Visitor Use Management

Traffic slows to a crawl as people pass some bison in Hayden Valley
Annual visitation has increased by over 40% since 2008, leading to traffic jams like this one in Hayden Valley.

NPS / Neal Herbert


Yellowstone provides a place where people can glimpse primitive America. A place where humans share an open landscape with thousands of wild animals, including bison, bears, elk, and wolves. A place where a volcano’s hidden power rises up in colorful hot springs, mudpots, and geysers. A place where people can see all of these things with relative ease thanks to a road system that connects five entrances with many popular destinations.

And more and more people want to experience it.

Since 2008, annual visitation to Yellowstone has increased by more than 40%, causing overflowing parking lots, a rise in traffic jams, roadside soil erosion and vegetation trampling, and unsanitary conditions around busy bathrooms. Half of this increase in visitation occurred in just two years (2014 to 2016), coupled by an even greater rise in motor vehicle accidents (+90%), ambulance use (+60%), and search and rescue efforts (+130%). Meanwhile, staffing levels and funding have remained flat over the last ten years (see graph below).

The National Park Service mission requires us to provide people the opportunity to enjoy Yellowstone without allowing that enjoyment to damage or diminish the very things they came to see. Many visitors want a park with fewer people and less traffic, but they don’t necessarily want limits on visitation or the use of private cars in the park. Yet all demographic trends point to the continued growth of annual visitation.

The challenges posed by high levels of summer visitation and changing visitor use patterns are comprehensive, complex, and affect not only Yellowstone visitors and employees, but gateway communities, surrounding public lands, and other national and regional stakeholders. Future management strategies might include (but aren’t limited to) communication and traffic management systems, shuttle systems or other transportation alternatives, and reservations or timed-entry systems. These strategies could be implemented at key locations or park wide.

Difficult decisions lie ahead, and we’ll need your help to find compromises that balance the protection of resources with a shared desire to experience the world’s first national park. As we move forward in our planning efforts, we’ll be reaching out to the public, our partners, and nearby communities to get involved. We want to listen to all ideas about managing Yellowstone’s visitation.

What is the park doing to prepare for the future?

Yellowstone has not yet begun a formal planning process for visitor use management. The park is in a critical data gathering phase to better understand our visitors, how they move through the park, and the impacts of increasing visitation on resources.

Below are details about past and current work that will help the park gather the data it needs to address visitation challenges and inform future management strategies.

On-the-Ground Work in 2018

  • Visitor Use Survey: In the summer of 2018, researchers will be conducting a study to explore how people experience and move through the park in real-time and how their experiences vary across the season (May-September). Surveys will be conducted in-person at various attraction sites and via digital tablets distributed to a random sample of park visitors. Researchers have set up “geofences” around various areas in the park that will trigger a survey on the digital tablet as the visitor passes through that location. Surveys will be conducted May 19-26, June 9-16, July 7-14, August 18-25, and September 15-22 in 2018.
  • Visitor Use and Behavior at Attraction Sites: Employees will be monitoring numbers of people, how they use the area, and if that use is causing resource impacts. This monitoring will occur at Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin, the Fairy Falls trail to the Grand Prismatic Overlook, and Norris.
  • Wildlife Jams: Employees will also work with University of Montana students to study how humans and animals interact with one another at wildlife jams along park roads.
  • Visitor and Employee Safety: Two graduate students from the NPS Business Plan Internship program will be working with the park to study the relationship between increasing visitation and human safety.
  • Transportation: Researchers are using data collected in 2016 (see below) to model traffic conditions and demand specifically on the West Yellowstone to Old Faithful Corridor. Additionally, a graduate student is conducting a study to explore the feasibility of a shuttle system between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful.
  • Resource Damage: Employees will continue to monitor the creation and expansion of social trails, which are unwanted and unofficial trails made by visitors that damage soil and plants.
  • Pilot Projects: Employees will begin testing ideas intended to improve the movement of cars and people at various locations in the park. Projects include implementing one-way pedestrian flow around the Grand Prismatic boardwalk, changing the hours of the Boiling River and limiting parking in that area, creating a drop off/pick up point for visitors to the Norris Geyser Basin, and making Mammoth Junction a three-way stop to prevent congestion when people wait to make left turns.

Coming Next Year! Visitor Use Study (2019)

In the summer of 2019, researchers will survey people’s opinions about potential management scenarios that could be used to manage visitation in the future. Participants will consider “trade-offs” and will be asked which scenarios they prefer in given situations (examples include shuttles systems, entrance reservations, parking reservations, and various kinds of managed access).

Completed Studies

Visitor Use Study (2016)
This study provides a summary of visitor demographics, experiences, preferences, and opinions about park facilities, resources, and services.

Transportation & Vehicle Mobility Study (2016)
This study provides a detailed breakdown of traffic, parking, capacity, and visitor flow patterns throughout the park.

Graph showing that as vistation has climbed to over 4 million visits per year since 2000, the number of employees has not changed significantly.
While visitation has climbed dramatically since 2000 (shaded green area), the number of full-time National Park Service employees has not changed significantly (black line with red data points).

Last updated: July 19, 2018

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PO Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168



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