Yellowstone National Park has released the results of two separate studies completed in 2016 that provide current information about traffic and parking, as well as visitor demographics, values, experiences, and expectations.
The park invested in these studies to better understand the challenges of increased visitation. Since 2008, annual visitation in Yellowstone has increased by more than 40 percent. This visitation growth challenges the park’s ability to manage visitor use in a way that protects resources and offers high-quality, safe visitor experiences.
“Historic and recent trends demonstrate that visitation will increase over the long-term, therefore, it is imperative for us to plan now,” said Superintendent Dan Wenk. “Good visitor use management will allow the park to protect resources, encourage access, and improve experiences.”
The new data from the Visitor Use Study shows that visitors enjoy and care about Yellowstone, but they think it’s too crowded during the summer season. Visitors value the park for its natural character and come specifically to experience scenery, wildlife, thermal features, a largely intact ecosystem, and sounds of quiet and nature. More than half of Yellowstone’s visitors surveyed think that there are too many people in the park. Based on data collected in the study, 83 percent of Yellowstone’s visitors come from the United States and 17 percent come from abroad, including visitors from Europe (49 percent of international), China (34 percent of international), and Canada (10 percent of international).
The Transportation and Vehicle Mobility Study shows that within Yellowstone’s most heavily-travelled corridors, parking lots are overflowing, traffic jams abound, and roadway safety incidents are on the rise. The report identifies the busiest corridors as the roads that connect Yellowstone’s West Entrance with visitor attractions throughout the western and central parts of the park (such as Old Faithful, other geyser basins, the Canyon Area, Hayden Valley, Fishing Bridge, and Lake Village). During much of the summer season, there are on average nearly 30 percent more vehicles using these corridors than those roads can comfortably and safely handle.
Outside of heavily-travelled corridors, traffic levels are also high, with vehicles following closely behind other vehicles 60-80 percent of the time. According to the study, assuming a conservative 3.7-5.3 percent growth rate per year, all roadways in the park are expected to perform poorly by 2021-2023 due to traffic volume. Two thirds of Yellowstone’s visitors surveyed think that finding available parking is a problem, and over half think that the amount of roadway traffic and congestion are problems.
The data from these two new reports, combined with internal data about resource impacts, will help Yellowstone managers consider the types of management strategies that could be used in the future. These strategies include (but aren’t limited to) communication and traffic management systems, shuttle systems and other types of transportation alternatives, and reservations or timed-entry systems. These strategies could be implemented in key locations or park wide.
The park will continue to gather information, including focused studies through 2019, that will guide the park in evaluating tradeoffs in visitor experience and developing the most appropriate strategies to address summer season visitor use challenges. As we move forward, Yellowstone will reach out to its many stakeholder groups to better understand their thoughts on summer visitation and gather information to shape future management actions.
The full reports are available to read and/or download on the park’s summer use planning webpage at https://www.nps.gov/yell/getinvolved/summeruseplanning.htm.