Travel Tips United States

What is it like to take a road trip during COVID-19?

Grand Teton National Park at sunset

We recently went on a road trip in the Western U.S. during COVID-19 and live to tell the tale.

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As states loosen restrictions and National Parks re-open, you may be wondering, “What is it like to take a road trip during COVID-19?”

“Should I travel within the U.S. during the coronavirus outbreak?”

“What precautions are hotels, restaurants, and other businesses taking to keep customers safe?”

“Will people judge me for traveling during a pandemic?”

“If I already have a road trip planned, should I go or should I cancel my trip?”

“Are gas stations and hotels open?”

And most importantly:

“Will I be able to find a restroom?!”

Over Memorial Day weekend, we took our first road trip in the Western U.S. since COVID-19 started, and we took notes along the way so we could give you an idea of what to expect.

Of course, road trippers traveling through other parts of the country may have different experiences, so results may vary depending on where you go.

First things first: should you travel?

Look, we aren’t the CDC, so we will refer you to their website for guidance on whether to travel or be in public in general. If you don’t feel well, have health issues, or live in a coronavirus hot spot, it may be best for you to stay home.

The question of whether people should travel is a hot topic for debate, and we may be ridiculed for having traveled on our road trip, so we won’t offer up any other guidance about whether you should go on a road trip or not. All we will tell you is what it’s like to take a road trip during COVID-19.

If you do travel, what should you do to plan your trip and protect yourself?

See our Road Trips after COVID-19 post for tips to help you plan your road trip and keep yourself safe while traveling. Many times, we came across people who weren’t wearing masks in public places. If you feel safer wearing a mask and/or gloves, even if seemingly no one else is, then by all means do so.

So, what IS it like to take a road trip during COVID-19?

We live in San Diego, California, and drove through Nevada, a slice of Arizona, and Utah to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming, which had re-opened a week before our arrival. We then continued on to the Black Hills area of South Dakota (think Mount Rushmore).

Our 1,500-mile route:

In summary, this was our experience with a road trip in the Western U.S. during COVID-19:

Cat sitting in litterbox in vehicle
Our cat had no problems finding her restroom
  • First of all, YES, you will find a restroom!
  • Gas stations were open and allowed customers to use their restrooms.
  • The highway rest areas we drove by appeared to be open. We stopped at one that was.
  • Fast food drive-through options were available, and we probably could’ve stopped at non-fast food restaurants for take-out.
  • Most people in small towns or rural areas didn’t wear masks.
  • Many within the National Parks did not wear masks, even on narrow trails.
  • We had no problems finding restrooms to use, food to eat, hotels to sleep at, or gas to pump. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks presented the biggest problem as most services were closed; however, we could still use vault toilets in dire circumstances. Just pack along your own food and water.
  • We didn’t feel judged for traveling.
  • Hotels, restaurants, casinos, and other businesses are taking extra precautions to keep customers safe. More about that below.

Again, this is what it is like to take a road trip during COVID-19 in the Western U.S.; other parts of the country may be very different.

Our road trip route

Our caravan of Traveling Accountants and Their Cat left San Diego midday Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Below we discuss more details about our route, other things we could’ve done along the route, and our experiences related to our road trip in the Western U.S. during COVID-19.

Stay classy, San Diego!

Residents of San Diego County had been required to wear masks in public for weeks before we left on our road trip. Wearing a face mask in a grocery store became second nature. We weren’t sure what to expect in the rest of the areas along our route, but we packed masks and gloves.

Eddie World, California's Largest Gas Station
Eddie World, California’s Largest Gas Station

We left Friday around 11:45 AM PDT and drove Interstate 15 all the way to Fillmore, Utah, a small town in Southern Utah.

We stopped for gas at Eddie World, which claims to be “California’s largest gas station.” Eddie World has a Peet’s Coffee, fresh popcorn, several aisles of candy, tons of gas pumps, plenty of parking, and clean restrooms. Many people wore masks, many didn’t.

Viva Las Vegas!

Much of the drive traversed brown desert, but Joshua trees popped up in some areas. The town of Primm welcomed us to Nevada with casinos and Buffalo Bill’s amusement park.

We passed through Las Vegas at around 4:30 PM PDT. Las Vegas could’ve been a good stopping point for a night or two during normal times when casinos and shows were operating. Maybe they WERE operating again at that time, but we didn’t research it; we’ve visited Las Vegas many times and weren’t tired yet, so we kept driving.

Virgin River Gorge

Between Nevada and Utah, I-15 slices through the Virgin River Gorge in the Northwest corner of Arizona. Fun fact: though I-15 runs through this small corner of Arizona, most Arizonan residents do not regularly access this stretch of road, as it is not connected to any major populated areas in the state. It primarily serves as a connection for people traveling between Nevada and Utah. That said, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful sections of interstate highway in the U.S. and well worth a visit.

