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Wyoming’s Open Spaces And Schools Are Attracting Travelers, Job Seekers

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By Bob Pepalis, The Center Square

Unlike many other states during the pandemic, Wyoming attracted visitors seeking the great outdoors with its national parks, and was also successful in attracting job seekers and business interests.

“Overall, the U.S. travel economy declined nearly 45%, whereas Wyoming’s travel economy only declined 25%. In the year ahead, we anticipate a rise in popularity for destinations such as Wyoming that offer wide-open spaces and an abundance of outdoor adventure opportunities,” Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, told The Center Square.

Travel spending in Wyoming declined from $3.96 billion in 2019 to $2.96 billion in 2020, “The Economic Impact of Travel” report prepared for the Wyoming Office of Tourism said. Total direct job loss was estimated at 6,030 jobs, with accommodation and food services accounting for 3,600 of those.

Remote workers were the focus of a two-month targeted national marketing campaign last fall by the Business Council, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services and Wyoming Office of Tourism, Ron Gullberg, Strategic Partnerships director for the Wyoming Business Council, told The Center Square.

“From the Business Council’s perspective, we are seeing heightened interest from remote workers looking to relocate, job seekers and business recruitment and expansion inquiries. Wyoming’s open spaces, opportunity for an adventurous lifestyle, business-friendly environment, open schools and less restrictive health orders are among the driving factors we’re hearing,” Gullberg said.

“The intake form housed on the tourism website generated 3,200 inquiries and not just remote workers. They included job seekers and business recruitment and expansion inquiries. Even after the two-month campaign ended, we’ve received more than 200 additional inquiries,” Gullberg said.

The three agencies are dividing the inquiries and addressing them, Gallberg said.

Wyoming state parks saw the revival of the “Great American road trip,” the Wyoming Office of Tourism reported, and strong indicators show an intent to travel this year.

“Wyoming’s State Parks saw a record-breaking year with 4,878,765 visitors, more than a million more than last year’s record season of 3,876,039, an increase of 34%,” Shober said.

Curt Gowdy State Park was one park with visitor increases more than 200% above the five-year average. For 2020, it was 231% above that average, but the increase was more dramatic in March, which had a 581% increase in visitors and April with a 474% increase in visitation.

The state is made up of almost 50% public land, including the 12 state parks with more than 100,000 square acres, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks.

The state does not have reservation or booking data available that would help in projecting travel spending in 2021.

“However, Visit Wyoming’s Official Travel Guide orders are up 46%, while travelwyoming.com traffic is also up 36% – all strong indicators of intent to travel,” Shober said.

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Sleeping Giant Ski Area Thrives Under Private Owner

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Sleeping Giant Ski Area west of Cody has a long history – and a financially troubled one for the last few years. 

The family-friendly resort was in danger of closing down for lack of funding in 2019.

Then Nick Piazza stepped in.

Sleeping Giant, near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park, is the oldest of the 12 ski resorts in Wyoming, established in 1936.  The nonprofit that had been operating the ski area since 2007 announced in 2019 that it had been running at a deficit of $200,000 each year, due to low numbers of skiers and snowboarders.

Piazza, an investment banker who grew up in Cody, made the decision that his beloved winter wonderland couldn’t just shut down. So he bought it. Now he and his ski buddy Mike Gimmeson and other dedicated snow fiends have made this winter playground thrive this season.

“We almost doubled our season pass holders from last year,” he said. “And I think weekends have been pretty strong going into March.”

“We tried to do a lot,” Gimmeson noted. “We got the night skiing going, we got a yurt up, and we did some projects.”

As a small family ski area, Sleeping Giant has certainly seen its share of struggles – but Gimmeson said this is the best year he has seen.

“We’ve had the biggest season that I know of, that I’ve ever been involved with,” he said.

And he says he’s got a unique perspective.

“I learned how to ski here when I was 1 year old,” he said, laughing. “My parents both ski patrolled here, and I came up every weekend of my childhood life.”

