The widow of a man killed by a grizzly bear last year near Yellowstone National Park has sued the federal government, saying researchers were negligent in warning residents about trapping activities in the area, Reuters reported.
Botanist Erwin Frank Evert, 70, of Illinois, was hiking a trail about seven miles east of Yellowstone in June 2010 when he was attacked by an adult grizzly that had been snared, tranquilized, collared and released hours earlier by government scientists.
His wife, Yolanda Evert, claimed in a suit filed Tuesday (Oct. 25) that the researchers had failed to warn cabin owners in the Shoshone National Forest outside Cody of nearby bear-trapping activity, and that they did not follow established protocols for posting warning signs.
She is seeking $5 million in damages.
Wildlife officials, uncertain whether the grizzly’s aggression toward Evert was natural or aberrant, tried without success to recapture the bear last year, then shot it dead from a helicopter two days later. Lab tests confirmed the animal was the bear that killed Evert.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Wyoming, said federal researchers twice saw Evert at his cabin but never warned him of their activities.
The suit alleges that members of the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team spoke with residents of only one of the 14 cabins in the area during the three-week trapping period, and that researchers prematurely removed warning signs at the trap site where Evert was killed.
Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said on Wednesday he could not comment on pending litigation.
An interagency team established in 1973 and managed by the U.S. Geological Survey has conducted routine annual research on grizzly bear populations in the greater Yellowstone region.
Evert’s death was the first and only fatal mauling in the United States involving a bear that had been trapped for research.
Though fatal grizzly encounters are rare, two hikers were killed this summer in separate incidents in Yellowstone Park.
An interagency probe of the Evert mauling determined last year that researchers had finished their work in the area and removed warning signs on their way out of the forest because the weather was bad and they believed no one would be hiking near the trap site. It was the bear released from that last site that killed Evert.
The investigative report recommended that in the future, signs at remote trapping locations remain posted for at least a day after the bear is known to have left the area.
Chuck Neal, a retired biologist in Cody who had frequently hiked with Evert, told Reuters last year that he had warned the botanist of research activities in the area, and urged him to stay out of the forest just days before the attack.
Neal said in June 2010 that Evert had called him one week before the mauling to ask about a sign posted in the area warning about bear-trapping activities, and that Evert was “absolutely aware” of the risks of hiking in the area.
Advance reservations for summer and fall lodging in Yellowstone National Park are slightly ahead of last season, although spring looks to be starting a little slower, the Billings (Mont.) Gazette reported.
The economic downturn of recent years has also provided Xanterra, the company that handles lodging within Yellowstone Park, with more job seekers who carry higher qualifications and are willing to work deeper into the season.
Rick Hoeninghausen of Xanterra said he’s optimistic that 2011 will be a strong season, even with gas prices creeping back toward 2008 levels.
Advance reservations, measured by room nights, are up over last year, and campground reservations have been strong.
“Both areas we’re tracking are slightly ahead of last year,” Hoeninghausen said Wednesday. “And last year was a good year — a record year for park visitation and a strong year for us.”
Hoeninghausen placed the increase in reservations at around 5%. Much of the interest so far has been for mid-summer and early fall.
“It’s been a natural trend for years now for fall to get more popular,” he said. “I’m not seeing that same trend for spring. It’s been a little softer.”
Hoeninghausen said the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is scheduled to open on April 29, followed by Old Faithful Lodge on May 6. The Mammoth Hotel will open on May 13.
The Roosevelt Lodge and Lake Lodge will be the last to open in the park on June 10.
“There are lots of opportunities for lodging for folks who want an early season experience,” Hoeninghausen said. “I don’t know that there’s any dates right now where you couldn’t find a campsite at all.”
Xanterra manages 2,200 hotel rooms within Yellowstone and maintains around 1,400 campsites and 400 RV spots. The company will employ around 2,600 people once the park is fully open for the season.
Interest in working in Yellowstone has been strong, Hoeninghausen said.
“With the economy being what it is, there’s no shortage of applications,” he said. “We’re seeing people available for longer seasons. We’ve seen some exceptionally qualified folks looking for other options.”
Hoeninghausen doesn’t expect rising gas prices to lead to reduced visitation.
