As the July Fourth holiday approaches, Yellowstone National Park is seeing record numbers of visitors. It’s leading to long lines and crowded venues.
On a recent day in the middle of the week, the line of vehicles at the West Gate just outside of West Yellowstone snaked back a mile into town and then stretched another half mile through the middle of the community.
“We’re starting to see that our gates are backing up at like 6:45 in the morning. That’s new this year,” said West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Katrina Wiese.
But she quickly added that it doesn’t seem to bother most visitors. She said, “A lot of our visitors are from big cities. They’re used to a lot of cars. They’re used to a lot of lines.”
A few we talked to in the line to get in at about 9 a.m. confirmed that. First-time out-of-state visitors Katy and Don said, “It’s actually not as bad as we expected. We thought it would be much worse. Yeah, it’s not bad at all.”
Carla from Phoenix said of the lines, “they’re long, but it’s ok. We’ll take our time.”
And Ethan of Boston said, “it’s a little bit more than we were expecting but we were saying that it’s a lot better to sit in traffic in Yellowstone than it is in Boston.” Hannah who was with him, agreed as she laughed in the warm morning sunshine.
One hundred feet down a road that was jammed with three lanes of traffic, a summer ranger walked among the vehicles. He was handing out the park newspaper and Yellowstone maps. He made it fun, engaging the waiting motorists with a game of rock-paper scissors to “win” the free maps. People seemed to love it.
Park Superintendent Cam Sholly takes a summer he said could tally 5 million visits, in stride. He said it’s up to the park to learn how to manage visitors to protect the park and to protect people. He said there is no use discouraging people from stopping to look at animals. He said that’s what they come to Yellowstone to see.
He added, “there are many iconic sites. They’re going to go to Old Faithful. They’re going to go to Grand Prismatic.”
Sholly told us that Old Faithful and the Midway Geyser Basin, where Grand Prismatic spring is located, are the most popular parts of the park. But he added that there are also crowding issues at the Norris Geyser Basin and in the Canyon area, which is home to the upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone River.
During a recent U.S. Senate hearing in Washington D.C., Montana Senator Steve Daines echoed concerns of many about the soaring popularity of parks this summer.
“We have congestion issues in our parks and need to find ways here to relieve some of those pressures,” said Daines.
Sholly knows that all too well. He said, “If you accelerate from 4 million to 5 million visitors in a year, that has got to serve as a catalyst for new ideas.”
Sholly has ideas. He said if visitor levels stay high, more park staff will definitely be needed. Plus he wants to get Rangers out on the roads more often directing traffic when people stop to look at animals. He also thinks some parking lots might have to be temporarily closed during peak times.
“I think that’s something we’re going to have to turn to relatively quickly because otherwise, we’re looking at sheer gridlock in some of those highly congested areas,” said Sholly.
But he’s strongly opposed to setting limits on the number of people allowed in the park.
“I think it’s more complicated the bigger the park is. The more entrance stations, the more destinations there are around the park like Yellowstone. Like I said, I feel confident that we can come up with good solutions that are reasonable, but, it’s not an easy thing," Sholly said.
He promised to begin meeting with leaders of gateway communities like Gardiner, Cody, Cooke City, and West Yellowstone in the coming months. He said he’s eager to start the discussion about how to best serve visitors, businesses —and perhaps most important of all, protect the park for everyone.