Although no fireworks will be launched from the top of Pompeys Pillar on Friday, visitors are likely to flock to area attractions for the holiday weekend.
Five million more Americans are expected to travel this Fourth of July weekend than ventured out during the Memorial Day weekend, including about 3 million people from the Mountain region who plan to travel 50 miles or more.
AAA projects that 41 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the Independence Day holiday weekend, a 1.9 percent increase from the 40.3 million people who traveled last year and a nearly 14 percent increase compared to the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
The increase comes despite gas prices that have jumped an average of 20 cents per gallon since the Fourth of July weekend in 2013, from $3.48 to $3.68.
The 3 million people who will travel in Mountain Region states — Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico — represents an increase of 0.5 percent over the number who traveled in 2013.
Around 300 or so of those motorists are expected to stop each day during the three-day weekend at Pompeys Pillar National Monument northeast of Billings.
Monument manager Jeff Kitchens has a photo from what he estimates to be the 1930s depicting “hundreds and hundreds” of cars and even some horse-drawn vehicles parked at Pompeys Pillar during a Fourth of July celebration from 80 or so years ago.
“This was a patriotic and pride-filled place,” said Kitchens, adding that folks used to shoot off fireworks from the top of the monument back in the day. “Pompeys Pillar was a very popular spot for celebrating the Fourth of July.”
It still is, he said, with almost equal numbers of out-of-state visitors and area residents bringing their relatives by to see Capt. William Clark’s preserved signature.
The Northern Pacific Railroad used to stop to let passengers see Pompeys Pillar in the 1890s, Kitchens said, with the railroad building an iron grate to protect Clark’s signature in 1892. It remained there until 1956, when the current protective case was put in place.
Patriotism has long been on display at Pompeys Pillar, he said. A flagpole used to adorn the top of the pillar; 1875 was the first documented year that the flagpole sported an American flag.
On Thursday, five carloads of visitors were on hand at 8 a.m. to welcome monument officials opening the park. The monument will be open all three days this holiday weekend from 8 a.m. through 6 p.m.
ZooMontana director Jeff Ewelt said he expects 1,500 or so visitors each day Saturday and Sunday and about 500 Friday. The hot temperatures have driven some of zoo’s star attractions — Siberian tigers Sophie and Jasmine and grizzly bears Ozzy and Bruno — into the water.
“They’re a hit,” Ewelt said. “We have been seeing a lot of out-of-towners passing through making the zoo part of their visit.”
“We won’t see a huge boost, but we see kind of a different crowd” during the holiday weekend, said Robyn Peterson, executive director of the Yellowstone Art Museum. “We’ve always heard comments from people who are grateful we’re open” over the holiday.
Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings, said her office is charting “a constant, consistent influx of visitors” from summertime travelers using Billings as either a destination or a stopping place for the evening, “and the Fourth of July is no different.”
Two million Billings visitors will drop a projected $250 million in the local economy during 2014, she said. Half of those visitors will spend at least one night in Billings; the rest are here to purchase a tank of gas or enjoy a meal, she said, before they get back on the road.
According to a news release from AAA, highlights of the 2014 Independence Day Travel Forecast include:
- A willingness to take on credit card debt, not an increase in income, is responsible for the anticipated increase in consumer spending
- Travel volume for Independence Day has grown four of the past five years and is expected to be more than 6 percent higher than the average of the past 10 years
- Holiday air travel is expected to decrease 0.6 percent to 3.1 million travelers from 3.12 million last year.