“Soft economies and higher gas prices have sometimes worked to our advantage,” he said. “The first time we saw an impact was when gas hit $4 back in 2008. But visitation was still good and occupancies were strong, we just saw a reduction in spending on gifts and food.”
For the second year in a row, and for the third time in the last four years, Yellowstone National Park has set a new annual visitation record, the Los Angeles Times reported.
During the calendar year, more than 3.64 million people visited the national park. Recreation visits in 2010 were 10.5% higher than recorded in 2009 — which itself was a record year — when almost 3.3 million people visited.
The park also set monthly visitation records in June, July, August, September and October.
All park entrances recorded annual visitation increases compared to 2009 levels, with the West Entrance continuing to be the park’s busiest, hosting nearly 1.5 million recreational visitors in 2010.
Park managers say they believe the record visitation was due in part to the public’s recognition that visits to national parks represent a good value for their travel dollar. Aggressive promotion by state tourism offices, stable gasoline prices and 2009’s public television series on the national parks are also believed to have contributed.
Detailed park visitation information is available online at www.nature.nps.gov/stats/.
This species in Yellowstone National Park is appearing in greater numbers than ever before — people.
More than 2.5 million of them visited the world’s first national park over the June, July and August summer season, MSNBC reported. That’s up by more than 200,000 compared with summer 2009, putting Yellowstone on track to set another attendance record. Nearly 3.3 million people visited during all of 2009, topping the previous record set in 2007 by nearly 5%.
Marketing by the state tourism offices in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho probably is boosting Yellowstone tourism, park spokesman Al Nash said.
The weak economy might also be helping by encouraging cheap vacations.
“Visiting your national parks is a good value,” Nash said Wednesday (Sept. 8). “And you can sort of adjust the length and the type of your trip to fit your schedule and your wallet more than you can other visitor destinations.”
On the other hand, more people can mean longer lines at park entrance stations, restaurants and gift shop cash registers, Nash said, along with more traffic jams where people stop to gawk at roadside wildlife.
“If you came to the park and weren’t in a wildlife jam at some point, your trip probably was unusual,” Nash said. “And if you were in a wildlife jam, it probably lasted longer than you might have experienced in previous years.”
Business has been brisk at the nine hotels and other restaurants and gift shops operated by Yellowstone’s largest concessionaire, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, company sales and marketing director Rick Hoeninghausen said.
“It has been a very strong summer. I would say that this year our volumes, our business levels, have mirrored the strong visitation that we’ve experienced,” Hoeninghausen said.
The most people in Yellowstone on any given summer day — 25,000 to 30,000 — far exceeds population estimates for the park’s other large mammals.
The Rev. Ron Kingston thought Tracy Province was just a down-on-his luck soul when he welcomed him into his church in Meeteetse, Wyo., on Sunday morning.
He would later be surprised to learn Province was a prison escapee and convicted murderer, who has, with an accomplice, put a chill in the entire region around one of the nation’s most popular national parks, CNN reported.
Province, 10 days after he and two other inmates escaped from an Arizona prison, walked into Meeteetse Community Church wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He stayed for the 9:30 a.m. worship service, sang songs like “Your Grace is Enough,” and shook hands with some of the 50 or so attendees, the pastor says.
The town is located east of Yellowstone National Park and south of Cody, Wyo.
A woman who spoke with Province at the church later recognized him from news reports that day and called police, leading to Province’s arrest in town on Monday morning, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.
But on Sunday morning, Province just appeared to Kingston — who had yet to hear that authorities were looking for Province in the Yellowstone National Park area — to be someone who was just on an unlucky streak and looking for some work, Kingston recalled by phone Monday.
“I introduced myself to him because he was a face I hadn’t seen before,” Kingston said. “We shook hands, and I welcomed him to our church. He stayed for the worship service and sermon. Toward the end, people were leaving, but he stuck around … and told me he was looking for work.”
Province, after introducing himself with a different name, told Kingston he had just been trying to work something out with a lady friend at Yellowstone, and was trying to find his way home after he failed.
“[The story went] she up and left him or something, so he was trying to hitchhike home, and was just down on his luck and needed some money,” Kingston said.
Province told Kingston that he liked Meeteetse — a town of about 300 people that is about 40 miles, as the crow flies, from the park — and that he was a welder and might stay a while to look for work.
Kingston asked Province to mow the church’s lawn and cut some weeds for some money. Province agreed, and was finished about an hour later.
