The COVID-19 pandemic has turned daily life upside down. It’s been extra frustrating for a travel-lover like myself. We cancelled a trip to Portugal last month, and it’s hard to foresee any international travel in the near future. But, we just really needed to get away last weekend. A local but safe pandemic road trip seemed our best and only realistic option.
I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I have yet to visit all of Utah’s famous Mighty 5 National Parks, despite the fact that I have lived in Utah for most of my life. Since COVID-19 is forcing us to explore locally, it was the perfect time to check off one of those remaining Mighty 5. First up – Bryce Canyon. It only takes 3.5 hours to drive to Bryce from my house. I’ve noticed a plethora of Bryce Canyon photos posted by my travel blogging friends on social media. It seems like almost everybody else has been to Bryce. It was time for me to drive down there and see it for myself!
One reason that I’ve never been to Bryce is the crowds. Utah’s most popular National Parks can be very busy during the best-weather times of year. So I saw a clear potential advantage in taking a road trip to visit this popular local destination in the middle of the pandemic.
But I only decided to take us on this road trip after careful consideration of how to minimize our risks of exposure to COVID-19 while traveling, especially since I firmly believe in aggressive social distancing and mask-wearing. This post is about how we ended up making our pandemic road trip safer.
You can click here to read my general travel guide to Bryce Canyon National Park and the surrounding area.
Safe Road Trip Lodging
I knew that we would feel safer if we stayed in a vacation rental rather than a hotel. I prefer vacation rentals if possible anyway, but during a pandemic, I wanted to minimize interaction with other people as much as possible. Plus, I wanted to cut out the check-in process and the potential hallway/lobby interaction with other guests.
I found the perfect place for us to stay through AirBNB. We stayed at an isolated ranch situated on 280 acres, located 30 minutes from the entrance to Bryce. The Sevier River Ranch had a total of only 6 rental units spread between several buildings. No staff or host lived onsite and we entered through a coded door lock. Others were staying at the facility, but all had different daily itineraries, so we only saw two other renters during our 3 nights there….and from a distance.
I was pleasantly surprised by the selection of rentals I had to choose from for the area surrounding Bryce Canyon in general, given that I searched less than 1 week prior to our trip. Bryce is a popular destination and there aren’t any large towns nearby. Finding last-minute accommodations would certainly have been a challenge in other years. I communicated with our AirBNB owner towards the end of our stay by text. He indicated that he is usually booked out well in advance, but not this year unsurprisingly.
We noticed that most motels in the area had Vacancy. The hotels in Bryce City near the Park entrance did appear mostly full however, based on the number of cars in the parking lots. Those are clearly the first choice for many given their proximity to the Park’s entrance. Ruby’s Inn – the most well-known hotel in that area showed a No Vacancy sign.
Extra Cleaning for a Safe Road Trip
During the pandemic, we are all certainly more obsessed with cleaning. We do our grocery shopping as soon as the store opens, primarily hoping to score Clorox Wipes. Because we have a 5% success rate, I know everyone else is cleaning-obsessed too. For a safe road trip, we took our cleaning supplies and cleaned our rental as soon as we walked in. We also took our own pillows and blankets. And of course, we packed plenty of masks.
The room at the ranch was newly remodeled with travertine floors and shower, granite counter tops, and handmade wooden furniture. Yes, rustic luxury! But the online pictures also showed us how easy it would be to disinfect it ourselves upon arrival. Now, I’m not saying that it wasn’t clean when we arrived. The place was spotless. We just felt better adding an additional layer of disinfectant when we entered. Mrs. Thorough Tripper, who is OCD with cleaning anyway, wiped down all the hard surfaces and sprayed all the bedding. For a safe road trip, Clorox wipes, disinfectant spray, and hand sanitizer are now wise additions to a packing list.
Maximizing Dining Safety
We brought all our breakfast food, drinks, and snacks with us. I didn’t see a reason to add a trip to an unfamiliar local grocery store. We simply purchased additional food items for our pandemic road trip during our usual weekly outing to our regular store.
We did dine out for our lunches and dinners, but always ate outside. And we made it a point to eat lunch around 11:30 am and dinner around 5 pm to avoid other patrons. And it worked. We never shared even an outdoor dining space. It was also a relief to find that all restaurant employees were wearing masks (as per State of Utah requirements).
Timing our Park Visits
It’s always a good idea to enter a popular National Park like Bryce Canyon early in the morning to avoid crowds. This is an even better idea during a pandemic. We hoped the Park would be less crowded, but we weren’t sure what to expect. Crowd avoidance was one of our top priorities.
