National parks reopen

Yellowstone National Park visitors wait to see the Old Faithful geyser Monday, May 18. The park reported later that week that it was experiencing much less visitation than is normal in mid-May. 

Famous grizzly bears and geysers are certainly concentrating crowds, but entrance gate data indicates relatively open roads and a dearth of people in the first few opening days for northwest Wyoming’s national parks.

In Yellowstone National Park, only two of five gates were open during the first three days the public was admitted to the park. (The North Entrance has since opened but only for those commuting through the park to Cooke City, Montana.) A spotlight on Yellowstone’s reopening — one that garnered international headlines — has given the impression that it was bustling from the get-go. But taken as a whole, that’s not the case.

“It is estimated over the past three days, there is less than 20% of the normal traffic volume in the park compared to when all five entrances are open at this time of year,” Yellowstone officials announced in a press release late last week.

Typically, the west, north and northwest gates attract 70% of the visitation into Yellowstone, and traffic through Wyoming’s two gates via Cody and Jackson Hole account for the rest. Despite fears that the Montana closures would route more traffic through the south and east gates, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

From May 18 to May 20, Yellowstone gate attendants reported 90% of the normal traffic through the East Entrance atop Sylvan Pass.

Yellowstone’s South Entrance, accessed via Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, reported just 60% of normal traffic volume in those first three days.

The south gate admitted 910 vehicles on May 18, 2019, but that car count sagged to just 542 vehicles — a 40% reduction — the same day this year after the park opened for the season at noon. May 19 and 20 were similarly slow, attracting 71% and 45% of traffic volume for those days in 2019, respectively.

Grand Teton officials were not available Monday for an interview since Memorial Day is a federal holiday. They have not yet released equivalent daily data.

The North Park Road between Pilgrim Creek and Colter Bay was buzzing with activity throughout the long weekend, eyewitnesses reported, largely as a result of an abundance of grizzly bears out and about — including grizzly 399, a well-known sow who’s toting a rare four-cub litter this year.

Going into the weekend, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly forecasted traffic and visitation levels to grow by Memorial Day and pick up steam in June.

“Overall, the first three days of operations have gone smoothly, especially with the very reduced amount of visitation in the park,” Sholly said in a statement. “I expect these numbers to go up significantly in the next few weeks.”

National parkgoers who are targeting Yellowstone right now are enjoying skinny spring crowds not seen in generations. About 13,000 people venture into Yellowstone during a typical May day, based on entrance gate data averaged over one recent five-year period. It requires scrolling down about four decades in the park’s database, to 1979 and ’80, to find visitation numbers that look more like the first few days of spring 2020.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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