Pandemic Travel: Exploring National Parks

by Kristy Tolley
Devil's Tower and the land around it

by Judy Garrison

For as long as I can remember, I sang “America The Beautiful” by rote, never really registering the “spacious skies,” “amber waves of grain,” or “purple mountain majesties” described our national parks.  That is, not until an unprecedented pandemic forced travelers, like myself, to abandon the skies for the roads and discover what was in their own land.

When the national park system was established in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, millions of acres became ours to explore. With restrictions and rules shaping travel itineraries, this was the perfect time for a westward journey to the inaugural park, Yellowstone National Park.

Park Ranger places a stamp on a National Park Passport

Claim your stamps when you visit National Parks

Traveling from the east coast and loaded down COVID-19 deterrents, I claimed stamps in my National Park Passport. It was only fitting to allow The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, to be the springboard to the west. Unlike most visitor centers in parks I would encounter further west, the arch’s museum at the lower level and tram to the top were open with limited access and social distancing.

Choosing my route wisely to uncover the most gems, I traveled north to Hannibal to Mark Twain’s childhood home along the Mississippi River. Although not a national park, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is definitely a national treasure.

View of Mount Rushmore from groundlevel

Mount Rushmore

With my sights on Keystone, South Dakota, and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, along the way I found a true “Close Encounter of the Third Kind.” Within the Black Hills rising 1,267 feet, a butte comprised of igneous rock and a hiker’s challenge, Devils Tower National Monument was named the nation’s first national monument in 1906.

Nearby, an other-worldly perspective of jagged canyons and buttes as far as the eye can see, the Badlands National Park covers 244,000-acres of uninhabitable land. After driving through the wide-open plains, the Badlands Scenic Byway, a 31-mile loop drive, is hair-raising. Pull-outs allow for stops to view a landscape unlike no other place on earth.

From natural phenomena to manmade memorials, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, located near Keystone, South Dakota, and Crazy Horse Memorial, some 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, illustrate man’s skill and passion for patriots and people. Major upgrades and construction are happening at Mount Rushmore, but the memorial, the giftshop and visitor center remain open. Crazy Horse, not a national park but a private project, honors the Indigenous people of North America. The project began in 1947 by acclaimed sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski whose story is as important as that of his project. Work continues daily with an eight-man crew. Open year round, tours are available to the top of the mountain. You can also take the $4 bus-to-base drive.

Next stop, Yellowstone National Park. With Cody, Wyoming, as my home base, I enter through the east entrance, an hour’s drive from Cody. With the downloaded content from the NPS Yellowstone App on my phone (cell service is limited), I have everything at hand. However, never pass up the chance for a map from the ranger. During my visit in late October, not only were park facilities, lodging and stores closed due to COVID-19, many approached the annual closures in preparation for the winter season. When the first Monday in November rolls around, all roads close to vehicle travel and do not reopen until mid-April. Until then, snowmobiles, skis and snowboards transport visitors through the winter wonderland.

My main observation of Yellowstone — in addition to the beauty of bison grazing in Hayden Valley, the grandeur and predictability of Old Faithful, the untamed sight of Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs — was its enormity. Covering nearly 3,500 square miles with five entrance stations, Yellowstone requires pre-visit planning. For full immersion, no matter which season draws you, plan for a week at minimum and a year in advance (especially lodging inside the park).

Looking over the plains to the Grand Teton mountains

Grand Teton mountains

Departing through the south entrance, Grand Teton National Park afforded one more ethereal view of a breathtaking landscape. As much as there is to do within the park (hiking, kayaking, etc.), simply stop and relax. Allow the snow-covered mountain majesty to inspire you.

To this traveler, road trips will forever be defined as what saved 2020 as well as what is possible by simply taking a ride. As much as I encountered, I understood that it was only a fraction of what the national park system has to offer.

Writer’s Note

There are endless places to visit along the way. Here are a few worthy of a stop:

If you plan on visiting multiple parks, purchase the National Park Annual Pass for $80.  USParkPass.com. To document your visit, purchase a National Park Passport and gather official park stamps. Purchase online at americasnationalparks.org or at any park visitors center. With center closures, you’ll have to search hard to find the stamp but well worth it.

COVID-19 Travel Tips

  • Stock up on antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizers, and masks before you leave home.
  • Wipe down hotel rooms upon entry.
  • Hotel amenities such as coffee pot, glasses or cups, housekeeping and breakfast are mostly non-existent.
  • Most interstate rest areas are closed, so bathroom breaks will be at gas stations.
  • Masks are mandatory in public places.
  • Cash is not accepted in many stores.
  • Remember, each state’s COVID-19 requirements may differ. Always check before traveling.

Photography by Seeing Southern Photography

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