Seth Furman had plenty of company, par for the course these days, when he hoofed it up the switchbacks above Lupine Meadows trailhead Thursday on his way to the shores of picturesque Delta Lake.
There were a few dozen humans in Glacier Gulch joining the Atlanta visitor taking his first vacation since the pandemic set in. There were also, illegally, two dogs. A black doodle-looking pooch, accompanied by a brazen owner, was rolling in the snow alongside the shoreline and swimming in Delta Lake’s emerald waters. Later, hiking down, another little dog was discreetly concealed in a hiker’s backpack.
“We knew that dogs weren’t supposed to be there,” Furman said of the sightings. “We knew it wasn’t right.”
Grand Teton National Park rangers never received the report of the Delta Lake dogs, spokeswoman Denise Germann said, though they did field a report of an off-leash pup along the Snake River. Had they heard about the illicit 9-mile-long, 2,300-vertical-foot dog walks in the Tetons, there’s a good likelihood that they would have been busy responding to something else. The park’s seasonal ranger corps is down significantly this summer, due to housing-related restrictions meant to guard staff against the spread of COVID-19.
The pandemic’s effects on park staffing has not had the same impact on visitation. The summer tourism season is in full swing in Jackson Hole, and by some measures the overall volume of people flowing through the valley that is touching on levels from recent record-setting summers.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest is experiencing its own crush.
“We are experiencing a huge increase in dispersed recreation — camping, trail and river use,” forest spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said in an email.
On Saturday, she said, a forest staffer recorded 248 hikers headed to the Ski Lake area on Teton Pass, a count that was about double that from the 4th of July in 2019.
That morning, longtime Jackson resident Benj Sinclair witnessed the ugly side of the bustling Bridger-Teton while out on his first day volunteering with the national forest. Accompanying a patroller on Shadow Mountain, he encountered the next-day aftermath of a mountaintop party. People were nowhere to be seen, but accompanying 21 vacant tents were full trash bags, garbage strewn along the ground, an open whiskey bottle and plenty of easily accessible food for opportunistic bears to take advantage of.
“The disturbing thing was all the coolers — a lot of coolers,” Sinclair said. “It was a shocker, it really was. And really the issue is the attractant for bears. Most bears know to stay away from a place like Shadow Mountain, but not all of them.”
For a bear, getting into a haul of garbage or human food can be a death sentence because it leads to habituation and forms undesirable, almost irreversible habits that often lead to being trapped and euthanized.
Of course, not all tourists have been behaving badly.
That throngs of folks have ventured to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem amid a global pandemic have been welcomed by Jackson Hole businesses, who were in a world of financial hurt when the tourism spigot shut off in the spring. Few people forecasted such a strong rebound, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce President Anna Olson said.
“Overall, people are pleased — very pleased — to see this sharp bounce back,” Olson said.
Northwest Wyoming’s national parks have not yet released entrance gate data for June or for the 4th of July weekend, which makes it hard to use that historic barometer of visitation to the valley. That early July data won’t be out until sometime in early August — after a full month of gate counts have trickled in and been analyzed.
But by another measure, there are similar numbers of people seeking out Northwest Wyoming in 2020 compared to other recent summers, which have attracted record throngs of tourists from a historical perspective.
The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board has begun using an analytics firm, Placer.ai, that uses cell phone data to estimate human traffic moving through the valley. Numbers are available with only a 3- or 4-day lag, and they’re easily comparable to three prior years of records that the analytics firm had on file.
On most late June and early July days, the cell data suggests tourism has been running about 10 to 12% below levels from the last few years, according to Brian Modena, marketing subcommittee chairman on the board.
But the 2020 line on the chart has been trending up and up and up.
The most recent dump of cell data, which captured the front end of the July 4 holiday weekend, shows that 40,000 tourists were traveling through the town of Jackson limits daily. (The analytics firm filters out resident and seasonal employee cell phones, based on their daily patterns.) That early July volume, which about quadruples the number of year-round residents, lags somewhat significantly behind levels from 2018 and 2019 — by approximately 10,000 people. But it’s also in line with numbers from as recently as 2017, the year of the Great American Eclipse and a big tourism year.
Jackson Hole businesses are relishing the faster-than-expected return of the crowds, which benefit their bottom lines. But they’re also cautious and well aware of the uncertainty that the crowds continue, especially with COVID-19 spreading at unprecedented rates domestically.
“There’s certainly a very heightened awareness of the importance of doing business the right way,” Olson said, “because things can change so quickly.”
To combat against spread of the novel coronavirus locally, the Jackson Town Council last week signed off on an emergency order mandating that people wear face coverings when they are inside or waiting to enter a business, including health care providers, and when riding in public buses or taxis.
The order, broadcast on portable message signs along the entrances into town, is having an obvious effect. Moseying the Town Square on Monday night, Chris, Tanya and Carsten Logan noted that there was more mask use in Jackson Hole than anywhere else along their multi-day drive from Edmond, Oklahoma.
“There are more people wearing them here than anywhere else we were,” Chris Logan said. “Kansas: nobody. Colorado: not really. Oklahoma: no.”
The family made the decision to come in a single day, after a trip to Miami was called off because of the difficulty in flying there and the beaches were all closed. Their itinerary was open-ended, but they were eyeing Glacier and Zion national parks on the meandering drive back home.
Marin County, California, residents Suzanna Dimas and Noel Stenberg had a very different story explaining their presence in the Town Square that evening. They were planning the trip in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and assumed that by now things would be “fine.”
“By July, we thought this wouldn’t be a thing,” Stenberg said.
Dimas, a San Francisco Bay area native, was seeing Wyoming for the first time, and she was blown away by the scenery and the slower pace of life in a less people-packed place.
“I’m telling you, I feel like leaving California,” she said. “We looked it up — 39 million people.”
Wyoming’s relative emptiness, she said, was nice.
Dimas apparently has plenty of company in her inkling to relocate. Wyoming Chief Economist Wenlin Liu reported this week that single-family home prices in the Equality State grew 9.9% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 2019, the rise an indication of heightened demand. Only other sparsely populated Northern Rocky states — Idaho (12.6%) and Montana (10.2%) — saw greater gains in housing pricing.
“The tight supply of affordable homes, historically low mortgage rate, and concerns of the pandemic in large metro areas of the country were reasons behind the surge,” Liu said in a statement.