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.