SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Versteeg lives on a remote piece of land near Prescott, Arizona. He’s spent the last few months social distancing there, building a tiny house, rock climbing, and hiking. He says his days haven’t been substantially different, because he leads a pretty isolated life anyways.
Versteeg, who’s in his 30s, is a rock climber, ultra marathon runner, and one magazine described him as a “part-time vagabond.” He’s been staying close to home, but not inside.
The West is opening back up, and now he’s planning a small backpacking trip to the Sierra Nevadas in the coming weeks to scout the Tahoe Rim Trail for an attempt to break the current trail running record held by Kilian Jornet — who ran the 165-mile trail in 38 hours and 32 minutes.
While Versteeg’s summer plans may be more ambitious than most, he’s just one of many heading out into the wilderness this summer.
With international travel out, 1 in 3 Americans are still planning on taking a road trip this summer, according to one survey, and 24% of them are heading to national parks.
Last year, over 327 million people visited national parks, and while concerns over the pandemic may dissuade some from visiting, a camping trip is also one of the few viable trips people can make this year.
While there’s usually plenty of room for social distancing when hiking a trail, traveling through gateway communities presents a greater risk.
In Colorado, miles of glaciated valleys, swelling rivers, and towering mountain ranges make Rocky Mountain National Park a popular tourist destination: over 41⁄2 million people visited in 2019.
Not only do millions of people visit places like Rocky Mountain National Park each year, but they congregate at popular sites — like the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, which gets so crowded people line up to take their picture underneath. Not exactly the “howling wilderness” of Edward Abbey.
Colorado’s Grand County is home to Rocky Mountain National Park, and many businesses and towns in the area rely on tourism to stoke the local economy — about 1 out 5 people in the county work in accommodations and food services.
However, its capacity to deal with a coronavirus outbreak is severely limited.
The county has five ventilators, a total of 19 hospital beds, and does not have an intensive care unit, according to Schelly Olson, the lead public information officer for Grand County’s COVID-19 response team. As of June 18, the county had 18 confirmed coronavirus cases.
“If we do get a lot of disease in our community, it will quickly overwhelm us,” Olson said.
Towns in southern Utah are grappling with the same problem.
There’s two kinds of concern, said Julie Trevelyan, a guidebook author and outdoor guide living in Capitol Reef National Park’s gateway town of Torrey, Wayne County. Community members of towns like Torrey are worried not only about the spread of the virus, but also a continued loss of income.
“Economically it’s been devastating for quite a few of the businesses,” Trevelyan said.
While the tourism industry in Utah usually brings in roughly $26 million a day, at the peak of the shutdowns due to the coronavirus, that number plummeted to about $2 to $4 million a day, according to Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism
Reservations slowed to a halt at the Canyons Bed & Breakfast in Escalante, Garfield County, Julie Rhoton, the owner of the B&B, said. April and May are the busiest seasons, summers usually slow down as the desert heats up, and they completely close in the winter. “We lost a lot of money,” Rhoton said.
Reservations have picked back up since Memorial Day weekend, but Rhoton is hoping they’ll be able to recoup their losses in the fall. “I just hope there isn’t a second wave.”
There are ways people seeking to backpack, camp, and hike this summer can visit public lands, support gateway communities, and minimize the risk to rural communities, although traveling at all during a pandemic necessarily creates risk.
Olson, in Grand County, said the first thing you should do before traveling to a gateway community is check and see what the current guidelines are.
She said wear a mask, even if the establishment doesn’t necessarily require it. “When people see others not wearing masks in their local towns, they get really upset,” Olson said. “Please, just do it for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.”
Secondly, Olson said try to bring your own supplies to limit strain on local grocery stores. Over Memorial Day weekend, the county was packed with visitors and the grocery stores were completely emptied out, she said.
“Tourists are going to be coming to our community, we’re asking them to really be following the same things they are probably already following in their hometown,” Hillary Hanson, health officer of the Flathead City-County Health Department in Montana, said. Flathead County is home to Glacier National Park, and Hanson said the department has been working to ramp up testing capabilities around the park as they prepare for tourists.
If a traveler feels sick and tests positive for COVID-19, the county would ask them to isolate. Hanson wants people to factor that possibility into their travel plans.
Trevelyan also recommends hikers and backpackers pick trails within their level of experience. This is not the summer to test limits or navigational abilities, she said. “Ask ‘what kind of an adventure am I going on’ and ‘is it beyond my usual scope?’
“If it’s beyond what they’re capable of please don’t do it. Because then if, heaven forbid, they have to be rescued, you’re putting the rescue team at risk,” Trevelyan said.
Health officials in gateway communities are already worried about a strain on hospitals, and don’t want to add injured hikers to their long list of concerns.
Regardless of the persistent risk of a pandemic, people are ready to get outside.
“I think sometimes like we get caught up in the idea that you’re not allowed to go outside right now, which in my opinion is a really bad and unhealthy thing both mentally and physically,” Versteeg, in Arizona, said. But “do it like with respect for other people and at a level of social isolation that you and everyone around you is comfortable with.”