Bridger-Teton National Forest camping

With uninterrupted views of the Teton Range, campers pack together on a bench above the Triangle X Ranch in July 2020, at the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Toppings Lake dispersed camping area. Traffic counters at Shadow Mountain and this area recorded 300 to 400 vehicles each day, and come 2021 there could be an added wave of visitors from people who didn’t reserve a campsite ahead of time in Grand Teton National Park.

Dozens if not hundreds of daily campers who didn’t book a Grand Teton National Park site six months in advance are going to be deflected elsewhere to pitch a tent come summer 2021.

Those visitors who didn’t plan ahead and reserve a campsite electronically are logically going to look nearby, and what they’re going to find is the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

“I think the effect on us, one thing is that the visitors are going to be calling,” Bridger-Teton wilderness and recreation specialist Linda Merigliano told the News&Guide. “We’re going to be getting a heck of a lot more phone calls. They’ll ask if they can reserve a site on the forest, and we don’t have a reservation system.”

In addition to the answer being no, often the callers will be told there’s slim pickings for camping anywhere north of Jackson — especially if they’re ringing later in the day.

“The stuff north of Jackson tends to fill in the height of the summer usually by 9 a.m.,” Merigliano said. “For people who are driving later in the day, it’s better if they stop and choose a campsite before they get to Jackson.”

Depending on where they’re coming from, that means stopping at places like the Hoback or Snake River canyons or the opposite side of Togwotee Pass. When that didn’t happen during the COVID-19-influenced summer of 2020, the outcome frequently was driving through already filled dispersed forest camping zones and campgrounds — and then camping illegally out of desperation. There are only 260 road-accessed and authorized forest camp sites north of Jackson on the Bridger-Teton, a number that’s proving inadequate for the demand of the 21st Century.

Grand Teton National Park’s change to reservation-only camping has potential to compound this situation. Having a spot reserved six months in advance will be the only option for those who hope to camp at any of the 800-plus developed sites in Grand Teton and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. After decades of functioning as first-come, first-served, the Gros Ventre campground’s 300 sites, Colter Bay campground’s 346 sites, Signal Mountain campground’s 81 sites, Lizard Creek campground’s 60 sites and Jenny Lake campground’s 52 sites are all transitioning to reservation only — and they’re available six months ahead of time, starting on Jan. 26. The Headwaters Campground at Flagg Ranch is making the same transition, although half of its sites were already reservable ahead of time.

Teton Park spokeswoman Denise Germann’s take is that the change will not exacerbate the camping crisis on neighboring federal lands.

“In the heat of the summer, our campgrounds were full by noon,” Germann said. “So individuals [who came after noon] would find another camping location last year or the year before. I don’t see how it’s any different, it’s not bringing any more people.”

But there will be new scenarios that will lead to campers being deflected to the forest. An untold percent of tourists hoping to camp at Grand Teton’s 800-plus sites will be caught off guard by the change to reservation-only, despite the park’s best efforts to notify them. There will also be new vacancies at park campgrounds, created by no-shows.

Regardless of what’s causing added pressure, the Bridger-Teton is looking to make adjustments for its future realities. Staff held an all-day meeting at the end of last summer season to brainstorm a response plan.

“We are not thinking that is just a pandemic blip,” Merigliano said. “We are not looking at going to a reservation system for next summer, but we are looking at doing a better job of letting people know when places are full.”

Besides new and frequently updated message boards near camping entrances, there will be new permanent vault toilets at Shadow Mountain and the Toppings Lake areas. Donations from the Friends of the Bridger-Teton made those structures a reality, and their addition will cut down on people pooping in the woods. Further out, the forest is looking to designate Shadow Mountain as a paid campground and add developed sites to the Curtis Canyon Campground. A proposal on that might come out this winter, but any construction that might result would not be completed in time for summer 2021, Mergilano said.

Shorter-term, the landing pads for tent-packing roadtrippers with nowhere else to go are going to be parts of the Bridger-Teton that were not originally intended for camping, like the snowmobilers’ parking lot on Togwotee Pass and the gravel pit near Spread Creek. An impediment to directing the masses to those spots has been messaging.

“If you have any ideas, we’re looking for better names for those spots,” Merigliano said. “It’s kind of hard to say, ‘Go to the gravel pit.’ ”

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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