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Ready to travel again? You’re not the only one considering a national park road trip

Hikers wade through water with sheer rock walls on either side.
Zion National Park in Utah is expected to be one of the most popular destinations for Southern Californians on Memorial Day weekend. Above, the Virgin River snakes through the Narrows in the park in 2019.
(Marc Martin / Los Angeles Times)

Temperatures are rising and you’re thinking about a summer road trip to somewhere with a lot of open space so you won’t be stuck in a stuffy airplane or a crowded hotel lobby, trying to hold your breath.

You are not alone.

For the record:

4:34 PM, May. 17, 2021This article says a forecast predicted that nearly 90% of Southern Californians will travel by car during the Memorial Day weekend. The forecast predicted that nearly 90% of the Southern Californians who travel then will travel by car.

Nearly 90% of Southern Californians will travel by car during the Memorial Day weekend — 7 percentage points higher than before the pandemic, according to the Auto Club of Southern California travel forecast, which was released Tuesday. And three of the five most popular destinations are expected to be national parks.

Two crowded urban destinations, San Francisco and Anaheim, have dropped out of the top five list for the first time in recent memory, primarily because travelers believe that outdoor vacations let them worry less about mask mandates and COVID-19 protocols, Auto Club representatives said.

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“People want to have a little more control of their environment, and they can be outdoor in these national parks,” said Auto Club spokesperson Jeffrey Spring.

From climate change to voting rights, Patagonia has been willing to risk backlash by taking positions on contentious social issues. It’s a risk that has paid off.

Before the pandemic, the top five Memorial Day weekend destinations were, in descending order, Las Vegas, San Diego, Grand Canyon National Park, San Francisco and Anaheim. This year, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks joined the list at No. 1, followed by Sin City, Grand Canyon, San Diego and Yosemite National Park. Anaheim and San Francisco were bumped off by the two additional parks.

The number of Southern Californians planning to travel for the three-day holiday weekend is expected to reach 2.89 million, up 64% compared with last year when COVID-19 death counts and pandemic fears began to climb, according to the Auto Club. Only 1.7 million Southern Californians traveled for the holiday in 2020, representing a 49% drop from 2019.

Among Southern Californians, 9% plan to travel by air for the holiday, compared with only 2% who traveled by airplane in 2020, according to the Auto Club. About 1% of Southern Californians plan to travel for the holiday this year by cruise ship, train or bus. About 10% were forecast to travel by air during the Memorial Day weekend in 2019.

In the U.S., about 37 million Americans plan to travel for the holiday, up 60% from the Memorial Day weekend of 2020, according to the Auto Club.

Eric Leopardi, a former Angeleno who now lives in Denver, said he is planning a road trip with his girlfriend to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming for the Memorial Day weekend because they feel more comfortable outdoors during the pandemic.

“Since the pandemic our vacations have in fact totally shifted to outdoor areas,” the media company executive said.

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In Los Angeles County, where the travel and tourism industry had sparked $36.6 billion in spending annually before the pandemic, visitation numbers have been growing slowly. Based on current trends, the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board estimates that the county will welcome about 40 million visitors in 2021, compared with a record 50 million visitors in 2019.

Some businesses cut hours, services and staff, or closed altogether. But many have survived beyond their expectations.

Despite a COVID-19 vaccine rollout that has helped bring to California one of the lowest case rates in the nation, many tourism industry businesses are still hurting.

Danny Roman, who runs Bikes and Hikes tours in West Hollywood, estimates that he is bringing in only about 30% of the business he had before the pandemic. The biggest hit, he said, is the loss of international travelers, who previously represented about 60% of his clients but have nearly disappeared because of pandemic travel restrictions.

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In the midst of the pandemic, Roman added a bicycle sales and repair shop to his tour business to make ends meet.

“If I didn’t have this bike shop, I would be panhandling on the corner,” he said.


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