“He was polite. He asked me if I appreciated how he cut the grass, if he did a good enough job,” Kingston said.
Province, 42, escaped July 30 from an Arizona prison with inmates John Charles McCluskey, 45, and Daniel Renwick. Authorities say an accomplice, Casslyn Mae Welch, 43, helped the convicts escape by throwing cutting tools over a prison fence.
Renwick, 35, was arrested July 31 in Rifle, Colo., after a shootout with police. Province — who was serving a life sentence for murder and armed robbery — and McCluskey are suspected in the killings of a couple whose bodies were found Wednesday in New Mexico, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.
Authorities warned Sunday that they believed Province, McCluskey and Welch could be in the Yellowstone National Park area, but that Province probably had separated from the other two. The marshals service still was looking for McCluskey and Welch on Monday, saying they could be in central Wyoming.
Province was arrested on Monday morning as he was walking out of a Meeteetse motel, carrying a hitchhiking sign with “Casper” written on it, the marshals service said.
Bobby Long, owner of Vision Quest Motel & RV Park, said authorities told him that motel was where Province was arrested. Long said Province apparently had befriended someone who was staying there, and the guest “allowed him to crash in the room” Sunday night.
Long said he didn’t know Province was at his motel until after Province was arrested Monday.
Kingston said Province’s arrival has been “a little shakeup for a country town.”
“We don’t have this kind of stuff happen very often,” he said, noting that residents are now keenly aware that McCluskey and Welch are still loose. “I think it made people think about locking their doors, something we don’t normally do.”
Kingston said his heart and prayers go out to the victims in New Mexico, and he thanks God for the way Province’s visit to town ended.
“I think [God] had his hand on our church service, because it could have turned out differently,” he said.
Kingston said he asked Province on Sunday about whether he had faith in God. Province said he did, but wasn’t always walking the walk, Kingston recalled.
“For some reason, I think this guy had a little respect for God,” Kingston said. “Maybe he was looking for redemption.”
The pastor said God also might have used Province’s visit to lead authorities to him.
“He, maybe, came to this house for a reason, and God is a loving God, and he is also a just God,” Kingston said.
Yellowstone National Park had a record-breaking July: more people visited the park last month than in any previous month in 2009, Yellowstone’s public affairs office told CNN.
In total, 957,000 people visitors (beating last July’s record by 60,000). July is, admittedly, one of the park’s busiest months.
During July, the PR office said, visitors tended to find that “all park lodging and campgrounds were reporting ‘full’ by mid-morning.”
Last year set the record for number of visitors at 3.3 million.
The National Park Service is reporting that a record number traveled to Yellowstone in June: nearly 700,000 visitors.
June remains a popular month to visit the great park, as the recent numbers are up about 8% from June, 2009, which also set a record. July is typically the busiest month, followed by August, June, September and May, according to the Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah.
The park’s West Entrance near West Yellowstone, Mont., is still the busiest route, where more than 280,000 people passed through last month. Officials say visits to the park has topped 1 million for the first six months of the year.
The Associated Press is also reporting that the park’s Norris Campground has been reopened to tents and pop-up trailers after wildlife managers recently captured a grizzly bear.
Electrical service at Fishing Bridge RV Park at Yellowstone National Park could be back this fall after Xanterra and the National Park Service came to an agreement over upgrades to the 40-year-old electrical system; some upgrades could be done later this year, with the rest completed for 2012, according to the Yellowstone Insider.
There are over 300 campsites at the Fishing Bridge facility. The Fishing Bridge RV Park is one of five campgrounds in Yellowstone operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts under a concession contract with the National Park Service. It is the only campground in the park with hook-ups, and only hard-sided vehicles are allowed there. All sites are available by advance reservation.
After the RV park closed for the season last fall, an assessment revealed that the electrical service had exceeded its useful life and in some locations had deteriorated to a point where the continued use of electrical hook-ups would pose an unacceptable risk to visitors. The decision was made this winter to stop providing electrical hook-ups for RVs until upgrades could be made.
Planning, compliance and design efforts are underway on a project to restore electrical service to all the sites in the RV park. Work to install new electrical service to the first 100 sites is anticipated to begin later this year. It is not known when the first sites with restored electrical service will be available for reservation and use. The goal is to upgrade the electrical service in all 346 sites in the RV park in time for the start of the 2012 season.
