wYOMING -- Visitation to Wyoming’s state parks dipped slightly in 2021, but the system’s managers — heeding a five-year trend — are still preparing for high traffic as the summer season approaches.
Wyoming’s 12 state parks saw 5.4 million visits in 2021, according to department visitation reports. That’s a 4-percent decrease from 2020’s record-breaking 5.6 million, but still 26-percent above the five-year average of 4.3 million.
“What we’re seeing for industry trends suggests that we’re going to see another similar year in 2022,” State Parks & Outdoor Recreation Office Deputy Director Nick Neylon said. “We’re expecting to be in that exact same range.”
Neylon checked summer reservations in early May for the popular Curt Gowdy State Park, he said, “and it’s like 97-percent full for the summer, it’s crazy … Buffalo Bill [State Park] will be the same way.”
To brace for the crowds, the state agency is planning to make permanent some capacity-expansion projects and has tweaked policies in an effort to reduce no-show reservations and ensure users can find spots to pop tents.
Visitation to Wyoming’s state parks soared in 2020, a trend many attributed to a confluence of COVID-19 travel patterns and the growing popularity of outdoor recreation.
Visitation slowed at some of the hardest-hit pandemic destinations last year, but numbers still reflect a growing strain on the system. With 394,000 visits in 2021, Boysen State Park near Shoshoni saw a 5-percent decrease from 2020, for example, but a 125-percent increase over the five-year average.
Not all parks followed this trend. The state’s most visited park, Hot Springs in Thermopolis, saw 1.76 million visitors, down 7 percent from 2020 as well as 7-percent below the five-year average.
The state has emphasized the value of outdoor recreation and tourism as mechanisms to diversify the economy. In a May 10 meeting, Darin Westby, who directs the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, told the Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources committee state parks’ economic impact is growing.
“The park side is coming in just about double what we were back in 2009,” Westby said. Data from 2019, he said, showed “$210 million of direct economic impact, which is pretty significant.”
Since 2019, he noted, “we’ve bumped up that visitation almost another million. So … our impact is a lot more than $210 million.”
In the same meeting, Deputy Director of Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites, and Trails Dave Glenn pointed to how investment in outdoor recreation at state parks has drawn crowds. “In 2006 we started building trails at Curt Gowdy State Park,” Glenn said. “Our visitation was roughly 50,000 people during that time. Last year, our visitation was 518,000 people, and roughly 60% of those people were coming to Curt Gowdy for the use of the trails.”
Some growing pains — such as packed campgrounds and strains on staff — have accompanied the swift rise in visitation.
State Parks used federal CARES dollars to add temporary campsites in parks like Buffalo Bill, Boysen, Glendo and Keyhole last year. “We’ve got permission to go ahead and make those permanent, and that will help at those places,” Neylon said.
But harder-hit places, Neylon said, need careful consideration. “Curt Gowdy is an issue,” he said. “It’s over-loved. And we’re looking at ways to potentially expand the park.”
Wyoming has $14 million in Office of Tourism and federal pandemic-relief funds to use for outdoor recreation projects. The state will use some of the funds to make the temporary sights permanent, Neylon said, and is determining how to allocate the rest.
State Parks has also tweaked its reservation systems to reduce the number of no-shows, which was leaving campsites unavailable but unused.
“That’s a big problem, something we get a lot of complaints about,” Neylon said.
In 2021 the department eliminated a cancellation fee as a way to encourage people to actually cancel their reservation so the site can be released for other users. The department also implemented a policy to limit and eventually eliminate the ability of repeated no-shows to make reservations, Neylon said. “So we’re going to continue to enforce that strongly.”
For the coming summer, Neylon said, users should not expect any major changes.
“Our customers have been through enough changes with the reservation system over the last couple of years, and we made a conscious effort to not implement any other big changes this year just to give everybody a breather and allow them to enjoy the summer without having to worry about adapting to our system,” he said.
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