Spring break is just around the corner. What’s a parent to do? The kids have been locked in the house forever. But making travel plans is tricky even if California's stay-at-home advisory eases.
Lezlie McKenzie faced the same problem last year. She wanted to plan a family vacation, but fear of COVID-19 caused pandemic paralysis: How could they see and do new things — and still be safe? Her solution: a private bike tour.
Two weeks later she and husband David Mira and kids Anabel, 12, and Lucas, 14, were in Yellowstone National Park watching the Old Faithful geyser blow its top, sending 8,000 steamy gallons of water 150 feet into the bright blue Wyoming sky.
It was outstanding,” McKenzie said. “I usually do all the vacation research myself, but this time the issues seemed overwhelming. We found a private tour and knew everything on the trip would be outdoorsy and socially distanced.” She admits she was nervous; the family had never been on a tour. “It was going to be a disaster or amazing,” she said.
Happily, everyone loved it. Their six-day, private Escape Adventures tour, which included Grand Teton National Park, took them biking, hiking, cliff jumping and swimming. They even went on a balloon ride.
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to the travel industry, which has struggled to see light at the end of the tunnel. But adventure travel has opened doors for many people and is one segment of the industry that’s chugging along despite COVID-19. Customers find it easy to set up a private trip for just family or a few friends. Hiking and biking on backwoods trails offer travelers a couple of ways to explore — and still keep their distance from others.
If you’re trying to stay within 120 miles of home — the updated travel advisory California issued last week — there are plenty of local destinations to consider, from mountains to desert to oceanfront. And hopefully the restrictions will be eased by spring.
Last-minute bookings like McKenzie’s are increasingly common, according to Escape Adventures’ Jared Fisher. The tour company now caters in large part to travelers tired of staying home and looking for a safe way to travel. In addition to spur-of-the-moment travel, spring bookings are ramping up.
Gwen Nicol, a travel specialist with Scott Dunn, is finding the same thing. “People want to escape, but they want to stick to their own travel bubble of family or friends. And everybody wants wide-open spaces,” said Nicol, a manager with the high-end private tour company. “It’s the one thing that still sells.”
Popular destinations include Sedona, Ariz.; Grand Canyon National Park; and Utah parks such as Zion and Glen Canyon (Lake Powell). Glamping — high-end camping — is also popular, she said. “You basically take your own pod with you, and a glamping site is set up for you.
“People are staying in private houses, villas or hotels, particularly those hotels that are doing a great job of managing their response to the pandemic,” she said. (Currently hotels are limited to essential workers in most of California.) “Guests feel very safe. They can get outside and do lots of activities. Even in popular national parks, we can help them find the trails less traveled.” The tour company can set up COVID testing and make sure guides have been tested.
The downside: Private tours often are expensive; Scott Dunn’s tours are usually about $1,000 per person per day. But budget travelers can find less expensive ways to hit the hiking and biking paths of America.
Adventure Cycling Assn. can help novice or experienced bicyclists put together budget-friendly socially distanced trips. The organization, with more than 50,000 members, maps bike routes, plans tours and offers 50,000 miles of mapped routes in North America.
“With cycling, social distancing is baked into the activity; it’s an inherent part of it,” said association spokesman Alex Strickland. “But there are unique challenges. If you’re rolling through a rural part of the country and the one little store is shut down, you’re up a creek.”
Some of the organization’s better-known routes are recommended to travelers looking to go it alone during the pandemic. “Chunks of our Pacific Coast Route, Utah Cliffs Loop up near St. George and Sierra Cascades Route can be great short or long trips,” Strickland said. Maps are $15.75 per section for nonmembers.
If you’re looking for more hand-holding on a bike trip, Duvine Cycling + Adventure Co. is happy to help. The bike-touring company recently doubled its domestic tour destinations, beefed up safety protocols and added itineraries within driving distance of Los Angeles, said founder Andy Levine.
Among the new private tours is the Malibu Challenge, a four-day ride along Mulholland Highway through the Santa Monica Mountains and along Pacific Coast Highway that conquers some legendary climbs, including Latigo Canyon and Piuma and Decker roads (from $3,995 per person).
Backroads, another longtime adventure company, offers several Southwestern hiking/walking/multisport tours. Any of the organization’s scheduled tours can be made private if no one else has already booked it.
“People can just take it over; we call this Take a Date,” said company spokeswoman Liz Einbinder. “Or our sales team can create a special private departure or a unique trip that isn’t just a carbon copy of ones that we have listed on our website.”
Among Backroads’ Southwestern destinations is a Palm Springs & Joshua Tree Walking & Hiking Tour, a four-day getaway available in February, March and April. Besides seeing the old Hollywood glamour of Palm Springs and visiting Joshua Tree, participants hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (from $2,699per person, double occupancy, plus fees).
There’s also an Arizona Saguaro & Tucson Multi-Adventure Tour, a four-day hiking and biking trip through Southern Arizona that’s available in February, March and April (from $2,499 per person, double occupancy, plus fees).
If Sedona, Ariz., is on your bucket list, there’s a Sedona Walking & Hiking Tour in March and April (from $3,499 per person, double occupancy, plus fees).
“Private groups on Backroads trips are often families, multigenerational families, couples or friends traveling together,” said Einbinder. “As you can imagine, private has been a popular option during the pandemic.”
Escape Adventures, the tour company McKenzie and her family used on their Yellowstone trip, has several cycling and hiking tours in California. All can be booked as private tours, with prices from $1,800 to $3,400 per person, plus fees.
Travelers can bike across the Mojave Desert and roam the nation’s largest national park outside Alaska on the Death Valley & Red Rock Mountain Bike tour, a five-day trip available this spring or in the fall. Or you can taste wine and enjoy scenic vineyards on a six-day Napa Valley Wine Country road bike trip, available monthly beginning in March.
Lake Tahoe fans can try a five-day mountain bike and multisport summer tour. The trip begins in Reno, Nev., visits the lake and nearby Sierra, with hiking, biking, swimming and kayaking on the schedule.
Take the family and rock out on a socially distanced adventure. But check cancellation policies before you book. Many tour groups have eased regulations, making it easier to get a refund or postpone a trip.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.