Individuals making reservations for the Fishing Bridge RV Park this year are being advised to reserve a site which will allow a generator if they desire electrical service. To minimize the noise impact of generators, some sites will not allow generators and the RV park has established a policy which prohibits the use of generators between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Despite the lingering effects of a weak global economy, National Park Service managers are expecting plenty of visitors this summer, coming off a record year in 2009 for Yellowstone National Park, according to the Billings (Mont.) Gazette.
“By all indications, we are expecting to see another healthy visitation year,” said Colin Campbell, deputy superintendent of Yellowstone.
Campbell and Bob Vogel, acting superintendent for Grand Teton National Park, spoke Monday (May 24) during a luncheon as part of the 59th National Parks Day in Cody, Wyo.
Advance bookings reported by Xanterra, a lodging concessionaire in Yellowstone, are up compared with the same time last year, which saw a record summer and an annual total of nearly 3.3 million visitors, Campbell said.
“We learned that we were setting records in July and in August as visitation was robust, and we expect to see that again this year,” he said.
Visitation was up by just less than 1% last year in Grand Teton, but in the poor economy park managers were pleased to see any rise, Vogel said.
“Advance bookings are up with our park concessionaires and throughout Jackson Hole, so we are expecting a robust season,” he said.
With Xanterra’s room reservations up 11% so far over last year and its campground reservations up 14%, 2010 may see plenty of traffic, but could bring more people looking to cut costs while still taking a vacation to Yellowstone Country, Haines said.
Claudia Wade, marketing director for the Park County Travel Council, said that businesses like moderately priced and high-end restaurants may again see more families eating picnic lunches or dining at fast-food spots, as was the case last year.
Want to hear some good news?
On the heels of a year so completely immersed in negative news headlines, it’s time for some solid, bonafide positive news: The 2009 U.S. summer camping season seems to have exceeded expectations in many cases, especially for parks that aren’t located in remote locales. That’s the message from several articles in the upcoming issue of Woodall’s Campground Management, sister publication to RVBusiness and RVBUSINESS.COM.
“Reports that the economy still stinks are in direct conflict with what our members are telling us,” said Mark Anderson, chairman of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) and a veteran New York State campground owner. “Of course there is legitimate concern, though many of our members are reporting average to good business.“
Leisure Systems Inc., franchisors for the Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, reports revenues up 5% for the season. In fact, several resorts that added waterparks to their facilities saw revenues soar more than 50% this year, reported Dean Crawford, LSI vice president. Some franchisees posted business gains of as much as 10 to 20%, while others reported flat business. On the other hand, Jellystone parks located in out-of-the-way locations tended to register more disappointing results.
Jim Rogers, chairman of Kampgrounds of America Inc., declares in an article in this same issue that the Montana-based park network is seeing a strong resurgence in all types of camping — tents, cabins and RVs – and that camper occupancy this year is on par with 2007, the best year in KOA’s 47-year history.”
All told, the great American outdoors has never looked better to U.S. travelers.
The statistics bear this out.
Nationally, campground reservations in the first six months of 2009 rose 8% over last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. The sale of fishing licenses nationwide is up 7% this year. Outdoor equipment store REI reported sales of family tents up by 20%.
The national park system, spurred by three “fee-free weekends,” is headed for a record-breaking year in 2009 if current travel trends hold up. Nearly 232 million people have already visited national park sites this year with recreational visits in ’09 up almost 5% vs. the first nine months of 2008, ABC News reports. If visitation stays strong through year’s end, in fact, the parks could see more than 288 million visitors for ’09, topping the previous records of more than 287 milllion in 1987 and 1999, the National Park Service (NPS) confirms.
Yellowstone National Park, in itself, had a record number of visitors in July, with over 900,000, up from about 800,000, in July 2008.
Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was up this summer for the first time in almost a decade. Smoky Mountain visitation so far this year was up 6.2% over last year at press time. The park’s strongest month of the summer was June, which registered a whopping 11% increase over June 2008, according to the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel.
Glacier National Park just finished its busiest summer in 15 years, tallying 1.47 million visitors through its entrance stations in June, July and August, according to the dailyinterlake.com — the highest summer visitor total since 1994, when 1.5 million visitors entered the park during the peak season.
