Sleigh rides on the National Elk Refuge

The National Elk Refuge reported a 35 percent increase in ridership over the holiday period from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve.

More people stepped onto a jet plane at Jackson Hole Airport during December 2016 than in any other December in history.

During the holiday week, spanning from Christmas Eve to New Years Eve, some 8,291 passengers took a sleigh ride on the National Elk Refuge — a 35 percent rise in ridership over the same week a year ago.

On Snow King Mountain more skier and boarder tracks cut into the slopes than ever before — at least from paid lift riders — to close out the year.

Those are a few of the anecdotes about Jackson Hole tourism during the closing month of 2016, a year that by almost any metric goes down as the most bustling in history.

“There’s no question that it was the highest year on record for collections of the lodging tax,” said Jeff Golightly, the former president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce who left to take over as chief advisor for Snow King Mountain Resort owner and valley businessman Max Chapman.

“Skier visitation for December at Snow King was at a record, which of course we’re very excited about,” Golightly said. “Tons of white stuff falling from the sky helped a lot. We got a late start, but when the snow started falling the snow fell in earnest.”

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort isn’t releasing numbers, but by all accounts the resort’s December was exceptionally busy as well, and the business’ management confirmed that Dec. 28 went down as the busiest day in the 51-year history of the ski area.

Of course it didn’t take one of the snowiest early Decembers ever to make 2016 into the busiest on the books. The tourism season, propelled by the National Park Service’s centennial, started off with a bang.

May visitation to Grand Teton National Park, for instance, was double the level recorded just five years ago. And the estimated 758,000 people who ventured through Teton park gates in July made it the third-busiest month in history, trailing only August 1980 and July 1982. In the end the 3.27 million Grand Teton visitors in 2016 wound up as the most ever, surpassing the record-breaking mark from 2015 by nearly 4 percent.

Tourism gains were similar in Yellowstone National Park, which also set its all-time record with 4.26 million visits. Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a statement that “all options are on the table” as the park grapples with how to handle the swelling crowds of the future.

“During the busiest times of the year, visitation levels in the park have led to long lines, traffic congestion, diminishing visitor experiences and impacts on park resources,” Wenk said. “It’s our job to recognize the trend, how it’s affecting this magnificent park, understand our visitors, and what we may need to do to protect Yellowstone for future generations.”

The numbers were up even more starkly at Jackson Hole Airport. On the year, commercial plane ridership jumped a full 11 percent, topping 335,000, and every month of 2016 was busier than the same month from the previously record-breaking 2015.

The masses flocking to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife-run refuge north of Jackson for a horse-drawn tour of wintering elk during the holidays is yet another example of how busy 2016 was. More people than ever before, 890, stepped aboard a sleigh on Dec. 26. But the record didn’t hold long. It fell three days later on Dec. 29 with 924 riders, and then 961 sleigh passengers surpassed it again Dec. 31.

“Christmas week is historically our busiest of the season,” refuge spokeswoman Lori Iverson said in a statement. “We expected some increase this past holiday season, but instead we saw a tremendous jump in numbers.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, or @JHGNGenviro.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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