From the activity on the hill on this sunny Sunday in late February, you’d never know that Sleeping Giant has had difficulties staying open. Financial woes forced the closure of the hill in 2004, when the Dahlem family – owners at the time – couldn’t afford to upgrade the T-bar lift. A community effort brought the resort back to life in 2007, but the non-profit could only do so much. 

Piazza said he took on the financial risk only after making a deal with the community.

“The idea was, we’ll keep it simple – you come skiing, we’ll keep the lifts turning,” he smiles. “And so far, it looks like that partnership is working.”

Both Nick and Mike pointed out they’re not planning to end the season quietly. 

Gimmeson said they were originally planning to stay open until the end of March, but have decided to extend their season, so that they can host events such as a Triathlon on April 3 and the First Responders Winter Olympics on April 10.

“We’ll have, almost every weekend in March, some kind of event,” Piazza explained. “Plus, we’re matching the spring break calendar for Park County schools. So, the first week of April is spring break, and we’re gonna have a bunch of stuff there.”

And Mike pointed out that inviting skiers like Jack Feick, a Bozeman-area ski instructor and social media influencer, helped to raise the ski resort’s visibility.

“We’re just trying to bring other people from the ski culture to bring them here, to really show them what we have,” he said.

Feick is enthusiastic in his praise of the resort, where he skied for the first time in late February.

“Very good food, great lodging, and the skiing here is phenomenal,” he said, grinning. “A five-minute boot pack, up to the top of the mountain, and you’re into all those pillows over there, it’s insane. It’s the greatest skiing I’ve ever seen inbounds, honestly.”

The owners are not done improving the area, they said.

“We’d like to get more lifts up higher, and just more services for guests,” Mike explained. “And we’re working with local lodges so that there’s local lodging and, just, stay tuned, because we’re just getting started.”

“We have plans to keep the restaurant open all summer,” said Nick. “We’ll have the zip line going as usual, and we hope to add maybe a couple of other attractions, including hiking from the top of the ski lifts and maybe a climbing wall. But we’re working with the Forest Service on that.”

Gimmeson pointed out that the odds were against a private owner taking on a small ski area – but the combined strengths of the two friends have made the venture a success.

“Him, being a businessman, very successful – he really helped drive that into this place,” he said of Piazza. “Cause, I’m just a ski bum, you know. So us together, the ski bum, the businessman – we combined forces, and we pulled it off.”

Video footage courtesy Dean Madley (Sleeping Giant) and Jack Feick

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Wyoming Tourism Declined By 25% In 2020

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s tourism declined by 25% last year, but the decline was minor compared to the national decline of 45%.

“Overall the U.S. travel economy declined nearly 45%, whereas, Wyoming’s travel economy only declined 25%,” Travel Wyoming spokeswoman Piper Singer told Cowboy State Daily.

The numbers are preliminary and could change before late April, which is when all of the data is gathered and published in the department’s annual report, Singer added.

Wyoming, along with the rest of the nation, took a major hit in numerous industries, including tourism, last year due to the coronavirus. However, not all the news was bad once the first wave of the virus passed around mid-May.

Despite the pandemic shutting down the park for for nearly two months, Yellowstone National Park only saw a 5% dip in visits in 2020. The park, in its most recent visitation report, said it hosted 3.8 million recreation visits in 2020, down from the 4 million hosted in 2019.

The park saw record visitation numbers for the months of September and October, with visitor numbers in October topping 2019 figures by 110%.

Grand Teton National Park also saw record-breaking numbers throughout the fall, as did Devils Tower.

Through November, Devils Tower recorded 420,330 recreation visits for 2020, down just 7% from the same period in 2019 despite the fact the country’s first national monument was closed from March 25 through May 21 due to health and safety concerns related to the pandemic.

According to Dean Runyan Associates’ numbers provided by Singer, the state saw $2.96 billion in travel spending last year, down 25.3% compared to 2019.

Wyoming saw $286 million in state and local tax revenue from tourism, a 16.1% decline, 7.3 million overnight visitors (down by 21.5%) and 27,000 travel-related jobs in 2020.

