Yellowstone’s Delivering a World-Class Visitor Experience strategic priority focuses on providing a high-quality visitor experience for the millions who visit each year while simultaneously ensuring that park resources are protected. The park has spent the last six years monitoring impacts of increasing visitation on resources, staff, infrastructure, visitor experience, and gateway communities. The park has implemented a wide range of short-term actions designed to manage visitation, provide quality public safety services, and minimize impacts to resources more effectively. Yellowstone is now working on a variety of potential long-term actions that will help address future challenges associated with increasing visitation levels.
Learn about how Yellowstone is “Delivering a World-Class Visitor Experience” below.
Understanding Impacts from Increased Visitation
In 2019, Yellowstone developed a strategy to better understand and respond to impacts from increasing visitation. The strategy focuses on visitor impacts to these four areas:
The park is improving its methodologies and data collection to better understand the impacts of increased visitation on resources. While data indicate minimal visitor impacts on most park resources, limited impacts (social trails, human waste, and litter) have been identified in the busiest areas of the park, including the Upper Geyser (Old Faithful) and Midway Geyser basins.
Park Staffing, Operations, and Infrastructure
Increasing visitation translates to greater impacts on the Yellowstone team, our operations, and infrastructure like roads, bridges, and wastewater systems. Popular sites now require more frequent cleaning at peak times, garbage and wastewater pump trucks must adjust their schedules to accommodate for traffic congestion, and additional staff is required to manage traffic and safety in congested areas.
Surveys reveal that visitors to Yellowstone are largely satisfied with their experience and that roadway traffic does not negatively impact their experience. However, surveys also identified issues around restrooms, congestion, and parking at specific sites during peak season.
While increasing visitation can economically benefit surrounding communities, additional traffic and congestion has caused concern within communities during peak season. The 2022 flood event and recovery efforts had substantial impacts on gateway communities. Following the flood, the park held daily calls with gateway communities for the first few weeks and intermittently thereafter to ensure transparency on the park’s efforts to reopen the park to the public as quickly and safely as possible and manage visitation with limited infrastructure.
Researching Visitor Use
Yellowstone staff, with assistance from Youth Conservation Corps crews, collected visitor use data during six consecutive summers in key frontcountry locations throughout the park. Yellowstone has established baseline conditions, captured trends over time, and is expanding data collection to include more complex areas such as Canyon, Old Faithful, and Mammoth Hot Springs. Park managers use this data to make decisions about where new strategies and tactics are needed to respond to increased and changing visitor use patterns, such as different infrastructure design, different ways to manage visitor access or flow, new restrooms, or additional staffing, signage, or education.
The year 2021 was the highest visitation year on record, followed by 2022, which marked the lowest visitation level since monitoring began. Between 2021 and 2022, parking conditions and impacts to resources improved at all monitoring locations, while visits to popular viewpoints stayed relatively constant and visitor interest in off-peak seasons has increased.
2018 Visitor Use Survey
In 2018, the park conducted one of the most comprehensive visitor use surveys in the country, with over 7,000 participants providing valuable data and opinions. Beginning in 2019, the park began efforts to address visitor concerns in several notable areas.
The most important experiences for visitors are to view scenery, see wildlife, and to see geysers and thermal features.
Respondents were more likely to experience a greater sense of crowding, traffic congestion, and limited parking availability at Midway Geyser Basin and Fairy Falls.
Visitor experience and frustration ratings appeared to have little to no significant correlation with GPS-based average speeds across road segments in the park. Respondents were generally not frustrated, gave high experience ratings, and did not perceive major problems on roadways.
2018 Visitor Use Survey data (graphs above): Are you a first-time visitor to Yellowstone? 66.5% Yes, 33.5% No. How much time did you spend waiting for parking? 72.6% <5 minutes, 13.5% 5-10 minutes, 5.9% 11-20 minutes, 3.7% 21-30 minutes, 4.3% >30 minutes. How would you rate your trip to Yellowstone? 43.9% Excellent, 41.3% Good, 10.6% Fair, 2.7% Poor, 1.5% Very Poor. How crowded did you feel in Yellowstone? 22.8% Not at all, 28.3% Slightly, 29.3% Moderately, 14% Very, 5.6% Extremely.
Responding to Increased Visitation
Using data from visitor use surveys and transportation studies, the park will focus on reducing impacts within the Midway Geyser Basin corridor, Old Faithful Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin, and Canyon Village sites. These areas have consistently been identified as having the highest levels of congestion and the highest impacts on resources and visitor experience. The park has implemented a range of solutions to achieve visitor management objectives:
Nine days after the 2022 flood event, Yellowstone reopened to the public and implemented the Alternating License Plate System (ALPS) to prevent visitation from overwhelming the south loop of the park while the north loop was closed due to flood damage. An idea that came from gateway communities, ALPS was effective at managing visitation levels to the target range, between 50-60% of normal, while allowing visitors to keep their existing reservations. ALPS was suspended on July 2, 2022, when 93% of the park roads were open to the public.
In the summer of 2021, in partnership with the NPS Alternative Transportation Program and the Department of Transportation (DOT) Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, Yellowstone piloted a low-speed, automated (driverless) shuttle at Canyon Village to test emerging automated vehicle technology in the national park context. The Electric Driverless Demonstration in Yellowstone (TEDDY) had over 10,000 riders who overwhelmingly reported having a positive experience. Riders also indicated that they would like to see more automated shuttles in National Parks.
