including some special mountain/vacation themed ones I’d made mostly for the trip. We were going to be on the road for 12 days without access to any laundry so I wanted to make sure we had more than enough. I did end up with more than I needed, but it was nice not to have to immediately wash a load of masks as soon as we arrived home.

Woman in a mask posing in front of a jackalope statue wearing a mask

Jackalope mask!

We were definitely taken aback in a couple states at how lax people were about the pandemic. Being in Michigan all these months, which had one of the earliest and strictest lockdown/quarantines in the country and where I’ve barely seen a soul not wearing a mask in public in months, it was a bit jarring to arrive in South Dakota and find whole restaurant staffs unmasked. Still, almost everywhere we went had staff in masks and the majority of places had signs requiring customers to wear them as well.

I’ve never been all that into hand sanitizer in the past, but I made a point of bringing some on this trip. It definitely came in handy a few times, though we didn’t use it as often as I expected because it was available just about everywhere we went.

I regretted not bringing my own bottle of liquid soap as the cabins we stayed at for most of the trip provided us with mini bars of it, and I’ve always hated bar soap in any context, but especially for washing my hands.

Yellowstone workers removing covid-19 mask litter

Don’t be the person who leaves your mask (or anything else) in a Yellowstone hot spring.

Masks were left in a lot of areas in the National Parks that they did not belong. If you’re going to travel during the covid pandemic, please dispose of your masks properly instead of leaving them as litter. One morning at Yellowstone we even came across a pair of park employees using a fishing rod to remove stray masks from a geyser crater.

When we got back home, I went to a clinic and had myself tested for covid before we saw any of our family members just to be on the safe side. We are lucky to live in one of the states that is actually taking this seriously, but our trip took us to places that are not and brought us into contact with people from all over the country – we spotted license plates from 49 states along the way. I’m happy to report that we returned covid-free and very mentally refreshed.

Overall, we had a fantastic trip and while the cloud of covid hung over parts of it, there were moments when we were alone in the gorgeous national parks where we were able to forget about the world, about our cancelled wedding, and just breathe in the mountain air in peace. Traveling during the pandemic is definitely not for everyone and there are myriad financial and health reasons that might make it not possible, but I felt safe with our low-risk choices. I don’t know what the right choice is for you and your friends or family.

Graphic of a globe wearing a mask with text overlay reading "Pandemic vacation - how we adapted to covid travel"

Image of a globe wearing a mask with text overlay reading "Changes we made for pandemic travel and what we overdid"