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Wyoming Named Top Travel Destination by Travel + Leisure and AFAR

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Vast open spaces, breathtaking landscapes and western charm are just a few reasons Wyoming has been recognized as one of “The 50 Best Places to Travel in 2021” by Travel + Leisure and a top North American destination in AFAR’s “Where We’ll Go in 2021 – When We Can.”

With Wyoming’s innate social distancing, iconic road trips and destinations drawing traveler consideration, the Cowboy State topped this year’s must-visit lists. 

The January issue of AFAR featured Grand Teton National Park, while the annual list from Travel + Leisure highlighted Wyoming’s western and outdoor attractions including the 125th anniversary of Cheyenne Frontier Days, Casper’s College National Finals Rodeo and the endless adventures in state parks.

“It’s extremely humbling to see Wyoming recognized as one of the top destinations to visit this year and beyond,” said Diane Shober, executive director for the Wyoming Office of Tourism. 

“Now more than ever people have a strong desire to get out and explore the great outdoors, including more rural, less-populated destinations like Wyoming. We encourage travelers to embrace a spirit of adventure, while continuing to ensure collective wellness by pledging to adventure responsibly.”

With National Plan for Vacation Day on January 26, the Wyoming Office of Tourism offers countless inspiration and resources to plan a safe, enjoyable vacation this summer. From all-inclusive guest ranches to epic road trip routes, Wyoming will guarantee an unforgettable vacation.

To learn more about traveling safely and responsibly throughout Wyoming, visit travelwyoming.com/wy-responsibly. Travelers can share their experiences and pledge “WY Responsibly” on social media by using #WYResponsibly.

The annual National Plan for Vacation Day takes place each January to encourage Americans to plan their vacation at the start of the year and in an effort to avoid leaving vacation days unused. 

National Plan for Vacation Day coincides with the Let’s Go There initiative to encourage Americans to still plan – or even book – future vacations, or to simply keep their travel flame alive and think about their next trip.

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Gordon Announces Steps to Boost Wyoming Energy, Tourism, Ag

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A series of steps aimed at improving Wyoming’s primary economic drivers has been proposed or endorsed by Gov. Mark Gordon.

Gordon on Thursday announced the actions he will take or support to improve conditions in the state’s agriculture, tourism and energy sectors.

In the area of energy production, an industry shaken by recent executive orders halting the leasing of federal land for oil and gas production, Gordon said he will pursue an “all the above” energy industry that encourages the development of new industries such carbon capture technology and rare earth production in addition to oil, gas and coal.

Along those lines, Gordon is backing proposed legislation that would grant several tax reductions to the energy sector.

“Our traditional industries will adapt and continue to provide the reliable, affordable and dispatchable power they always have, only better,” he said in a statement. “Our economic recovery will hinge on the health of these industries and their ability to adapt to changing market demands. Wyoming can continue to grow even as our mix of energy supplies evolve.”

At the same time, Gordon welcomed steps to increase the ability of the new Wyoming Energy Authority to encourage the development of non-traditional resources.

“Carbon capture and the development of carbon byproducts will be part of Wyoming’s energy future,” he said. “So too should be efforts to research extracting the rare earth elements and critical minerals associated with coal that will be needed for the batteries powering the anticipated worldwide build-out of wind and solar power.”

Gordon is also backing measures that help the state’s tourism industry, its largest employer.

He singled out House Bill 85, which would let Wyoming State Parks use money raised through entrance fees to finance a large portion of their operations and outdoor recreation rather than construction projects. The measure is expected to allow for a $1.1 million reduction in money given to the parks from the state’s general fund, its main bank account, without affecting the visitor experience.

A number of bills aimed at bolstering the state’s agriculture committee are also part of Gordon’s initiative, including one that would give the state attorney general the authority to look into antitrust matters.

The measure is a response to consolidation of 80% of the meat packing industry within four major companies. Beef producers in Wyoming have long complained the four companies have kept prices for producers artificially low.

The state now lacks the authority to investigate such charges.

Gordon is also backing HB 52, which would increase Wyoming meat products used by school districts to feed students.

The governor said he is also working with legislators to expand the state’s meat processing capacity.

“This is only a part of an ambitious initiative focused on adding value to products across the entire spectrum of agricultural enterprise,” he said. “This effort is essential to grow this key part of our economy.”

