On the afternoon of Aug. 22, Yellowstone’s summer visitor traffic maxed out the parking and roads around its top attraction.
“At this time, traffic on the Grand Loop Road is not allowed to enter Old Faithful or the West Thumb Geyser Basin parking area due to heavy traffic and lack of parking,” said a press release from the National Park Service. “Yellowstone is experiencing traffic congestion and travel delays throughout the park.”
An hour later, NPS emailed an update: “Traffic congestion is heavy throughout the park, especially at Madison Junction, Old Faithful and the West Thumb area. Anticipate long delays and potential temporary closures. Old Faithful roads are now open. The West Thumb area is now open.”
After that, NPS said five park employees were managing traffic at Madison Junction, additional staff were headed to congested areas to assist with traffic and that “heavy traffic in the corridor between Old Faithful and West Yellowstone may persist until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.”
Those traffic congestion notices issued the day after the total eclipse were unusual, but are likely to become common. Yellowstone has seen a 40-percent increase in visitation in the past nine years. Its windy, two-lane roads designed for seeing spectacular landscapes weren’t built to carry the volume of cars, pickups, RVs and buses that are streaming into the park this summer.
That fact isn’t lost on the visitors, according to a study of YNP visitor experience released in August. When asked about problems they encountered in the park:
- 67 percent of visitors surveyed said they had difficulty finding a parking space.
- 57 percent said there were too many people in the park.
- 55 percent saw traffic congestion problems.
- 41 percent cited traffic congestion at park entrances.
- 24 percent said there wasn’t enough park staff.
- Only 17 percent of visitors surveyed said traffic congestion in the park wasn’t a problem.
The survey was conducted in August 2016 primarily with booklets that visitors were asked to complete and mail back. Visitors also were asked about possible options for managing traffic. Voluntary options were most popular:
- 87 percent supported a voluntary shuttle bus service to popular park attractions during peak periods.
- 75 percent support a voluntary parkwide shuttle bus with parking outside the park during peak times.
- More than half favored adding more pullouts, more parking and offering voluntary bike share to access popular attractions at peak times.
Most visitors surveyed didn’t support these peak traffic options:
- Diverting traffic away from heavily congested areas, requiring day use reservations, limiting the number of vehicles entering the park or mandatory park-wide shuttle bus with parking outside the park.
- The least popular option was temporarily closing park roads when heavily congested: 61 percent opposed that.
A traffic study completed for YNP in August confirmed the visitors’ observations, but offered no easy or inexpensive solutions. Some of the traffic flow improvements implemented at the busiest gate (West) may help at the Gardiner gate. A shuttle could help move people around the Canyon area, especially on roads that are one-way now. But the challenge is park-wide and the cause is more people in more vehicles in this beloved place.
“The midsummer traffic volumes are roughly 30 percent higher than roads and parking lots can safely handle,” Yellowstone spokeswoman Morgan Warthin told The Gazette. She said the survey data will be discussed with Yellowstone’s neighboring communities as part of pre-planning possible solutions.
Last year, Yellowstone logged a record 4.25 million visitations, with most occurring between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“Historic and recent trends demonstrate that visitation will increase over the long term, therefore, it is imperative for us to plan now,” Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a news release accompanying the survey results.
Yes, Yellowstone must plan for continued visitor growth. It also needs the resources to plan and carry out good plans. The Trump administration has called for substantial budget cuts in the Department of Interior, including NPS.
When Congress returns to Washington this week after a month of vacation, our Montana and Wyoming lawmakers should to insist that Yellowstone and other national parks get the 2018 budget resources needed to avoid falling further behind on infrastructure, public safety and resource protection. That is the first step in making a viable plan for protecting and enjoying our wildly popular first national park.