What’s up with all this good news?
“Generally, in times of economic turmoil, national parks are seen as being a great value, and people really connect with the parks as a place to go,” says Jeffey G. Olson, a spokesman.
Meanwhile, WCM Contributor Bob Ashley, sampling private campground owners across the nation in his monthly “On Campgrounds” column, finds a consistent pattern. For instance, Ozark RV Park in Mountain View, Ark., owner Andy Rutledge tells Ashley that his 73-site park had the best summer season since he bought the park nine years ago.
Yellowstone Park KOA in West Yellowstone, Mont., experienced a good year, too, although people are being more frugal. ”Occupancy has been quite high this year,” said manager John Dutton. ”But store and auxiliary sales are not there. People are not going into the restaurants as much and not buying as many souvenirs. People are traveling, but they aren’t spending their dollars.”
Even with a challenged economy and bad weather early, Dan Adams, owner of Lake Bohoseen Campground in Bohoseen, Vt., was pleased with the results at his 140-site park. ”I think we did quite well,” said Adams, whose park also sells travel trailers and recreational park trailers. ”We were way down in May and June, but July and August turned around when the weather got better. We ended up about even with last year.”
Even in two Midwestern states hard hit by the recession, there were encouraging signs. Michigan park operators seem to have held their own in 2009, reported the Detroit News. Many destinations reported little change from last year, a small victory for resort operators who feared the state’s escalating unemployment rate – now at 15% – and fallout from the auto industry’s collapse would keep budget-conscious consumers away.
Ohio State Parks data from mid-July show camping has increased by over 15% from last year, and getaway rentals – ranging from platform tents to camper cabins – also are up by almost 5%.
After a slow start to the year, Yellowstone National Park is on pace to set a new annual visitation record, according to the Billings (Mont.) Gazette.
Just-released visitor numbers from July show that more than 900,000 people entered the park that borders Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The figure is up 11.4% from July 2008 and tops the previous all-time record for July of 847,000 visitors that was set in 1995.
“We expected a good year,” said Al Nash, Yellowstone’s chief of public affairs. “No one would’ve expected a record year.”
Nash credited the rise to a decrease in gas prices, which rose above $4 a gallon last July. This year, the average is around $2.50 a gallon. National parks also have been heavily promoted in the national press as less costly places for Americans strapped by an economic downturn.
To help out, the National Park Service has offered free entrance for three weekends, the last of which is Aug. 15-16.
All five of Yellowstone’s entrances reported an increase in the number of visitors compared to a year ago. The West Entrance remains the park’s busiest, with more than 385,000 visitors in July compared to 337,000 a year ago. The greatest percentage increase in visitation was recorded through the East Entrance, up 15.1% from July 2008.
July is typically the park’s peak month for visitation, followed by August, June, September and May. The average visitation per day in July was 29,000 people.
“That July saw an 11% increase over the previous year is certainly not something we would’ve predicted,” Nash said. “It’s the biggest visitation month ever, period.”
This is the second record-setting month for the park this year. Visitation in June was just under 644,000, well above the previous record of 609,000 visitors in June 2007.
For the first seven months of the year, over 1.9 million people have visited Yellowstone. That’s up 100,000 from the previous record of 1.8 million recorded in 2007. With August and September, two more boom months, yet to come, the park could break the annual visitation record of 3.15 million set in 2007.
“We still have two of our four biggest visitation months ahead of us,” Nash said.
Although road work has been ongoing and will close the park’s route between Madison Junction and Norris beginning Aug. 17 and extending through December, Nash didn’t think that has or will hurt tourism.
Lack of snow and lawsuits led to confusion about the winter season last year, which could have hurt winter tourism in the park. Visitation for the first three months of this year was down from 2008, especially in February which saw a drop of more than 15%.
“Winter’s important, but it is a small component when compared to the summer’s impact,” Nash said. “But I don’t want to downplay winter.”
After a down year in 2008, visitation numbers at Glacier National Park are on the rebound, propelling the park to a strong January through June period where visitor numbers were up more than 14% from the same time last year, according to the Flathead (Mont.) Beacon.
The National Park Service (NPS) Statistics Office reported that 327,572 people entered the national park last month, up 14.1% from about 287,000 visitors in June 2008. May was also a busy month for Glacier, with visitation up 20% from the May before.