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Why A Cody Investment Banker Bought Sleeping Giant Ski Area

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

There are 12 ski resorts in Wyoming — Sleeping Giant, near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park, is the oldest, established in 1936. 

It has had its ups — and downs —  but this past year it was in danger of closing its doors once again, due to low numbers of skiers and snowboarders. In fact, the nonprofit that had been operating the ski area announced in January that it had been running at a deficit of $200,000 each year.

Enter Nick Piazza — a Cody native and successful investment banker who is now running his consulting business in the Ukraine from his home in Cody. He said he couldn’t watch his beloved ski hill fold… so he bought it.

“You know, we’re ready to take a lot of the risk and responsibility in terms of kind of keeping the mountain open,” he said. “But it’s going to be a partnership with Park County, I think. For us to be successful we’re going to need people to come ski.”

Like Piazza, new ski area General Manager Mike Gimmeson also learned to ski as a child at Sleeping Giant. He said the area plans to keep prices the most affordable in the entire United States, offer free skiing to school groups and provide ski lift privileges to those holding season passes from other ski areas in the regions.

“We’ve partnered with some local ski areas, like Antelope Butte (in the Bighorn Mountains), Red Lodge (Montana), and vice versa, so they can come here,” he said. “And what’s really cool is you can go to Hogadon in Casper, and get three free days.”

Gimmeson added that with the new ownership comes new ideas that the team is excited to unveil.

“We’re planning on having kiosks at our ticket desk, and I think one in the yurt, so that people when they purchase their tickets they can just walk up and get it, like when you go to the airport. And night skiing! We’re going to have night skiing.”

Included in the new plans is the opening of a yurt to provide extra customer seating. The yurt’s purchase was made possible because of a Daniels Grant that was procured through the Yellowstone Recreations Foundation, the non-profit that has operated Sleeping Giant since 2007. Gimmeson said the extra building will help with social distancing and add to the appeal of the ski area.

“Along with the yurt we’re going to have other outdoor seating areas, we’re thinking about just strategic areas where people can hang out,” he said “We’ll have fire pits, and just kind of get people outside.”

Piazza said his goal is not to make money off of the purchase — rather, he sees this as an opportunity to boost the local winter economy.

“Long term, if we’re going to be successful, we have to bring more winter activity back to the East Gate (of Yellowstone),” he said.

Gimmeson added snowmaking operations will begin next week, with a goal of opening Sleeping Giant to the public on Dec. 4.

“People love that mountain,” Piazza says. “And I hope that we’re providing a platform for people to help support it.”

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Wyoming State Park Traffic Explodes in 2020; Up By 1.8 Million

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If you thought the coronavirus would force everything to grind to a halt, think again.

While the pandemic has had some devastating affects on the economy — one survey estimated that one out of every 5 small businesses have closed or will close — some sectors, like tourism, actually saw a boost.

Yes, people adjusted their routines to try to flatten the curve but that didn’t mean they didn’t go out. 

Take visitation to Wyoming state parks, for example.

So far this year, Wyoming’s State Parks have recorded 4.9 million visitors, an increase of 1.8 million over last year’s record — 34%.

Leading the way were visits to Boysen State Park in Fremont county.  Visitation numbers were 241% over the five-year-average.

Curt Gowdy State Park saw an increase of 231% over the five-year average with highs of 581% in March and 474% in April.

Seminoe State Park in Carbon county recorded a jump of 132% over the five-year average and Sinks Canyon Park in Fremont County recorded a 115% boost over the same time period.

Some visitors to this site will surely grumble and say Wyoming doesn’t need an influx of “greenies” to the State of Wyoming, but the tide is unlikely to stem.

In fact, state officials are predicting much, much, much more.

“Currently outdoor recreation accounts for 4.4% and $1.65 billion to the state’s (gross domestic product). We see no reason we can’t double these numbers in the coming years,” Darin Westby, Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resource Director, said.

Chris Floyd, from the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office, echoed those thoughts but said Wyoming “needs to do it right and we can do it through proper planning.”

