MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS — On a cold, sunny day inside Yellowstone National Park, Deborah Rigg knew she was just where she wanted to be.
"I've always wanted to come here for the winter and experience it in its quiet state," Rigg said. "I would never come in the summer.”
Because in the summer, an empty boardwalk overlooking Mammoth Hot Springs would be an impossible find. Last year, the park set an all-time attendance record as nearly 5 million people came through gates, mostly between May and September. It’s started to raise some questions on how many more the park can handle, and if it should go to a reservation or timed entry system that many others have started.
"One of the things we like to do is come during times when there aren’t so many people," said Pamela Bergmann, who was visiting the park with her husband as a birthday present.
"What I’ve seen with the line of cars, the crowds of people, it deters me," Rigg added. "It wouldn't give me the experience I wanted to come here for."
Yellowstone keeps yearly attendance records going all the way back to 1904. That year, 13,727 visited the park. By comparison, more than one million people visited in just July of 2021. It’s the first time the park has ever eclipsed a million in a single month.
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly spoke at a virtual event in January, addressing some of the park’s current plans for the surge.
"We’re working on quite a few micro-geographic visitor management actions," Sholly said. "Obviously, if visitation goes up, those actions will need to be more aggressive.”
One of the plans includes shuttle buses to reduce traffic to some of Yellowstone’s busiest spots. Alaska’s Denali National Park has operated a similar system for decades.
"People make reservations to go into the park by bus, because otherwise the road would be dusty, you couldn't see any wildlife. It wouldn't work well," Bergmann, a current Alaska resident, said.
Many other National Parks have started requiring reservations for at least some of their attractions, including some of the country’s most popular: Zion and Arches in Utah; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado; Acadia in Maine; and starting this year, Yosemite in California. For the second straight year, you’ll also need a reservation to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road Road in Glacier. Reservations begin Wednesday, March 2.
"I hate to think of a reservation system that would exclude people from having the experience for months or years," Rigg said. "I would hope there would be some kind of system where you could regulate the number of people that would be in the park at one time."
A final part of the equation to consider - what are record numbers of humans doing to the natural Yellowstone habitat?
"Climate change, obviously, is probably the single biggest threat to Yellowstone," Sholly admitted.
"Yellowstone is so iconic because it is a vast, natural area that can be a last refuge for some of these species," Bergmann said. "So I think it's very important to manage the park in a way that we can be protective of those species."
It’s the number one issue the park will face over its next 150 years.