With both Yellowstone and Grand Teton visitation records in the books for July 2021, you can expect more calls for limitations on access to popular areas within the two national parks.
A record 1,080,767 recreation visits to Yellowstone National Park were tallied in July 2021, making it the most-visited July as well as most visited month on record–the first time visitation exceeded 1 million visits in a single month. So far in 2021, the park has hosted 2,668,765 recreation visits, up 16 percent from 2019. (With 2020 being such a strange, limited and yet successful year, the more apt comparison in 2021 is to 2019.)
This is a 13 percent increase from July 2020, with 955,645 recreational visits recorded despite COVID-19, and a 15 percent increase from July 2019’s total of 936,062 recreational visits.
The list below shows the year-to-date trend for recreation visits over the last several years (through July):
2021 – 2,668,765
2020 – 1,674,699
2019 – 2,294,691
2018 – 2,322,271
2017 – 2,316,541
2016 – 2,427,988
A similar record was set in Grand Teton National Park, where July 2021 yielded the highest number of recreation visits on record for any single month in park history.
The park hosted an estimated 828,777 recreation visits in July 2021. This is a 9.7 percent increase from July 2020’s 755,766 recreation visits and a 6.8 percent increase from July 2019’s 775,788 recreation visits. Here are July recreation visits over the last several years, per park officials:
July 2021 – 828,777
July 2020 – 755,766
July 2019 – 775,788
July 2018 – 795,725
July 2017 – 739,046
July 2016 – 758,253
Some interesting nuggets from Grand Teton officials regarding usage. Camping in the park increased 2.7 percent in July 2021 compared to July 2019, while backcountry camping increased 15.4 percent. Trail use in the park increased 21 percent in July 2021, compared to July 2019, on trails that use is counted.
All in all, 10 national parks set visitation records in July 2021.
The visitation records point to one of the underlying paradoxes regarding both Grand Teton and Yellowstone, but especially Yellowstone. Though geographically Yellowstone National Park is huge — some 2.2 million acres, larger than both Delaware and Rhode Island — the vast majority of visitors limit themselves to within a half mile from the 1,500 acres of roads, parking areas and facilities. That means you have plenty of areas of congestion — Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin, Norris, Canyon rims and Lamar Valley — with the rest of the park free of humans.
Though the idea of reservations and caps on daily visitors has been rejected by Yellowstone and Grand Teton officials in the past, they’re likely to be back up for discussion in coming month, as park leaders search for solutions to the congestion and visitor impact. Remember: these numbers are being posted in the midst of a pandemic that also caused economic damage, as park concessionaires also grapple with staffing shortages and supply-chain shortages. They are also being posted at a time when International travel has ground to a halt. Once the pandemic recedes and the economy recovers, it’s not unreasonable to see pent-up demand bringing even more visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton. You need a reservation to visit Yosemite and Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road; it is not unreasonable to see some sort of reservation system implemented in Yellowstone in the future. Maybe not a reservation to enter the park via one of the five gates, but maybe a reservation to one of the well-traveled areas, like Old Faithful or Norris Geyser Basin.
“Increases to Yellowstone’s visitation have accelerated rapidly over the past 12 months and we continue to be on pace to set record numbers for 2021,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said via an NPS press release. “We are actively developing defensible short and long-term solutions, with our partners, which focus on protection of park resources, improving visitor experience, and considering impacts on park staffing, infrastructure and our gateway communities and regional economies.”
Those solutions may include controlled visitor access at Norris (tested in 2019), a shuttle system between Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin, and an automated vehicle shuttle pilot at Canyon Village in 2021, currently being tested. In early August, Grand Teton hosted a workshop with Jackson Hole community leaders and organizations to see and experience current visitation trends at different areas in the park, including Lupine Meadows, Jenny Lake and String Lake.
Photo of crowds at Midway Geyser Basin from July 2020 and Grand Teton National Park lake tours courtesy National Park Service.
RELATED STORIES: Grand Teton sets June visitation record; June 2021 Yellowstone visitation is a record; May 2021 Yellowstone visitation is a record; April 2021 visitation in Yellowstone, Grand Teton up over 2019