“The key is to get them here, spread them throughout Wyoming, help them spend their dollars, insure they’re being good stewards of the land, and then let them go home,” he said.

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Northwest Wyoming Tourism Season A Mixed Bag

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Cody is one of four gateway communities leading into Yellowstone National Park. 

As such, tourism is one of the top industries in Park County – and this summer was a mixed bag for the businesses that depend on visitors.

Claudia Wade, the executive director of the Park County Travel Council, pointed out that public health regulations imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus heavily impacted many businesses that rely on tourism.

“I think a lot of the restrictions that we had in Wyoming from the governor impacted our restaurants,” Wade reported. “And it impacted how our attractions operate, in the number of people they let through.” 

Dan Miller has headlined a cowboy music show in Cody for the last 16 years – and he said this year was devastating.

“I’d say we lost in the neighborhood of 90 tour buses that we didn’t get to have this year,” Miller noted. “And I don’t care who you are, you can’t take that kind of a hit and not say it doesn’t affect your bottom line.” 

Wade said outdoor recreation opportunities were hugely popular.

That popularity translated to record late-season visitation numbers for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, which both saw records set for September visitation. Campgrounds in the region also saw high visitation numbers once the facilities opened.

But restaurants and hotels got off to a very slow start this summer.

Fran and Ken Swope own and operate the Carter Mountain Motel, which Fran and her mother built in the late 1960s. Fran said this summer was unlike anything she’s ever experienced.

“We had a lot of cancellations for May, June and part of July,” she recalled. “For August, we were just a little above last year. For September, we’re gonna be just about the same because September got busy.”

Many restaurants, on the other hand, went from zero to 60 from the time they were told they could reopen in mid-May. 

Nathan Kardos, owner of the Trailhead Restaurant, said he and his fellow restaurateurs were remarkably busy, despite the regulations that forced them to space out their tables, or move them outdoors.  

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Grand Teton National Park Smashes All-Time Visitation Record For September

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Grand Teton National Park hosted an estimated 603,789 recreation visits in September 2020, a 17% increase compared to September 2019. 

Park statistics show that September 2020 saw the highest number of recreation visits on record for the month of September.

The list below shows the September trend for recreation visits over the last several years:
2020—603,789
2019—517,265
2018—558,788
2017—482,661
2016—492,451

In general, hiking use in the park increased approximately 54%, camping in concession-operated campgrounds increased 24% and backcountry camping increased 79% in September 2020 compared to September 2019. 

Visitors to Grand Teton National Park are reminded to plan ahead and recreate responsibly. The park highly encourages visitors to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local and state authorities, by maintaining social distancing guidelines and wearing a face covering when in buildings and high-visitation areas outside. 

Visitor services at Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway are limited this time of year, as most facilities close each winter. Closing dates for seasonally operated facilities can be found at www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/hours.htm. The Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center will remain open through October 31. Signal Mountain Campground is currently the only seasonally operated campground still open in the park. The last night available to camp there will be Saturday, October 17.

Please visit www.nps.gov/grte and the park’s Facebook and Twitter accounts for more information. Download the official NPS Grand Teton app for detailed park maps, audio tours, in-depth facility information and more.

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Hiking in Carbon County Wyoming

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Some of the best places in Carbon County can be accessed by hiking on one of the hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the county.

The Medicine Bow National Forest is a prime location for hiking.

There are also 5 wilderness areas in the Carbon County region. Wild mountain flowers dot trails along the Great Continental Divide and the Snowy Range.

Grab your gear and head out on one of our hiking trails for some exciting western adventure.

Hiking is one of the best ways to spot wildlife. [CLICK HERE TO SEE A GREAT LIST OF TRAILS]

Visit mountain lakes, crystal clear streams and secret fishing holes.

Wyoming’s terrain can be rough and the weather can change fast so make sure that while you enjoy our sweeping natural landscape you come prepared with plenty of water, warm clothes, a compass and a topographic map.

Hiking & trails in the Medicine Bow Forest: Visit Website
Area wilderness areas: Visit Website
Links to more trail information: 
Visit Website
Links to Seminoe State Park Hiking Information: 
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