Welcome to Utah!

We hit St. George, Utah around 7:15 PM MDT. The scenery shifted from brown desert to vermillion mountains covered with green shrubbery. A rest area along I-15 was fully open and served as a wonderful respite for a full bladder.

We later stopped at a gas station outside Cedar City, UT, and hardly anyone wore masks.

We finally called it a night in Fillmore, UT, at 9:45 PM MDT, where we snagged a Comfort Inn & Suites Fillmore I-15 at the last minute for a whopping $64 after tax. Comfort Inn is a brand within the Choice Hotels chain, and Choice Hotels happened to offer a 35% off sale, so we took advantage. The hotel was quite nice, and the indoor swimming pool was open and busy. Guests did not wear masks inside the hotel, and neither did the gentleman who checked us in. However, the hotel had installed a plastic shield on the desk to provide a safe barrier between guests and employees. The woman who checked us out the following morning did wear a mask.

The kitchen was closed, and the hotel did not offer any breakfast options, not even a measly granola bar. We had a feeling hotel breakfast options might be limited, so we had packed our own homemade pumpkin bread (yum!) in case we couldn’t get breakfasts at hotels. The hotel didn’t even have coffee in the lobby; the only coffee option was the little machine in the room.

View around Cedar City, Utah
View around Cedar City, Utah

Southern Utah is home to five magnificent National Parks and other natural attractions, so if the parks are open, you could easily spend several nights there.

Continuing on to Wyoming

We left Fillmore, UT at 8:30 AM MDT Saturday and were immediately awestruck with the beautiful mountain scenery we couldn’t see the night before.

We passed through Afton, Wyoming, home of the largest elkhorn arch (because there’s a “largest” everything!), and stopped in Alpine, WY to fill up our vehicle and use the loo. No one wore masks inside the gas station, and it would have felt strange to wear one.

At around 2:45 PM MDT, we arrived in Jackson, WY, the closest city to Grand Teton National Park and a popular ski resort town. Lots of people were walking around town, many with masks and many without. Cars lined up at stoplights and filled parking spots along the road downtown. Some of the stores appeared to be open.

Antler arch in Jackson, WY
Welcome to Jackson, WY

Mountain retreat

We arrived at our hotel—the Hatchet Resort, about 8 miles from Grand Teton National Park’s Moran entrance—at around 3:45 PM MDT. We opted to stay there rather than a hotel in Jackson due to the closer proximity to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone entrance stations. Additionally, none of the lodging options inside either park had re-opened at the time.

First dine-in restaurant experience in two months!

We had dinner at the Hatchet Resort’s Whetstone Lodge restaurant the first night, which was our first time dining in at a restaurant in over two months.

Everything was served with disposable plates, utensils, and cups, on top of a paper tablecloth. The servers handed out disposable paper menus and didn’t remove anything from the table until we left. Our waitress explained they would dump everything into a trash can after we left the table.

Beverages by the gas stove at Hatchet Resort, Wyoming
Relaxing in front of the gas stove: red wine for Christina, beer for Chris, and water for the cat

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

Both Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park re-opened on May 18th, six days before we arrived. We only spent one very long, full day at both parks, which wasn’t nearly enough.

Read our guide on how to spend one day in Yellowstone and Grand Teton!

Most services and all hotels and campgrounds within the parks were closed. A couple gas stations were open, and vault toilets were available and ready for use. Grand Teton had one operating gas station that we knew of, near Colter Bay, but we didn’t research other services in that park.

If you plan to visit Yellowstone this summer, check out this up-to-date list of anticipated opening dates for various services within Yellowstone.

Chris and Christina in masks at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, South Rim Drive, Artist Point

Based on something we’d read, we thought the parks were free to enter because most services were still closed. While true for Grand Teton, that ended up not being the case for Yellowstone. Thankfully, we still had a valid National Park pass. Without a park pass, it costs $35 for a 7-day entrance pass to Yellowstone. If Grand Teton National Park had collected fees, it would’ve cost $35 for a 7-day pass.

The entrances into Yellowstone from Montana and Idaho were closed, and only the south loop of the park’s figure-eight road system was open. Old Faithful Geyser is along this part of the road, so we were able to see it.

Old Faithful Geyser

Though there is a vast seating area close to Old Faithful, we kept our distance. The area wasn’t crowded, but there were a lot of people, and most were not wearing masks.

Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone National Park

In fact, that was a common occurrence throughout the park; masks were few and far between, despite the narrow boardwalks and trails. It would be interesting to survey where visitors were from and if that affected whether they wore masks or not. When we were out in the open without people around, we didn’t wear our masks, but on narrow trails we put them on. Maybe it was our imagination, but we occasionally felt other visitors stared at us when we did wear masks.