In all, the NPS says 484,458 visitors flocked to Glacier during the first six months of the year. “Comparing month-to-month, we’ve been up so far this year,” Wade Muehlhof, a public information officer with the park, said. “That’s a good sign for the rest of the summer.”
In the early 1990s, the park enjoyed a robust period where its visitors topped 2 million for four consecutive years. Since then, however, annual visitation numbers have only hit that mark twice, including the 2007 season where there were 2,083,329 guests.
So far, though, this year appears to be back on track — good news for the businesspeople of Flathead’s tourism industry who rely on Glacier as their perennial ace to draw summer visitors.
“The Glacier Park numbers are our indicators,” Dori Muehlhof, executive director of the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau, said, adding that lodging businesses are reporting solid bookings for July as well.
Damage from a huge avalanche that swept across the Sun Road in early January threatened to keep the popular scenic road from opening on time again. But road crews had travelers on their way by June 26. Gas prices have stayed considerably lower so far this year as well, hovering around $2.60 per gallon last week as compared to about $4.17 the same time last year. Good weather and a lack of fires has helped, too.
Park officials also attribute the increase partly to the fact that people can tailor their Glacier trips to their budgetary constraints.
“It does provide an affordable way to vacation,” Wade Muehlhof said. “People are able to choose more carefully how they spend their money.”
Year-to-date park statistics back up that theory. Overnight stays in the park’s lodges decreased about 1% in the first six months of this year compared to last year. Meanwhile, the number of people staying in tents and recreational vehicles increased 21% and 35%, respectively, up to 15,400 and 18,984 people.
“There’s a term out there now that’s ‘staycations,’ people vacation close to home,” Wade Muehlhof said. “I think that’s exactly what those numbers reflect.”
Yellowstone on Record Pace
Meanwhile, Yellowstone National Park is on pace for a record-setting year. More than 1.3 million travelers flocked to the park during the first six months of this year.
In June alone, about 644,000 people entered Yellowstone, up 8.5% from the same time last year. It was the only time in the park’s history besides June 2007 when visitors exceeded 600,000 for the month.
Year-to-date, the number of recreational visitors in the nation’s first national park is up 9.3% from last year.
As both parks enter the height of their summer seasons, July and August, park officials and the businesspeople who rely on the national landmarks to fill their registers with summer tourism dollars are hoping the early summer trends continue.
At the Battlefield KOA Kampground in Gettysburg, Pa., you can catch up on e-mail at your campsite, take in an evening movie on a 9-foot inflatable outdoor screen, lounge by the pool, play a round of mini golf or try your hand at Extreme Hunting, one of the arcade games in the game room. There’s live music on Saturday nights and pancake breakfasts on weekend mornings, and if you don’t feel like cooking, you can have dinner delivered to your RV door, tent flap or what-have-you.
Heck, you don’t even have to really camp at this wooded 25-acre site, thanks to its growing inventory of air-conditioned cabins, cottages and lodges – essentially, tricked-out trailers done up to look like hand-hewn log dwellings, according to USA Today.
“So much for getting away from it all,” owner John Bergeron says with a laugh.
But getting away they are. By many accounts, business is brisk this summer at campgrounds nationwide. The sinking economy may have put the brakes on taking the Grand Tour, but many Americans still want to get away. And with relatively low gas prices, more people are pulling into campgrounds.
All Metrics Point Up
Campground reservations through ReserveAmerica.com, which books campsites in most national parks, are up 8% over last year in the first six months of 2009.
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), a network of 460 commercial campgrounds, reports a 5% increase in June occupancy. REI, an outdoor-gear chain, says sales of family tents were up 17% in June over last year. The retailer also saw double-digit increases in sales of related products, such as air mattresses and campground stoves.
A recent survey by the Outdoor Foundation, a non-profit group that promotes outdoor activities, indicates camping’s popularity rose 7.4% in 2008 after a decline the year before. Overnight backpacking grew by 18.5%, the group reports.
“People are returning to simpler lifestyles – the ‘less is more’ ethic,” says the foundation’s Christine Fanning. “And everyone is searching for vacations that fit with today’s economy.”