We are early risers, so an early entry wasn’t problem for us. Even with the 30 minute drive, we were able to enter the park each day between 8 and 8:30 am. At that time, the popular parking lot at Sunset Point was only around 30% full, and we gratefully found few people there. We hiked in and around the spectacular Bryce Amphitheater area each morning for a few hours, leaving the Park in the late morning when the crowds were starting to increase.
On our first day, a Saturday, after leaving the Park in the late morning, we did not return, knowing that the bigger crowds would persist. Instead, after lunch, we drove 30 minutes southeast to a nearby State Park called Kodachrome Basin. It offered a completely different red rock hiking experience than Bryce, and there were only a few people in the whole park. I counted seven cars, including ours, in the parking lot for the most popular hike. You can click here to read more about our afternoon in Kodachrome Basin State Park.
On our second day, a Sunday, we also left the Park in the late morning after an early start, and went back to the Ranch to relax for a few hours. We returned to the park after an early dinner and spent the evening driving the length of the park, stopping at the various viewpoints and hiking a trail at the end of the Park. During these early evening hours, there were only a few cars in each parking lot along this route, and we saw only a handful of people.
We did stop back at the Bryce Amphitheater for another look at the Hoodoos in the evening light. Again, this is the most popular spot in the Park, yet the large parking lot was about 70% full and the Rim was much less crowded than midday.
So How Crowded was the Park Compared to Usual?
I mentioned at the beginning of this post how I hoped for a less-crowded park overall, surmising that the pandemic would effect the number of visitors. So was I right?
I spoke with the ranger as we entered the Park for the final time on Sunday evening. I asked about the weekend visitor count compared to usual for this time of year. She estimated about half the usual visitors for the weekend – Father’s Day weekend in June.
We spoke to various restaurant staff, too. They indicated that the lack of the usual European tourists was a definite blow to their businesses, but there did seem to be an increase in local tourists to help compensate somewhat.
Bryce has a shuttle and encourages visitors to use it to go from spot to spot in the Park, since parking is usually very difficult to find on summer weekends especially. I watched the shuttle at various times through our stay, and never saw anyone get on or off. The Park just wasn’t busy enough on this mid-June summer weekend during a pandemic for parking to be at a premium.
Socially Distant Hiking in Bryce Canyon
Because we timed our Park entry for off peak hours, and because the Park was significantly less busy anyway, socially distant hiking wasn’t difficult. On our first morning, we hiked the most popular trails in the Park – Navajo Loop and Queens Garden. With our early start we were able to easily avoid close contact with anyone else on the trail. The trail was wide enough and there were few hikers. Towards the later half of this two-hour hike, the trail did become more crowded with hikers coming down into the hoodoos from the other direction. At times, we had to wait and let larger groups pass, but we could always find a spot to stand and maintain a comfortable distance. We wore masks around our necks and placed them over our lower face in those situations where a preferred distance couldn’t be maintained.
When soaking in the spectacular amphitheater views from the various platforms along the Rim, I noticed that markers had been placed to encourage socially distant viewing. I’m sure these were useful during peak visitor hours.
On our second day, we hiked less-frequented trails in the park. We found that these were less crowded than our regular weekly hiking trails along the Wasatch foothills near our home.
My Pandemic Road Trip Tips
So in summary, here are my tips for a safe pandemic road trip:
- Opt for a vacation rental if possible. Try to stay close to your ultimate destination or site, but try to avoid potentially crowded hotels. Self check-in is a plus.
- For a safe road trip, your packing list should now include Masks, Clorox Wipes, Disinfectant Spray, and Hand Sanitizer. Consider taking your own pillows and blankets.
- Clean hard surfaces upon arrival to your lodging. Most hotels and rentals are certainly taking extra cleaning precautions, but you can never be too careful during a pandemic.
- Reduce trips to an unfamiliar grocery store by taking some of your own non-perishable food, drinks, and snacks from home.
- When you do eat at a restaurant, limit yourself to take-out or eating outside. And visit these establishments at off-peak hours to avoid other diners.
- Visit your intended destination or site during off peak hours – usually early or later in the day.
- Try to find a less commonly visited area during peak hours.
- Consider purchasing travel insurance. Several companies offer coverage if your trip is interrupted due to COVID. Here’s an excellent summary of several travel insurance companies from Money.com. I personally have used Allianz for some of my subsequent pandemic road trips.
This isn’t my only post on Bryce Canyon National Park 🙂 I also have written a general travel guide for Bryce Canyon, and a post focusing on Kodachrome Basin State Park. Plus, I have since applied these principles during another road trip to Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park
The information contained in this Post is not a substitute for medical or health advice from a professional who is an expert on epidemiology, public health, virology, or COVID-19 specifically. Following this advice does not guarantee that you will not contract COVID-19 or any other illness while traveling. Please click here to see my full disclaimer