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Looking for a socially distanced vacation? Try a walking tour

Hikers head up a trail in Bryce Canyon National Park
Hikers on a Backroads trip head up a trail in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
(Nadine Orenstein)

Lorna and Neil Miles are ahead of their time.

For 13 years they’ve been going on walking tours that have taken them away from crowds and to less frequently trod trails.

The retired San Jose couple — she worked as a nurse and he an engineer — have hiked in more than half-a-dozen countries as well as Yellowstone National Park.

They’re keeping their fingers crossed that they can go on two tours this fall with Vermont-based Country Walkers: one in Acadia National Park in Maine and the other in Nova Scotia. (The latter depends on whether Canada opens its borders to U.S. travelers.)

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A big attraction for them now is the apparent safety of hiking or walking outdoors in the time of COVID-19. They say their friends’ interest in their foot-powered adventures has increased since the pandemic began.

“They’re quite curious,” Lorna said. “But we’ve always enjoyed these trips because we never wanted to be stuck on a bus with 60 other people seeing three countries in two days.”

A guide leads hikers in the Yosemite National Park high country
A guide leads hikers in the Yosemite National Park high country on a Wildlands Trekking trip.
(Wildlands Trekking)

“To be out there on foot enjoying nature is lovely, especially when someone else is transporting your luggage from point to point and arranging the lodging and meals,” Neil added. “They take all the bother out of it and lead you to off-the-beaten-path places that you might not normally see.”

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The couple said they highly recommend self-guided tours, which include detailed directions as well as lodging and luggage transfers. These trips are less expensive and include fewer meals.

“Self-guided trips are an especially good idea because of the pandemic,” Lorna said. “You really are on your own. They provide fabulous maps and you follow their directions. You have time to stop and chat with people along the way.”

Jamen Yeaton-Masi, a vice president for Country Walkers, said her company has seen interest rising in trips to U.S. national parks.

“Like any travel company, it’s been a tough year with trips all over the globe canceled,” she said. “But we’ve had a lot more bookings on our wilderness trips to places like Olympic National Park, Vancouver Island and Glacier National Park. Those are up 50% compared to this time last year.”

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She said some customers whose trips to Europe were canceled have switched to walking tours in Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah or Acadia National Park.

“In many ways, our walking tours were made for traveling in the pandemic,” she said. “We already had small groups with the average size of 12 with two naturalist guides. People are naturally spaced out on the trails, and we’ve always avoided busier places whenever possible.”

To enhance safety, she said, Country Walkers is adhering to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts while developing checklists for working with hotels, restaurants and other vendors.

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“Safety’s been our focus this summer,” she said. “We’ve also made some changes like increasing outdoor dining and using private areas for our meals when possible. Guides have received advanced training to make sure things are clean, going over every detail from wiping down high-touch points in vans to making sure they are stocked with sanitizers, only have 50% occupancy and — sadly — replacing our delicious picnic lunches with bag lunches.”

Masks are required when walkers are not spread out on the trail or when they might encounter other groups, she said. “We’re assuming that guests who are willing to join one of our tours will be willing to wear face masks when needed.”

Scott Cundy, owner of Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Wildland Trekking, said his company is well-situated because its trips are small and many feature hiking, camping and llama-packing in remote areas.

“Those offerings have done pretty well, and we’re asking people to drive themselves to trailheads so we don’t have to put them in vehicles,” he said.

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Trips that use base camps now are being run as private trips for families or groups comfortable with one another.

On all trips, participants are required to wear masks when they can’t be at least six feet apart, he said.

Hikers navigate their way along Utah's Virgin River in Zion National Park
Hikers navigate their way along Utah’s Virgin River in Zion National Park as part of a Country Walkers trip.
(Country Walkers)

“And we have very much enhanced hand-washing and other sanitation,” he said. The same is true for tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and other gear, which are allowed to sit for days after cleaning and between trips. When guides prepare food, they wear masks, and during cleanup they sanitize everything with diluted bleach.

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He said customers are booking Wildland Trekking’s trips to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks. Interest in the Grand Canyon, though, has declined because of that state’s recent spike of coronavirus cases.

“People want to get away from cities now, and the wilderness is a great place to do that,” he said. “They want to be able to breathe freely and relax for a while.”

Riley Pearce, assistant director for trip development at Berkeley-based Backroads, said his company is vetting all hotels, restaurants and activities to make sure they’re following COVID-19 protocols.

“When guests are confident we are covering all the bases, it helps them relax and focus on being on vacation,” he said.

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Backroads’ hiking trips for late summer and fall include Zion and Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, Olympic and Crater Lake national parks, as well as trails in the Oregon Cascades and around Sedona, Ariz.

Pearce said it’s not only the desire to experience the natural world that is drawing people outdoors during the pandemic.

“Our modern, city-centric world is really upside-down right now,” he said. “If you live in any area with medium-to-high population density, almost every facet of modern life feels different, so much so that almost all our conversations turn back to COVID, the politics of reopening, or what next month or next year will look like. It’s easy to feel trapped.

“Standing on the banks of a rushing river or under a wide-open, starry sky makes you feel small in the best possible way. In really hard times, it helps me to be reminded that people … are in many ways just a small part of a big, wild, beautiful world. People need that reminder now more than ever.”

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If you go

Companies that offer walking and hiking tours include:

  • Country Walkers Has canceled all tours that start on or before Sept. 1. Fall tours in the West include San Francisco to Point Reyes, $2,648; Olympic Peninsula, $3,898; and Bryce and Zion, $3,498.
  • Wildland TrekkingPrivate tours only through Aug. 31. Yosemite National Park, $1,665; Lost Coast of Humboldt and Mendocino counties; $1,205; and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, $1,420.
  • Backroads Both private and scheduled tours are running now. Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, $3,499; Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, $2,799; and Yosemite National Park, $3,899.
  • REI Adventures Has canceled most trips through Aug. 31 but can book for later this year. Utah national parks, $3,099; Big Bend National Park, $3,299; and Grand Canyon Phantom Ranch Rim to Rim, $3,899.

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