By Aaron Romek, CBS4 producer
(CBS4) – Last week I decided to take my annual road trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks knowing it would be a little different during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were some very noticeable changes, and at times it often felt like more normal summer trips.
I’ll start with the changes. First of all, the issue around masks. I drove from Denver to Salt Lake City to pick up my partner Kasey and then we headed up to Jackson, Wyoming, for four days and another night just outside Yellowstone in Gardiner, Montana. As soon as I left Colorado, I noticed the use of masks amongst people dropped drastically. In Utah, Wyoming and Montana, I saw few customers in restaurants, stores and gas stations wearing masks. Most employees that were dealing with customers, however, were in masks.
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There were noticeable changes due to the pandemic in both national parks, and Jackson as well. Closures are a big deal. Many of the lodges in both parks, including my favorite, the Jackson Lake Lodge, are closed for the season. Only places with cabins like Old Faithful and Mammoth in Yellowstone are open for lodging right now. That means many restaurants are also not open right now. So you have to plan carefully for food if you are going to be out exploring for hours on end. Many of the little stores in the parks are open, and offer sandwiches and salads, etc., to go with normal grocery food you can buy. It’s important to add that all the towns we stopped in around the park including Jackson, Gardiner, Cooke City and Teton Village all have hotels and restaurants open. We stayed most nights at a resort in Wilson, near Jackson, with stand-alone cabins, so we could socially distance more easily, and also cook some of our own meals.
One unusual thing to see, and I wish I had taken a picture, was the sign that lists open and closed campgrounds at the entrance to Yellowstone. All campgrounds were listed as closed. A ranger did tell us some are expected to open in the coming weeks, or in July. But as of our trip all were closed. The campground at Mammoth is usually full of tents and RVs so was odd to see it empty.
The parks were more crowded than I expected , especially since many lodges are closed. However, another thing missing this year: there were no tour buses on the roads. We did see license plates from across the country as families decided to road trip this year. On our hike around Jenny Lake in the Tetons we came across plenty of other hikers on the trail. The biggest crowds we would see were at wildlife sightings along the road. We came across the well-known grizzly bear 399 and her four cubs near the closed Jackson Lake Lodge. It seemed like hundreds of people were stopped to watch and try to get a good picture. There was not much social distancing as people huddled in groups between parked cars to get a glimpse. And most people were not in masks. A few days later there was a group watching a wolf out in the distance in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. In a typical summer people would share telescopes and binoculars with others to show them where animals are. I didn’t see that going on this summer, and even heard one woman tell a man not come closer to her as he tried to point out where the wolf was.
One thing the pandemic cannot change is the majestic scenery in both parks. And of course the thrilling and often up-close look at the wildlife. I never get tired every year when you are caught in a bison jam, and the bison are crossing the road, or in front of you. With a little extra planning, Yellowstone and the Tetons are still a great place to be during the pandemic.