Searching for Solitude in Wyoming: A Trip to Jackson Hole During the COVID-19 Pandemic

July 24, 2020
Searching for Solitude in Wyoming: A Trip to Jackson Hole During the COVID-19 Pandemic

When my home state of Connecticut first shut down from COVID-19 in March, I found myself erasing items from the “important dates” white board on my fridge every week. That concert I was really excited about? Postponed until next year. The multi-day band and chorus field trip I was supposed to chaperone? Canceled, as was the rest of the school year as we knew it.

The one event that remained on the board, that I refused to erase, was my annual trip to Wyoming. For the past few years, I have attended the Jackson Hole Writers Conference at the end of June.

I had booked my room in Jackson Hole months before the pandemic began, so when the conference directors announced that they would be replacing the in-person experience with Zoom workshops, I still kept my travel reservations. I decided this would now be a hiking trip, a time for some social distancing in the mountains to recharge after a bizarre and difficult school year.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I obsessively researched the reopening status and new weekly cases in Wyoming, and more specifically in Teton County. While Wyoming is the least populous state and is ranked near the bottom of the list of COVID cases per state, the Jackson Hole area with its close proximity to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks receives millions of visitors in the summer months. And now that the parks had reopened in mid-May, I had no idea what to expect in terms of crowds. I made lists of which stores were open and which restaurants were offering take-out. Of course, it also helped that I was traveling to an area with which I was already familiar.

I flew with an airline that is keeping middle seats open, limiting cabin service, and requiring masks, and the flight attendants were not afraid to get on the intercom to remind folks to keep their masks on when not eating or drinking.

Another area that I was keeping constant tabs on was Salt Lake City. It is significantly cheaper to fly from Connecticut to SLC and then drive the last four and a half hours to Jackson Hole, as opposed to flying directly into Jackson, and despite the concerns that many people have about flying in close proximity to dozens of strangers, this did seem the safer option for the number of miles I was traveling. A solo drive to Wyoming would take three or four days each way—that’s a lot of stops for bathrooms, food, and gas in a lot of communities that are in varying stages of the pandemic.

I flew with an airline that is keeping middle seats open, limiting cabin service, and requiring masks, and the flight attendants were not afraid to get on the intercom to remind folks to keep their masks on when not eating or drinking.

I was surprised then, after my problem-free journey from Hartford to Chicago-Midway to Salt Lake City, that I stepped off the plane and into the heart of the SLC airport to see… a ton of people not wearing masks. They are required to go through security, and they are required when on the plane, but it seemed that a lot of travelers had decided to go maskless while they waited for their flights.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised—after all, I had been checking the number of COVID-19 cases in Utah as well, and I knew that they had seen an uptick in the weeks leading up to my trip. Nevertheless, seeing so many maskless travelers made me nervous. I made a beeline for the rental car facility, and to my relief there was no line at the counter and I was in my rental car and on the highway in record time.

Searching for Solitude in Wyoming: A Trip to Jackson Hole During the COVID-19 Pandemic

I stopped in the small towns of Cokeville and Alpine on my drives to and from Jackson, and at both truck stops, I was the only person wearing a mask aside from the people working there.

There are a few routes that one can take between Salt Lake City and Jackson. I’m partial to the slightly longer route that follows I-80 through the Wasatch Range and leads to a two-lane highway on the western edge of Wyoming, meandering through quaint villages where elk antler arches announce the center of town and through mountain passes so pristine it is difficult to not stop at every turnout to take a photo. Regardless of the route, at some point on that four-and-a-half-to-five-hour drive, it is necessary to make a pit stop. I stopped in the small towns of Cokeville and Alpine on my drives to and from Jackson, and at both truck stops, I was the only person wearing a mask aside from the people working there.

Other customers were definitely staring at me, and at one point I thought someone coughed in my direction, but I also could have been imagining worst-case scenarios as I raced to the bathroom and then back to my rental car, dousing my hands with sanitizer once I was back to safety.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I made it to Jackson around dinner time. I picked up some rental bear spray, checked into my private room at The Hostel, and planned out where I wanted to get take out for dinner, and where I could park my car with a nice view while I ate dinner in the car. Many restaurants in town had reopened for in-person dining at a reduced capacity, and I was surprised when I stopped at various restaurants throughout the week to pick up my food by how many people actually wanted to eat inside, often hearing hosts tell guests that there was an hour-long wait for a table.

