POWELL — Fewer people entered Yellowstone National Park through the East Gate over the Independence Day holiday, but local leaders say it continues to be a strong year for tourism in Park County.
A total of 46,845 vehicles entered Yellowstone over the long weekend, according to numbers released by park officials, which was an increase of 3,346 vehicles over the equivalent pre-pandemic time period in 2019.
However, about 147 fewer vehicles (5,366) entered through the East Gate and the number of vehicles entering through the Northeast Gate fell from 3,123 in 2019 to 2,577 this year.
Cody Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tina Hoebelheinrich said the drop may simply be a “map” issue.
“They check visitation on the way in, but not on the way out,” Hoebelheinrich said, suggesting visitors may be coming in one of the other gates but leaving through Cody.
“We’re having a great year so far,” she said.
Ryan Hauck, executive director of the Park County Travel Council, points to increased lodging tax collection as an indication of increased visitation.
The county took in about $195,000 last month, up over the same period in 2019.
“We are seeing record numbers of visitors,” Hauck said.
He expects 2022 to be an even bigger year as international travel promises to get back to pre-pandemic numbers.
“We’re going to have a massive influx of foreign visitors,” he said.
Hauck joined the Travel Council in May to replace long-time director Claudia Wade, who retired at the end of June. He moved here from Salt Lake City, but was born and raised in Wyoming and has been selling visitation to Yellowstone for years.
“Cody is a very welcoming community,” Hauck said of feedback from visitors. “People are happy; kudos to our community.”
One problem this year is the lack of international workers coming to the area to work during the summer season. About 30% of the service industry workforce in Cody is typically comprised of international employees, Hauck said, and “they weren’t able to travel due to the pandemic.”
That’s contributed to a shortage of workers in the area.
Meanwhile, Yellowstone is having its busiest year to date, according to available data.
The park recorded over 658,000 visits from January through May, the most in that time frame since 594,000 visits were recorded in 2016; that year ended with more than 4.25 million visits being logged.
However, June attendance was down 9.72% from 2020, when the park opened in late May due to the COVID-19 pandemic precautions.
Yellowstone posted its second-busiest August and busiest September and October on record in 2020. It also posted a record number of visitors in May, with 483,159 visits; an 11% increase from May 2019.
While the park records visits, it does not differentiate between the number of visits and repeat visits. Most park camping and lodging is reserved and full, according to a recent press release.
“No camping or overnight vehicle parking is allowed in pullouts, parking areas, picnic grounds or any place other than a designated campground. If you don’t have a reservation, the nearest campsite or hotel room may be hours away,” said Morgan Warthin, public affairs specialist.
Expect crowds, traffic and delays, the park warns of the summer busy season.
“Traffic and wildlife along and on roads, and road construction often make drive times longer than expected. Parking areas and popular destinations will be congested,” she said.
Park Superintendent Cam Sholly has repeatedly predicted a record year for the park. While he’s pleased with the popularity of the park, he is also concerned about visitor satisfaction and the effects of record numbers of visitors on infrastructure and landscape.
“It’s incredibly important for us to continue to work together to develop viable strategies to manage increasing visitation in this park,” he said.
The North Gate scored the highest single-day increase of the Fourth of July weekend, when 47% more vehicles entered the park on Monday, July 5, than on the equivalent day in 2019.
The West Entrance, located outside of West Yellowstone, Montana, remains the most popular gate, with about four times the traffic of the East Entrance over the holiday. Visitation statistics were based on vehicle entries for July 2-5, 2021, compared to July 5-8, 2019.