The main parking lots in the Midway Geyser Basin area were constructed in the 1980s-1990s when annual visitation was under 2 million. The park installed a temporary parking lot at Fairy Falls in 2017 to increase parking capacity and alleviate roadside parking problems. After the temporary parking lot was installed, staff observed nearly 1,000 incidents of litter and human waste and increased social trails. In response, the park is starting the planning process to develop site alternatives including removal of the temporary lot, developing a new site, and providing entry through a timed-access system.
In 2022, all the park’s NPS-managed campgrounds were moved to a reservation system for the summer season months. The reservation system proved popular among many visitors and nearly all sites were booked for the season. To accommodate more spontaneous planning, 20% of the NPS campsites are also held until two weeks in advance of the date of use.
From Aug. 3 to Sept. 7, 2022, Yellowstone piloted a timed-entry reservation system for those traveling between Tower Junction and Slough Creek. The reservation system effectively protected parking availability and resources within this area while most of the Northeast Entrance Road closed for flood damage repairs.
Yellowstone completed a Transit Feasibility Study with support from the Regional Alternative Transportation Program. The study evaluated the costs, benefits, infrastructure, staffing needs, and impacts to park resources and visitor experience of a potential localized shuttle system based at Canyon and Old Faithful. Completed in December 2022, the study will help managers evaluate whether such a system is practical or feasible.
Yellowstone has over 2 million acres of backcountry, including 1,100 miles of trails, 300 backcountry campsites, 36 backcountry cabins and lookouts, and over 400 miles of boundary. A team of employees use a variety of tools to protect, manage, and maintain the backcountry resources that form the core of Yellowstone. Backcountry rangers, trail crews, and corral operations protected resources, maintained trails and bridges, and packed supplies throughout the park in support of multiple park divisions and operations.
Our backcountry permit offices issued over 9,900 backcountry permits in 2021-2022. The park’s backcountry monitoring program inventoried 59 backcountry campsites, tracking impacts, and making recommendations for future management actions. The park’s corral operation cares for and works 108 head of stock. During the summer and fall, corral employees travel throughout the park to support backcountry logistical needs and special projects, mostly for trail crews and backcountry rangers. With some animals traveling over 1,000 miles in a season, the corrals typically go through 1,300 horseshoes and 10,400 shoeing nails each season.
The 2022 flood event focused efforts on the north end of the park as crews assessed damage and implemented solutions that quickly allowed access to the majority of the park’s backcountry. Planning was completed for areas that did not open, and those solutions will be implemented starting in 2023.
The park seasonally restricts off-trail travel, camping, and hiking in 16 Bear Management Areas (BMA) totaling 464,637 acres (21% of the park) to decrease potential disturbances to bears during key times of the year. Recent analyses indicate grizzly bears differentially selected BMAs compared to other areas. Males avoided hiking trails during the day but preferred trails at night when people were not hiking, while females avoided areas with predictable recreation by humans such as backcountry campsites. This research indicates BMAs are effective at preventing most human-caused displacement of bears from food sources and limiting human encounters with bears that lead to conflicts and management removals of bears.
Yellowstone’s Interagency Communications Center handled over 41,000 calls for service in 2021-2022, including emergency medical, search and rescue, law enforcement, and structural fire response. Additionally, the operation dispatches for nine agencies outside the park.
Yellowstone’s Emergency Medical Services operation has 11 ambulances stationed across eight developed areas of the park. The park has mutual aid agreements with Gardiner, Cooke City, and Grand Teton National Park. In 2021-2022, the team responded to 1,638 emergency medical calls within Yellowstone and local communities.
Yellowstone rangers issued over 4,000 violation notices in 2021-2022 with approximately 700 criminal cases filed in the U.S. Magistrate Court. Yellowstone is one of the only parks with its own U.S. Magistrate judge and full-time Assistant U.S. Attorney. Rangers handled more than 750 motor vehicle accidents in 2021-2022 and a range of other criminal cases, including DUI, drug possession, sexual assault, and various resource crimes. The park is developing a range of crime prevention strategies moving forward to proactively reduce criminal activity within the park.
The park handled 108 search and rescue incidents in 2021-2022, including complex technical rescues of visitors, searches for lost visitors, and water-based responses.
Yellowstone’s Structural Fire Company is the largest in the NPS with 11 engines stationed across six developed areas of the park. The park has mutual aid agreements with gateway communities in Montana and Wyoming surrounding the park and Grand Teton National Park. In 2021-2022, the team responded to 522 structural fire calls within Yellowstone and local communities.
The objectives of Yellowstone’s defensible space fuels reduction projects are to change the fuel structure to reduce crown fire potential and to slow ground fire spread in developed areas of the park. Since 2019, NPS and contract crews have treated 245 acres in Grant Village, 95 acres in Old Faithful, 158 acres at Lake, and 60 acres in West Yellowstone. In 2020, the Lone Star Fire burned within 3 miles of the Old Faithful Historic District, underscoring the importance of proactively protecting historic structures from wildland fire threats.