Little Molas Lake makes a great stop on a roadtrip through Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Things I Learned On A Roadtrip During the Pandemic

It was August of 2020, the world still battling the CoVid pandemic. After a few months of the desert heat of over 110 degrees, we felt the need to take a roadtrip. It wasn’t too hard to stay isolated in the spring when we could still go outside for short walks. But the summers in Phoenix are brutal; you can’t walk outside. And although we know how to stay cool, or at least safe in the heat, it’s no fun doing it for months.By the end of August we needed some outdoor time. Especially since we cancelled our planned vacation to the Pacific Northwest.

Our Canceled Summer Vacation

The previous year, before we ever heard of COVID, we planned our vacations. The main one was a flight to Portland in the heat of the summer. This was our yearly get-out-of-the-heat vacation, usually to the Pacific Northwest.

We would have flown American Airlines. For a while, it looked like things were getting back to normal, at least to the point when we could travel once again. So we waited to cancel the flight. When things started to open up, we were hopeful.

But as soon as Arizona opened up – not that it ever took quarantine very seriously – the number of COVID cases skyrocketed in the state. Around he same time, American Air announced that they would no longer block the middle seat; they would fill their planes.

Flying from a state with huge numbers to anywhere seemed irresponsible, besides worrying about our own safety. What if we caught the virus in the Phoenix airport and brought it to Portland?

We decided to do the responsible thing, and canceled our flight.

But sitting in the house, without being able to go outside at all, was not the right thing to do at this point, either. Four months of it was as much as we could handle.

If You Plan It Right, A Roadtrip Can Be Safe Even During a Pandemic

After taking a short day trip to Flagstaff, when I felt safer from COVID than I did while grocery shopping, we felt safe to take a longer roadtrip. And since we wanted to get away from the Phoenix heat, we planned a trip to Colorado. Flagstaff is cool enough, but Colorado is cooler – and farther, giving us the illusion of being on vacation.

The following a few ideas to stay safe and healthy on a roadtrip during a pandemic – and every time.

Maximizing Outdoor Time

When we travel, we usually spend most four time outdoors anyway, but this time we planned to do it even more. It’s easier to social distance on a trail – especially on a less traveled trail.

Picking Less Popular Areas

At least we tried. I’m not sure we succeeded this time, with destinations like Ouray and Silverton. We thought both towns were off the beaten path destinations in Colorado; they had been in earlier years. Things change though, destinations’ popularity changes every year.

But since we planned on spending most of our time outdoors, away from people, that wasn’t too difficult, no matter where we went.

Being Prepared – Packing Right

While in a normal year a roadtrip for us meant packing a change of clothes or two, grabbing the toiletries and drive, now we took planning very seriously.

Since CoVid started I made multiple cotton face masks for everyone in the family; now I made a few more – with and without built-in filters. I took the time to adjust them to fit better, cleaned them all, and packed them.

I packed enough hand sanitizers – both store-bought and home-made – to last us the whole trip. Poured them in individual-size reusable (environmental-friendly) bottles, added one to everyone’s backpack, and kept the larger bottle for our main pack.

I made a few essential-oil-based antiviral and antibacterial roll-ons and disinfectants. I made the 5-thieves-oil disinfectant and poured it in a spray bottle. Though I absolutely believe in it (even if the original story of how medieval spice merchants turned thieves protected themselves from the plague with it is a myth) I still packed hydrogen peroxide and alcohol, too. Just in case. We used these to wipe down surfaces we touched. Disinfectant wipes work just as well, but I always try to choose more environmental-friendly options.

I felt I was becoming a true germaphobe. On a normal year, I am as far from it as humanly possible. But this was not a normal year.

I also packed enough food and drink for the trip, so we wouldn’t have to stop at restaurants or grocery stores on the way. This was as far from our norm as we ever got. Part of the reason we usually leave the house, even for the shortest road trip, is to eat out, try different restaurants.

Not this time. We had three coolers filled with food and drinks. We would be self-sustained on the road.

