LAKE VILLAGE, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Four-year-old Ronia Kuipers sat on her father’s shoulders to sneak a better peek at a grizzly bear on a recent afternoon.
Dozens of tourists lined the street around the Kuiperses, hoping to catch a glimpse of the grizzly near the Lake Yellowstone Hotel in Yellowstone National Park.
Children ran in the road and cars parked crookedly, turning the busy avenue into a slow one-way street. Tourists pressed cameras and binoculars to their faces while staring into the shrubs.
Other than an occasional honk from an irritated driver, the scene was hushed and hopeful.
The Kuiperses were locked elbow to elbow in what any seasoned visitor to Yellowstone National Park will recognize as a “bear jam.”
Visitors to the park can expect these tourist tie-ups to appear more frequently and more fiercely this year. By early counts, more people are visiting Yellowstone this year than last.
The park has also surpassed its visitor count at this time in 2010, when a record 3.6 million people visited the park.
Dollars and cents
To date, more than 415,000 people have visited Yellowstone this year, according to the National Parks Service.
That’s a 6 percent increase over this time last year and a 16 percent increase over this time in 2010, the park’s record-setting year.
It’s good news for Wyoming and Montana, states that rely heavily on the national park for revenue from tourists paying lodging, sales and use taxes.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are the two single largest drivers of tourism in Wyoming, said Chris Mickey, spokesman for the Wyoming Office of Tourism. Last year, 9.1 million people visited Wyoming and spent about $3.2 billion in the state, according to the agency.
Those numbers have grown every year since at least 2009, when 7.3 million people visited Wyoming and spent $2.5 billion.
Much of the state’s marketing campaign focuses on the two parks, Mickey said. Yellowstone’s early numbers are a sign that growth will likely continue there for the rest of the year.
“We hope people will go through both (national parks) and stay in the state a little bit longer,” Mickey said. “If we give visitors a good experience in the state, they go out and share it with others, and they bring more people in.”
In Montana, too, the national parks play a major role in attracting the state’s 11 million annual visitors.
About 57 percent of those visitors cited Yellowstone as a reason for their visit when responding to a survey in 2013, said Daniel Iverson, public information officer for the Montana Office of Tourism. About 34 percent said they visited or planned to visit Glacier National Park.
Communities that surround Yellowstone’s five entrances see much of the business generated by the park, Iverson said.
In Cody, for instance, the historic Irma Hotel has been busier than normal this time of year. Business, which typically starts slow, has been booming since early May, said John Darby, one of the hotel’s owners.
“If we didn’t have Yellowstone, we wouldn’t have much business,” Darby said.
Don Blaylock, the owner of Granny’s Restaurant in Cody, said his cafe is busier this year than last.
“It’s pretty good this year so far,” Blaylock said. “It’s busier this year than it has been in the past.”
He said business typically follows the same trend at the restaurant, which has been a fixture in Cody for more than 30 years and does nearly half its summer business with Yellowstone tourists.
If business is good at the start of summer, Blaylock said, it will stay strong until the snow flies.
More than 3 million sets of footprints cross Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres each year.
That’s a lot of curious bystanders and backcountry travelers leaving their traces, big and small, on the park.
The National Park Service hears grumbles from tourism agencies that the park service doesn’t do enough to promote Yellowstone, said Dan Hottle, spokesman for Yellowstone National Park.
The agency also hears gripes from advocates who say the growing number of visitors is leading tourists to “love Yellowstone to death” by overpopulating a naturally sparse area, Hottle said.
“We’re not here to drive the economic engine,” he said. “We just try to make it the best visitor experience we can inside the park.”
It’s the state tourism agencies’ jobs to promote the parks, he said.
Mickey, the Wyoming Tourism spokesman, said his agency tries to get as many people to Yellowstone as it can. The National Park Service is responsible for protecting and maintaining the park and mitigating any effects caused by tourists who tread off boardwalks to venture onto geysers, affecting the natural landscape.
In Montana, tourism officials have heard few complaints that the park is too busy for its own good, Iverson said. But the agency is aware of the potential adverse impacts of too many people.
It hopes to focus on the parks’ year-round appeal and spread the influx of tourists over more than just the summer season.
It also helps that when promoting the park, the state caters to what Iverson called the “geo-traveler,” an environmentally conscious tourist who is interested in preserving the natural resource, he said.
“They’re very conscious of leaving the place as it was when they got there,” Iverson said.
‘Sad to leave’
The Kuiperses spent their final afternoon in Yellowstone watching the grizzly as a family.
“We could spend a lot longer here,” Waldo Kuipers, 36, said while pointing his digital camera toward the trees. “It’s kind of sad to leave.”
Kuipers drove from Washington to visit the park with his children, Ronia, 4, and Miles, 7, and their mother, Chen Yen Goh, 37.
They wanted to see wildlife and introduce their children to nature, Goh said.
“After like four, five days in the wild, they’re running around and they’re really comfortable,” she said.