Indeed, ForestCamping.com, a comprehensive guide to U.S. National Forest campgrounds, where campsites go for $10 to $15 a night, has seen a spike in hits. Bookings for reservable Forest Service campsites were up 11% through May.
“When the economy goes down, camping goes up,” says Suzi Dow, who with her husband, Fred, runs the site.
David Berg, owner of the Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine, echoes the sentiment. “I believe camping is a recession-proof business,” he says. “When people can’t afford $200 or $300 a night for a waterfront cottage, they dust off the pop-up (camper) or get out the tent and spend $50 a night on a campsite and maybe still go out to good restaurants.”
At Yellowstone National Park, lodging bookings are down this year, but campground stays are up, says Rick Hoeninghausen, marketing director for Xanterra, which runs the park’s concessions.
“This is an interesting summer because, even in April, reservations were trailing last year. Then it kicked in in May. There’s more last-minute decision-making this year than I can ever remember.”
As in other segments of the travel industry, campers are staying closer to home, but they’re also staying away longer. At KOA campgrounds, for instance, average stays are 2.5 nights, up from 1.7 nights three years ago.
RVTravel.com editor Chuck Woodbury has been traveling through Western parks this summer, and says he’s struck by the number of rental RVs on the road. “It’s families, it’s couples, it’s everyone,” he says. “RV’ing has become much more accepted. It’s not just Grandma and Grandpa’s playhouse anymore.”
Campgrounds Expanding Services
Nor are today’s campgrounds necessarily like the ones you might remember as a kid. Food delivery, concierge services and skate parks are among innovative additions at some private facilities. In Columbia, Calif., the Marble Quarry RV Park features on-site gold panning. At Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Hill Country in Canyon Lake, Texas, laser tag is all the rage. At Kamp Klamath RV Park and Campground in Klamath, Calif., the alder-smoked salmon served at the park’s restaurant has won prizes in several competitions.
At Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp-Resort & Water Playground in Wisconsin Dells, owner Brent Gasser has gradually expanded what began as a campground with basic tent sites to a “camp resort” with a four-level water playground, boat and golf cart rentals, themed weekends (think Christmas in July), and 51 rental units that go from $39 to $299 a night.
“The traditional camper has been requesting more and more accommodations that they’d find in a hotel,” Gasser says. “And since we’re in an area with many hotels, we have to compete.”
And at the Red Apple Campground, the annual $25 Maine lobster fest sells out two years in advance. This summer, bookings are up 9%, and the average stay has stretched from 2.5 to 4.5 days.
“You have to be more creative to get people in your park and get them to come back again,” Berg says. “Today’s customer wants it all. In the majority of campgrounds today, we have Wi-Fi and concierge services. There are (waterfront) campsites in Maine that go for over $100 a night. And they sell first.”
But the constant buzz of organized activity can be a bit much, even for avid campers such as Brian and Michelle Gillespey of Brownstone, Mich.
“They’re on the PA making announcements about putt-putt golf and the ice cream social at 3 p.m.,” she says.
“There are too many activities at some of these places,” he says. “To me, it’s not relaxing.”
America’s ‘Last Small Town’
What many campground denizens say they do like is the camaraderie of the camp. KOA president Jim Rogers calls campgrounds “the last small town in America. They’re a live community, a social beehive. You’re interacting with strangers and allowing your kids to.”
“A woman stepped onto our site to avoid a passing car last night and ended up staying until midnight,” says Lynn Boozel, a camper at the KOA in Gettysburg. Boozel and his wife, Rhonda, of McVeytown, Pa., are wrapping up their seventh annual week-long visit here. “We came for a weekend and got hooked,” Boozel says.
The couple, with their two young daughters and a granddaughter, are sleeping in a six-person tent, which puts them in the minority among the Hitchhikers, Wolf Packs and other RV models that occupy most of the sites.
Across the way, Valerie and Bill Stack of Donora, Pa., have just arrived in their Ford pickup pulling a 12,000 pound, 38-foot trailer. This is one of five trips they’ll make here this summer.
“Once you’re addicted to this, you can’t stay home,” Bill Stack says. “You come back and say, ‘Boy, did I have a great time,’ and they ask, ‘What did you do?’ and you say, ‘Nothing.’ ”
The trailer has a gas fireplace, queen-size bed and flat-screen TV, among other amenities. They’ll spend the weekend swimming in the pool and maybe play some putt-putt golf.