Picking A Hotel

While camping is the best way to maximize social distancing, ultimately we opted to stay in a hotel. But first, I checked their new policies, and picked one that listed clear ones they followed.

Few of them stayed open during that time, but the ones that did, required everyone to wear masks, they sanitize everything often, and they had clear guidelines about using the elevators (only ride it with people in your own party), and didn’t offer cleaning services if the same guests stayed more than one night.

Besides being a good policy to minimize interactions during a pandemic, I always liked this policy for environmental reasons. In normal years, when we stay in a hotel multiple nights, I put the do not disturb on the door, so we have no room cleaning for the days we spend there. We especially don’t need new sheets every day, or even new towels.

In fact, environmentally friendly hotels ask if you need towels and sheets replaced. If you don’t ask them to replace them, they leave them. It does make an impact.

They also had posted clear steps they follow to clean and disinfect the rooms between guests. I still sanitized every surface we might touch – usually before touching it. I felt I was back on being a mom with toddlers. But we never got sick.

The Trip From Phoenix to Durango

It’s a long road to drive in one stretch, but that’s what we did. We only stopped in Flagstaff for gas, then drove into the road to Sunset Crater and stopped in a deserted area to stretch and have a picnic lunch.

How we used to get gas to stay safe

While up until the pandemic hit we never thought about our gas-buying practices – pull up, get gas, pay and go – now this simple act became a production. Before even getting out of the car, we used hand sanitizer and put on a facemark. After getting gas, before touching anything else, we used hand sanitizer again, wiped down the door handle we touched and the car keys, before cleaning our hands, and taking off the mask. Yeah, I know; a lot of extra steps. I did feel we were going overboard. But it worked for us.

On the Road

From Flagstaff to Durango we had to drive through the Navajo Nation’s land. They were in full lockdown because of CoVid, so we couldn’t stop at all. Instead, we enjoyed the gorgeous scenery of the Painted Desert as we drove through it.

Driving through the Painted Desert
Driving through the Painted Desert

This is one of my favorite areas of the Southwest; I love the colors and shapes of the surrounding rocks. As we left the volcanic fields of Flagstaff behind, all the colors of the rainbow showed up on the surrounding rock formations.

From greys, yellows and oranges, to purples and reds, you’ll find every shade here, sometimes lined up on the same rock. As if an artist decided to use all of her palette to paint this area devoid of trees and vegetation.

As much as I enjoy a roadtrip through this area, I wouldn’t be able to live there. I’d love to wake up to the views, but then reality would sink in: I have no water, no shade, no vegetation.

And yet, people live here. This is part of Dinétah, the Navajo Nation’s land. You won’t see many settlements while driving through, but an occasional dirt road leads out into the distance. Sometimes, it stops close enough for you to see a few homes scattered through the desert, with some low junipers in the vicinity. But more often than not, you don’t see where the road ends. I only suspect that at least one Navajo hogan stands at the end of it.

The area is always desolate, but now it was more so than ever. We didn’t see any of the usual Navajo-driven trucks on the road, the convenience stores by gas stations were all closed. Even then road-side fast-food places were closed. We only encountered a few cars passing through.


The hotel in Durango did take all the safety precautions I expected. Besides, we didn’t interact with anyone, even though one of the nights it was fully booked. We did see other guests, but never came in close contact with anyone. Though we rode the elevator the first day, most of the time we took the stairs, and we were always alone in the stairway. I felt safer there from germs than I do when I go shopping to Costco.

Still, I disinfected and wiped down the door handle before we touched it to enter the room, and did the same with all the inside door handles, light switches, tv remote (even though we didn’t watch tv), and everything we touched – even the handles for the window shades. Took the bed spread off and put it in the closet, then we all washed our hands before touching anything. It all took a few extra minutes, but I felt safer with these precautions.

We also decided to eat out, after all. Not exactly eat out, though, but ordered food for pick-up at one of the local restaurants. We did this every night; we ate from our own packed food all day, but for dinner, we ordered pick-up from different places. So we did feel a bit like we were on vacation.

