Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park hasn’t yet wrapped up its monthlong May visitation estimates, but the flagship park did publish figures about how many vehicles passed through its entry gates over Memorial Day weekend. Traffic shot up an astounding 50% compared to the same holiday weekend in 2019 — the most recent comparable year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While those numbers are eye-opening, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly has been predicting for months an upswing in visitors.

“This will be a record year,” Yellowstone’s superintendent said in May during the Charture Institute’s tourism-themed 22 in 21 conference.

Sholly’s best guess is that between 4.5 million and 4.7 million visitors will come to Yellowstone in 2021, which would be a 12% to 17% bump. Visitation estimates are derived from raw traffic counts, using an algorithm that factors the average number of people per vehicle.

Over the Friday-to-Monday holiday weekend, Yellowstone saw 43,416 vehicles pass through its five entrance stations. That’s up from 28,890 vehicles over the same holiday weekend in 2019. Traffic through the South Gate also surged. Some 7,470 motorists that weekend cruised by the entrance station that overlooks the Upper Snake River, up from 5,010 during the 2019 Memorial Day weekend — a 49% jump.

The data aligns with the record-smashing April in Yellowstone: An estimated 67,500 people came to the park to recreate, a 40% increase over April 2019.

Off-the-charts visitor numbers are also being detected in the town of Jackson, where the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board has contracted with an analytics firm called Placer.ai to estimate people in town based on numbers of cellphones detected in the area daily.

“Leading up to Memorial weekend, it just kind of blasted off,” said Brian Modena, who monitors the data as part of his role on the board.

Tourist volumes in town the last week of May were akin to crowds more typical of mid- or late June, going by the cellphone data estimates.

On Memorial Day, for example, there were nearly 34,000 visitors estimated within town limits. That’s a 60% increase over the five-year average for May 31. But it’s not a one-day blip. Starting on the Thursday before Memorial Day, tourism in town surged 50% above the five-year average for six consecutive days.

Neither Yellowstone nor Grand Teton National Park have posted their full May statistics on the National Park Service’s portal for visitation, irma.NPS.gov. When the numbers do go up later this month, it’s all but assured they’ll show a new record for May tourism.

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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