After Old Faithful, we rushed to the only open restaurant in the park, the Geyser Grill at the Snow Lodge. So did everyone else.

The park had social distancing stickers on the ground, and employees stood at the doors to the restaurant and store to limit the number of people inside those areas, but people still crowded inside the building while waiting in line. The park tried their best to get visitors to distance themselves, but people will be people.

The Black Hills, South Dakota

We departed the Hatchet Resort Monday at 8:30 AM MDT. At first, snow blanketed the ground everywhere we looked, but as we went down in elevation the snowy mountains shifted to an area of red badlands jutting up against farm land. We passed the National Museum of Military Vehicles, where tanks sat outside on display.

We opted to take Highway 16 through Bighorn National Forest. In Eastern Wyoming we came across rolling, green hills and antelope. Close to South Dakota, the landscape turned to red and green hills.

We arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota at around 4:00 PM MDT. Tree-covered hills and mountains, as well as red dirt/rocks, could be seen all around.

Restaurants, a beer and wine tasting room, and a moonshine tasting store were all open for business in Deadwood. A few local stores encouraged the use of face masks, but only one required a mask. We even walked by a place that required a temperature reading before admittance, but we didn’t go inside.

Check out these ideas on how to spend a day in the Black Hills!

Welcome to Deadwood, South Dakota sign
Welcome to Deadwood, South Dakota!

Casinos

We stayed at the Doubletree by Hilton at Cadillac Jack’s using points. The gentleman at check-in informed us that due to COVID-19, housekeeping would only clean every three nights. Since we were staying two nights, our room was not cleaned between the first and second night. That was fine with us, as our cat likely wouldn’t have appreciated 1) a stranger entering the room, 2) a vacuum cleaner, or 3) both combined.

The hotel was also a casino, and they gave us $30 of free play for staying there, so we took advantage, hoping to win our fortune. We inserted $1 of our own money into a slot machine and cashed out with nearly $40. Not exactly early retirement money, but not too shabby!

To keep players safe, the casino at our hotel placed signs on each slot machine informing players the machine had been sanitized. Players were responsible for discarding those signs once they used the machines, to let employees know the machines needed to be sanitized. At card tables, we noticed only two players were allowed at a time, and the chairs were spaced apart.

Breweries and Wineries

As we drove around the Black Hills area the following day, we stopped at Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City. Due to COVID-19, the winery required reservations for their free wine tastings to limit the number of people inside. The winery had installed plastic shields at the checkout counter, and all employees wore masks and gloves. After the tasting, our server asked us to place our wine glasses in a tub off to the side so she wouldn’t have to handle our dirty glasses.

Prairie Berry Winery, Hill City, South Dakota
Prairie Berry Winery, Hill City, South Dakota

Next door to the winery was Miner Brewing Company; we walked over there while waiting for our reservation time at the winery. They weren’t offering flights, so we shared two 8-oz cups of mango cream ale and chokecherry brown ale. Both were served in plastic disposable cups. The only seating options were tables spread apart outside. Signs on the tables indicated whether or not employees had sanitized the table since its last use.

Was the road trip worth it?

Oh, yes. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a mental toll, and we needed a vacation to reset ourselves. We wore masks and practiced social distancing to the best of our abilities. We returned to work refreshed and mentally ready.

Cost of our road trip

For anyone who is curious, here’s an estimate of what it cost to go on our road trip, excluding meals. From San Diego to Deadwood we drove about 1,500 miles. We drove a Jeep Grand Cherokee–certainly not the most fuel-efficient vehicle–but gas was very cheap (compared to California, gas ANYWHERE is cheap). We stayed five nights in hotels but could have easily spent more time in the National Parks or the Black Hills or tacked on other areas.

For information on how we valued the Hilton points used to stay at the Doubletree in Deadwood, SD, see our post about loyalty rewards program valuation.

 Points  Point Value  Cash Cost  Total Cost 
Gas:
1,500 miles one way, ~18 mpg, avg price of $2.00/gallon$166.67$166.67
Lodging:
Comfort Inn & Suites, Fillmore, UT (1 night)$64.73$64.73
Hatchet Resort, WY (2 nights)$241.44$241.44
Doubletree by Hilton at Cadillac Jack’s, Deadwood, SD (2 nights)       32,000$128.00$128.00
Parking at Doubletree$30.00$30.00
Activities:
Entrance to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (with an America the Beautiful Pass)$0.00
Total$630.84

Now that you know what it’s like to take a road trip during COVID-19, will you go?

Have you been on a road trip since the COVID-19 outbreak? If so, tell us your experience of what it was like to take a road trip during COVID-19 in the comments.

If you haven’t been on a road trip, would you go? Are you planning one? Anything more you want to know? Let us know in the comments or contact us!


What is it like to take a road trip during COVID-19?

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Traveling Accountants

We are accountants who love to travel.

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