The Animas River Trail in Durango by our hotel.
Sunset on the Animas River Trail by the hotel.

The Animas River Trail ran by the hotel, and every day we took a walk. The learned to appreciate the simple things like being able to walk outside without feeling like we were in an oven. We met people on the trail; we wore our face-masks.

From Durango to Ouray

Th next day, we spent most of our time on the roadtrip between Durango and Ouray.

View from the San Juan Skyway between Durango and Silverton
We stopped at a viewpoint.

After stopping at a few viewpoints, we hiked around Andrews Lake, where the only people we saw were fishing, far from the trail.

Andrews Lake
Andrews Lake

Later on, we also stopped at Little Molas Lake, a tiny lake in a quiet area off a dirt road.

Little Molas Lake
Little Molas Lake

Silverton, the tiny picturesque town in a valley, was busier than we’ve ever seen it. So, instead of spending time in town, we drove out to the old mines and ghost town at the Animas Forks. Before leaving, we stopped at the old train depot, and walked to the river, where we spent some time alone, enjoying the surroundings.

By the Animas River in Silverton
Animas River in Silverton

Continuing our roadtrip to Ouray, we drove through a stretch of the road nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway. Along the way, we stopped at Ironton ghost town, and walked around a lake near the road.

The trail along the lake by the Million Dollar Highway, with the view of Red Mountain.
View of the Red Mountain from the trail bu the lake

At the end of the Million Dollar Highway, Ouray is one of the better-known Colorado mountain towns. This meant it was much busier than Silverton.

Watching vacationing people laughing, sitting at restaurants, walking in and out of little tourist shops, even a large group at a wedding party, I had this thought that CoVid was only in my mind, everything was back to the old normal. A weird feeling, and very good feeling – until I realized that it was an illusion, we were still in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetime. Although the masks required signs were posted on every corner, only saw a handful of people wearing them.

Since none of us wanted to join the vacationing crowd, we didn’t stop in town. But we did find one of our old favorite hikes, and no one was in the parking lot at the trailhead. I wish I could say we hiked it, but at that elevation, I didn’t have the energy to go up on the vertical climb.

After our last night in Durango, we decided to return to Phoenix on a different route.

Alternate Roadtrip Route: Durango to Phoenix

We drove to Aztec Ruins, less than an hour from Durango. Though we visited the site often, we always like to stop here. Besides having a chance to walk through ancient ruins, we usually don’t share it with many visitors.

We stopped at Aztec Ruins National Monument and walked among the ancient buildings.

This time it was no exception; we only met three other groups – a family, an older couple, and a single person – and, since all the trails are visible from the others, social distancing was easy. The Visitor Center, gift shop and museum were closed, so we just got right on the trail and enjoyed an hour or two among the ruins.

Past Aztec, we were back on the Navajo Nation’s land, and, like on the way out, we didn’t stop. But by the time we got to Petrified Forest, we needed to get out of the car.

So we took the side-trip through the park.

Being so out of the way, we rarely visit Petrified Forest National Park, and even then, not in the summer. But there aren’t many better areas to be away from people than here this time of the year. However, this time other road trippers were obviously thinking along the same lines, since we saw more visitors to this park than I remembered. However, since it’s such a vast and empty high desert area, there was room for everyone, without any close contact.

Back to Phoenix

We briefly stopped in Flagstaff, then headed home, to our own outdoors oven of over 110 degrees. We felt so good about our trip, we enjoyed it while staying away from others, that we were ready to plan another one.

Was It Worth It?

During the worst pandemic of our lives, when we couldn’t fly to a vacation destination, a road trip to outdoors areas was a success. Most people felt the same way though, which made some of the better-known areas busy. Still, outdoors it’s always less of a chance to catch airborne germs than in enclosed spaces. Besides, you can find plenty of areas to explore in any outdoors destinations, including National Parks.

A roadtrip through desolate areas was a safe alternative to other types of travel.

A roadtrip from Phoenix to Ouray - the new way to travel

Read about other road trips:

A Roadtrip through the Four Corners

The Ultimate Yucatan Roadtrip

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