Cabin fever is pushing people toward Jackson and its beloved national parks.
According to National Park Service data, Grand Teton National Park saw its busiest December in over two decades. Visitor numbers increased 32%, which amounts to nearly 15,000 more visits. Yellowstone National Park also experienced its highest visitor numbers since 1994.
“We have had better snow than a lot of the Rocky Mountain West,” said Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “And while operations like resorts and restaurants are definitely restricted, places like Grand Teton National Park are very accessible.”
Though it’s likely some of the increased visitation is coming from locals, out-of-towners may be partly responsible. Lodging occupancy in Jackson Hole increased around 14% during December, Olson said. The increases started around Thanksgiving, coinciding with the winter holiday season.
But the visitors who are coming aren’t the usual ski-loving crowd. Jackson Hole has been seeing an increase in first-time visitors, non-skiers, and drive-in visitors, Olson added. Those who chose to fly have been coming increasingly from the Southeast.
“We have a high visitation from Florida, Georgia and Texas — much higher numbers through the airport from those destinations than we would typically see in the middle of winter,” Olson said. “And they’re not skiing; they’re doing other things.”
The surge in winter visits at the national park has translated into myriad activities, including snowshoeing, skiing, skate skiing and cross-country skiing, Grand Teton National Park Public Affairs Officer Denise Germann said. To ensure the health and safety of the visitors, the park has been vigilant about reminding people to follow COVID-19 preventive measures, including social distancing.
“We do encourage people who want to ski along Teton Park Road to consider going to the north side by Signal Mountain and skiing from there,” Germann said. “The Taggart parking lot is where a lot of people park their car, but we want to try and help spread our visitors.”
Recently the Taggart parking lot gate on Teton Park Road was moved farther north to facilitate snowplowing operations. The move allows more daytime parking along the road, which has been filling up — another sign of increasing visitors.
While the winter season brought spikes in activity at the national parks, the pandemic still affected the year overall. Grand Teton National Park saw 3% fewer recreational visits this year than in the previous year, and Yellowstone’s number of recreational visits declined 5% from 2019, according to a press release.
However, the growth in winter tourism has not been letting up. Lodging occupancy levels in January are around 70%, Olson said, although official figures are not yet determined. And Jackson businesses are prepared to take on the travelers.
“Our businesses have gotten into a stride of being able to provide their products where they have protocols in place to make sure visitors are wearing masks, spacing, hand-washing — all the pieces that we know make a difference,” Olson said.
As the number of visitors exploring the Teton landscape grows, the level of responsibility to appropriately conduct activities in the park grows as well, particularly during times of heavy snowfall.
“We’ve got people who have never taken up winter activities, and then some folks that come out regularly,” Germann said. “Either way, we want people to recreate responsibly, and hope they match their experience and skills with the activity they do.”