“But we’re here for nature,” Valerie Stack says. “If I lost everything tomorrow, I’d go out and buy a tent.”
Robert Neal will take to the road this Independence Day holiday the same as millions of other Americans. But there’s a difference in their road-trip ritual this Fourth of July.
The price of gasoline, while down sharply from last year’s peak, means the 74-year-old owner of a motorhome may not venture as far as he has in the past, according to Reuters.
Standing in shorts and sneakers outside his RV at a campground in Grapevine, a lakeside town near Dallas, Neal said he and his wife remained unsure where to go next. “The gas price as it is now, it’s a maybe, maybe,” he said.
RVs like Neal’s double as a vehicle and place to stay, complete with kitchen and bedroom. They are convenient but demand quite a bit of fuel.
The travel and auto group AAA projected last week that U.S. travel over the holiday weekend would drop 1.9% this year compared to 2008, a casualty of higher fuel prices and economic worries.
Approximately 37.1 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home during the holiday weekend, typically the busiest time for auto travel in the United States, the world’s largest energy consumer, down from 37.8 million last year.
Gasoline prices are about a third lower than they were a year ago, but increases at the pump will steer Americans away from road trips, AAA said. Retail prices for regular gasoline averaged nearly $2.63 a gallon today (July 2), about 11% higher than they were around a month ago.
RV parks and road trips are as American as apple pie and are ingrained in a culture where the car remains king.
The country is still recovering from last summer’s shock when pump prices soared past $4 a gallon, crippling the already wounded auto industry and worsening a recession which the economy has yet to escape.
With that shock came opportunities for some.
Retired New York City police officer David Linkletter bought his big RV, parked near Neal’s rig, last year “brand new” from someone who hardly used it and wanted to get rid of it because he couldn’t afford to drive it.
“I got this because of the economy but it was speculative. I wouldn’t drive it last year. I thought we would just drive it nearby,” he said as he prepared to fire up an outside gas grill to cook bacon and eggs on a hot plate for his family.
The subsequent fall in gas prices he said made a trip to Texas affordable, even though he only gets 8 miles to the gallon with his RV. During the trip from New York to north Texas he said he filled up twice each day at $120 a pop.
Fees for a campground remain much cheaper than for a motel which adds to camping’s appeal when times are tough.
“At $20 a night you can’t beat it,” said 20-year-old student David Baker as he sat a picnic table by his tent. He had driven to north Texas from Wichita, Kan.
In Arizona, Dan Karwoski and his partner, Denise Robinson, were planning to drive to Redondo Beach in southern California, to spend the holiday weekend with family.
“We probably would have made this trip anyway, but when the gas prices were elevated, we didn’t drive nearly as much as we do now,” said Karwoski, a senior media specialist for a Tucson software company.
Ken LaRovere, a 52-year-old sales manager for an employee benefits company from the Reno, Nev., area was planning a trip to Donner Lake in California.
“The lower gas prices allowed us to take more trips and do more,” he said.
Green shoots can be seen elsewhere. The number of visitors surged in May at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, a popular wildlife and tourist spot.
After four months of declining or flat visitation, Yellowstone saw a huge uptick in May — an increase of 20.1% to 261,763 visitors compared to May 2008, according to the National Park Service.
“An analysis of past visitation trends also indicates park visitation typically rebounds as the country begins to pull out of an economic downturn,” it said.
There are other signs of Americans sticking close to home.
The Vineyards Campground & Cabins, where Neal and Linkletter were staying, said that in 2007 and 2008 about 10% of its guests were from Grapevine and 71% in both years hailed from Texas.
Fewer tourists compared to last year have booked advance reservations to visit the greater Yellowstone National Park region this summer, but industry leaders hope low gas prices will lure people to drive to national parks and other attractions in Montana and Wyoming, according to USA Today.
Lee Haines, a spokesman for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., told the Billings Gazette that museum planners are expecting flat visitor numbers this year with a slight rise possible in recreational vehicle traffic compared to last year. He said because many RV owners are retired, they have more flexible travel schedules that allow them to drive when gas prices are lower.
Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the main lodging company in Yellowstone, told the Gazette that advance reservations so far this year are down 13% from last year. He noted that bookings are good for July and August, but group tours and early season stays are down.