Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, right, speaks to the press Friday during a visit from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, left, to promote infrastructure improvements in national parks. Sholly also announced Friday that Yellowstone experienced record visitation of more than 1 million people in July.

For the first time in its 149-year history, Yellowstone National Park has surpassed the threshold of a million visitors in a month.

Grand Teton National Park isn’t into seven-figure-visitor territory yet. But July 2021 still marked Grand Teton’s busiest month in the park’s 92-year history.

“We had about 1,080,000 visitors in July,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said at a Friday press conference near the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone. “Record visitation.”

Sholly, who was introducing U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, said park managers are faced with balancing access, visitor enjoyment and protection of resources, which might be strained by the seasonal influx of humans.

“Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres,” he said, adding that “1,067 acres are the roads. So if you’re traveling, it’s hard to understand that we’ve got a large problem in many areas, [but] in a very small percentage of this park.”

Based on vehicles passing through entry gates, the neighboring Teton Park saw an estimated 827,777 visitors in July. That’s a 9.7% jump in numbers over the coronavirus-influenced month of July 2020 and a 6% bump over the estimate from July of 2019.

“Last month was the single busiest month we’ve ever had,” Teton Park Chief of Staff Jeremy Barnum told the Jackson Hole Daily.

Previously, July 2018 was the busiest month in Grand Teton Park history. July 2021’s crowds topped the old high mark by 4%.

Yellowstone set its own single-month record by an even greater margin in July: 8%.

But July was no outlier in 2021, a year that’s attracting unprecedented droves of people to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other wild, open spaces throughout the American West.

Grand Teton National Park has broken its monthly visitation record for five straight months, from March through July. Yellowstone has done the same.

The national parks’ gateway communities, simultaneously experiencing housing crises and workforce shortages, have struggled to accommodate the record crowds. Traffic congestion is worse than ever, it’s increasingly difficult to get a bite to eat at restaurants that have had to cut hours and days of service, and campgrounds and dispersed camping zones nearest the parks have filled up routinely for months.

Based on the number of impermanent cell phones being detected, far more visitors are passing through Jackson than the national parks on any given day. A location analytics service that the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board subscribes to, Placer.ai, estimates that there were an average of 52,159 daily tourists in town during the month of July. That number represents a 28% increase over the average daily crowd from the previous five years.

So far, Yellowstone and Grand Teton have not imposed limits that cap the number of visitors entering their borders. Other parks experiencing surges in tourism, like Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, have adopted timed entry permit reservation systems to curb the crush of people.

While Northwest Wyoming’s parks aren’t yet there, they are using strategies to deflect visitors away from areas where parking has been exhausted. That’s true at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful area and at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve in Grand Teton.

Social scientists are also digging in to study visitors and their experiences in the national parks. Yellowstone started some of that research in 2016. Grand Teton’s studies of its tourists and how they move through the park are ongoing, happening this summer at places like Bradley and Taggart lakes and Lupine Meadows Trailhead.

“It’s not just increased visitation, it’s how visitation has changed,” Teton Park’s Barnum said. “The kinds of visitors, the kinds of things they’re doing, the way they’re visiting the park — that’s all shifted.”

Not only are there more tourists than ever before, but the average visitor is much more apt to get on their feet and experience the parks beyond hitting the usual scenic overlooks and developed areas.

“All the trail use numbers, those increases are much larger than the overall visitation numbers,” Barnum said.

Visitors, in turn, are getting themselves into more trouble. Emergency medical services calls in Teton Park during 2021 are up 62% over the 5-year average.

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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