Anyone who considers themselves a “local” of Yellowstone National Park will tell you to avoid the park during peak visitation in July and August. Based on the numbers, those locals may begrudgingly want to expand that to September.
The National Park Service reports more than 838,000 people visited the park last month, a 48% jump over September 2022 (567,000) and 21% more than 2019 (693,000).
The September visitation also boosts the park’s 2023 visitation to more than 4.1 million so far, the second highest through September the park has ever recorded.
Anyone can look at the year-to-year numbers and see September is seeing more visitors to Yellowstone, but looking at the previous year might not be the best way to gauge how visitation patters are changing. The best comparison for September isn’t the year before, it’s the month before.
What the numbers show is that the park’s busy summer tourist season is extending beyond August.
Summer In September
Douglas Scott, owner and lead guide of The Outdoor Society in Bozeman, Montana, said he noticed another month-to-month comparison that paints a more vivid picture. This year, September’s visitation was 97% of August, he said.
“There’s this myth that once the kids are back in school, then the park is empty,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I think September buries that myth for good. Visitation is the same in September as it is in August.”
Scott has “been obsessed with visitation numbers” for years, so he isn’t surprised by the increasing number of people visiting Yellowstone in September. What patterns may have been true 10 years ago are no longer accurate.
“September was that mythical time period because historically, summer vacations were much more rigid,” he said. “But with the growing population of retirement age, people having different times of leave they can take, and generally trying to avoid that summer crowd, we’re seeing the shoulder seasons expand on either end.”
The shoulder seasons Scott referred to are the months of May, September and October. But since the weather is so erratic and many roads through the park are still closed in May, much of the shoulder season traffic is relegated to September.
Scott also observed that the number of Yellowstone visitors last month was higher than visitation every July from 1979 through 2008, except for 1995, which historically has been the park’s peak month.
Next To Normal
Another trend worth noting is that year-to-date visitation through September is starting to set a baseline of at least 4 million visitors through that month.
“If you look, there was that jump from where (visitation) was steadily increasing and then took a giant leap in 2014, 2015 and 2016,” he said.
Scott sees this increasing visitation as a natural result of the U.S. population growing in a similar way. Other factors may also play a part, including people savoring outdoor experiences but with limited knowledge of how to get them.
“There’s not a lot of well-known outdoor options,” he said. “There are millions of places people can go, but everybody is seeing and hearing about our national parks. That’s where people want to go, the glorious spots you hear about, and those lifelong vacations for many.”
Those trends directly contribute to larger crowds in Yellowstone throughout the year beyond the “busy season” as most people know it. If September was one of the park’s best-kept secrets, the secret’s out now.
For Scott, this year’s September visitation numbers aren’t shocking, shouldn’t be shocking and won’t be shocking in the future.
“This is the new normal (for September),” he said. “It doesn’t mean it's overcrowded or that people shouldn’t go. If you want solace and solitude, you can still find it. You just may not be able to go to the well-known spots in the middle of the day. It’s just like the summer.”
And going forward, September is summer in Yellowstone National Park.