On my first full day there, it was a brisk, wet 50 degrees most of the day, and when the rain finally stopped mid-afternoon, the parking lots at many trailheads were nearly empty.

I figured that the bulk of avoiding other people would happen when I was in town, and not actually in Grand Teton National Park. On my first full day there, it was a brisk, wet 50 degrees most of the day, and when the rain finally stopped mid-afternoon, the parking lots at many trailheads were nearly empty. I thought this was maybe due to a combination of weather and COVID-19, but the following day, cloudless and warm, I realized the lack of crowds was just due to the weather.

I pulled into a packed parking lot at Jenny Lake at around 10:00am on a Friday, much later than anyone would recommend arriving. I took the ferry across the lake and hiked to Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, and then ventured a little ways into Cascade Canyon. This is the most popular area of the park, and it was evident that day. Crowds of mostly maskless people gathered around the waterfall, and one couple was even in the midst of a maternity photo shoot. At Inspiration Point, there was room to spread out and enjoy the view, but getting there definitely involved passing within six feet of other hikers on the narrow trail. Some national parks have taken extra precautions to promote social distancing this summer.

I didn’t want to leave, but I also knew that this escape would make the rest of the summer at home a little more bearable.

Yosemite, for example, has employed a permit system and is only issuing 1700 passes to the park per day, each pass being valid for a week. While Grand Teton is not limiting visitors, they are limiting parking in certain areas. At String Lake, they’ve banned overflow parking on the road. But when I left Jenny Lake that afternoon, there were dozens of cars parked alongside the street, beyond the already enormous parking lot.

At other trails, I had better luck avoiding the crowds when I started my hikes later in the afternoon. I set off to Taggart Lake a little after 3:00pm, and while I saw another hiker every five minutes or so, I was met with solitude for the majority of the hike, the peak of Grand Teton my only constant companion, always visible in the distance. When I reached the lake, there were several options of large rocks to sit on and enjoy the view in peace. I stayed a while, dipping my feet in the frigid water and absorbing the view of the mountains, of a terrain that is so different from back home.

I didn’t want to leave, but I also knew that this escape would make the rest of the summer at home a little more bearable.

On other late-day hikes, I walked slowly, taking photos of the mountains’s reflections on the water, memorizing the harsh outlines that long-ago glaciers carved into the landscape, testing the temperatures of lakes with a hand or foot but knowing that the water would remain cold until much later in the summer. I didn’t want to leave, but I also knew that this escape would make the rest of the summer at home a little more bearable.

Would I travel again during the pandemic? Probably. It depends on where I’m going and what infection rates and quarantine guidelines look like across the country. As a teacher on summer vacation, I could easily stay home for two weeks upon returning from my trip, but infection rates across the country have soared since I’ve returned, so I probably would have considered canceling this trip if it were later in the summer.

However, if your wanderlust beckons you to travel this summer but you want to steer clear of crowds, consider a less popular destination. On my way back to Salt Lake City, I stopped for an afternoon at Fossil Butte National Monument near Kemmerer, WY. The prehistoric lake-turned-sagebrush-desert might not be everyone’s top bucket list item in a region with so many more popular sights, but I had the hiking trails completely to myself. Rain storms passed by on all sides of me, the wind whipped my hair in every direction, and I could shout in exhilaration out into the wilderness and no one could hear me. Here, I finally felt that I had achieved the level of social distancing that I had hoped to find in Wyoming.

Photo credits by Chelsea Dodds. 

About Chelsea Dodds

Chelsea DoddsChelsea Dodds lives and teaches high school English on the Connecticut shoreline. She holds an MFA in fiction from Southern Connecticut State University. When not teaching or writing, Chelsea can usually be found hiking or working on her goal of traveling to all 50 states and 62 national parks. Follow her on Twitter @chelseawrites_

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