By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Coming on the heels of one of Yellowstone National Park’s most popular years, park officials are preparing for another busy tourism season in 2021.
Yellowstone is popular any year — but last year’s coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions left people looking for outdoor destinations, making the wide open spaces and natural splendor of Yellowstone prime selections.
Last year’s visitation broke several monthly records, said Morgan Warthin, a public affairs specialist for the park, and officials expect the trend to continue.
“But to underscore last year’s really busy visitation, last year, September and October were busier – our busiest months on record,” she said. “We anticipate high visitation this year as well, and we’re getting ready for it.”
Roads in Yellowstone will begin to open April 16, less than two weeks from now. But the pandemic still casts a shadow on activities in the Park.
Warthin said all national parks are under a mask mandate this year, but as an improvement over last year, staff in Yellowstone will be able to conduct their Ranger programs and hope to open visitor centers in mid-summer.
“We had last year to refine our mitigation protocols and procedures,” she explains. “So we can take that experience into this year and apply some of those lessons learned.”
What remains, though, is restrictions on bus traffic — which Rick Hoeninghausen with Xanterra Parks and Resorts, manager of the park’s lodging and other amenities, said will affect visitation.
“There’s a limit to how many passengers you can have in a vehicle in the park, and that’s 10 – that includes the driver and the tour director. So you know, if they can’t come there, they’ll be canceling to here, and many of them have already.”
But Warthin stressed that the Park Service is working closely with motorcoach industry leaders.
“No decisions have been made yet,” she pointed out. “But we are certainly hopeful to re-engage with that industry.”
Despite the limits on buses, the people are coming — but due to the pandemic, opening dates for some lodging properties have shifted.
For example, Grant Village was going to open May 28 – but now it won’t open until June 18. Old Faithful Inn was going to open May 7 — now, according to Hoeninghausen, it won’t open until June 4.
“And when it does open, it’s only got the East Wing, so about 80 of 329 rooms,” he said.
That means that Hoeninghausen is already fielding calls from visitors whose reservations have to be modified.
“We have thousands of guests that potentially are impacted, the ones that are arriving between April 30 and June 1,” he said.
Hoeninghausen says the staggered and delayed opening for lodging properties and restaurants relates to the Park Service wanting to not just “go full barrel” into summer, but instead, to protect the health and safety of employees and guests.
But he added that so far, the vast majority of visitors have been able to rebook later in the summer. Adding to the craziness, Hoeninghausen said, is a new reservation system that will put a pause on bookings for the next few days.
“That (updating) process will run into next week, but hopefully, we’re back up and running and open to the public again by Wednesday,” he said.
And for those who aren’t able to change their plans, Rick said he’s encouraging them to look at the gateway communities for lodging.
“I mean, any year, we’re going to eventually fill up anyway,” he pointed out. “In fact, our website has links to the [gateway community] chambers of commerce.”
And he noted out that no matter where they stay, visitors can still have that western experience.
“The park doesn’t change,” he said. “Yellowstone is still Yellowstone, bison are still roaming. Geysers are still going. But at the end of the day, guests can still find a place near the park, if not in it, and still have the same experience they would have had in terms of the wildlife and the natural features of Yellowstone.”