Visits swell at national parks; tourism increases as pandemic subsides
CASPER –– If you visited one of Wyoming’s national parks recently, you’re hardly alone.
This year, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks reported their highest first quarter visitation numbers since they started collecting such data roughly 30 years ago, a state report says.
Yellowstone recorded almost 108,000 visits and Grand Teton saw over 194,000. Those represent increases of 20.7 percent and 22.8 percent from 2020, respectively.
While it’s not surprising that more people visited the parks in 2021 because of “the trending down of the pandemic,” this year also recorded significant increases compared with 2019.
Until this year, 2019 had generated the highest first quarter visit numbers for the two parks. But compared with 2019, visits were up 14 percent and 17 percent this year for Yellowstone and Grand Teton, respectively.
To put that in perspective, visits only increased 9 percent for Yellowstone between the first quarters of 2018 and 2019. For Grand Teton, that figure stood at 5 percent.
“Park visitation increases as population increases each year, but not as much as this year,” said Dr. Wenlin Liu, the state’s chief economist.
As vaccinations rise and lockdowns are lifted, more people are getting out and exploring.
“This is not special for Yellowstone, it’s probably overall. People are doing more outdoor recreation,” Liu said.
Part of the increased travel and outdoor activity this year is due to the fact that people’s personal income increased from 2020 to 2021 because of stimulus checks and the lack of travel, Liu explained.
“There’s a lot of pent up demand from Americans spending the last year at home,” said Diane Shober, executive director for the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
Teton County, which is home to the two parks, recorded the second highest increase in taxable sales from quarter one of 2020 to 2021, at 32.2 percent. Liu mostly attributes the increase to tourism revenue, specifically from lodging and sales tax on entities like restaurants and gas.
“Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park are economic drivers throughout the Mountain West,” said Shober. “The tourism is such an important part of Wyoming’s economic health and well being,” she added.
Although an increase in visitors to Wyoming’s national parks has economic benefits, the rise in visitors has also led to overcrowding in the area.
In Teton County, the growing number of visitors has led to what Sheriff Matt Carr called the worst traffic he’s seen since he started with the county in 1999. What’s more, severe congestion doesn’t usually start until August.
“Angry August is where you’re just mad trying to get anywhere,” Carr previously told the Star-Tribune. “Angry August has started in June this year.”
To help remedy some of the overcrowding in outdoor spaces throughout the state, Gov. Mark Gordon recently apportioned $6.5 million of remaining CARES Act money toward expanding the capacity at Wyoming state parks and historic sites.
“This will expand opportunities for people to spend time outside in the state, boost tourism and address overcrowding caused by COVID-19,” a press release from the governor’s office stated.
That money was already being put to use over the Fourth of July weekend.
Glendo State Park, Buffalo Bill State Park and Medicine Lodge State Archaeological site had 135 new and temporary first come, first serve camping sites funded by the CARES money. Glendo had 30 of those sites, Buffalo Bill had 100 and Medicine Lodge offered five.
“Wyoming is all about outdoor recreation and tourism, and we are excited to be able to provide more services to resident and non resident visitors alike,” Dave Glenn, deputy director of Wyoming State Parks, said in a State Parks Facebook post. “If visitors stay just one more night, or eat one more cheeseburger, it’s a win for our state’s economy.”
The capacity of the parks is not the only thing being pushed by the influx of people. The state’s workforce is also struggling to keep up.
“The overriding message is: We need more workers,” Shober said.
While this year has been busier than ever for the state parks, that trend may not continue, especially as pandemic fatigue subsides.
“It’s hard to maintain the current high level,” Liu said.