Around these parts, it’s not so much Memorial Day that kicks off the summer season as it is the annual opening of Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance. That big day arrives the first Friday in May.
While Yellowstone draws thousands of visitors over its winter season, it’s the summer that brings in millions of people from across the globe. And those tourists bring a lot of money into this area, supporting many local jobs.
The National Park Service recently took a stab at estimating the economic impact of Yellowstone tourists. Researchers concluded that the record 4.25 million people who visited the park last year spent more than $524 million in nearby communities and supported 8,150 jobs.
Certainly, calculating how much money was spent by millions of people involves guesswork, but there’s no question that Yellowstone has an immense effect on our area.
There’s a reason that some motels and restaurants in Cody only open for the summer and — with all due respect to the Shoshone National Forest, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and Bighorn National Forest, Buffalo Bill State Park and other wonderful public lands — Yellowstone is the crown jewel and lifeblood of the local tourism industry.
We’re thankful to see the park opening on Friday — especially since, just a few years ago, Yellowstone officials proposed pushing back the summer openings by a couple weeks to meet Congressional budget cuts.
But we also wonder if park officials could start allowing visitors into the park a little earlier.
Yellowstone roads are generally cleared of snow and drivable before they’re officially opened to the public; sometimes, the only thing keeping visitors from enjoying the park are Park Service staff and gates.
Consider the 49 miles of park roads between the West Entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs, which open to bicyclists in late March; Park Service personnel also travel those roads in snowplows and other vehicles at that same time.
We ask, why not allow visitors to similarly drive into the park as the weather allows? Obviously, conditions can change quickly and there are risks of traveling at high elevations in the spring. But is it really that much safer to travel in Yellowstone in May versus April? Both months can bring significant snow and extreme shifts in temperature. In fact, it’s fairly common for the East Entrance to temporarily close in May or even June because of inclement weather — despite the park being “officially” open.
Roads need to be closed when they’re icy and dangerous. But it seems unfair that, while bad weather can lead to additional closures in Yellowstone, there’s no opportunity for mild weather to extend the park’s visiting seasons.
We understand the Park Service likely wouldn’t be able to provide any services if there was a “soft” early opening; visitors would be out in remote mountains without much of a government safety net.
If Yellowstone officials are looking for ideas on how to communicate that to the public, they might start with the instructions they give to those bicyclists who visit the park in late March: the quickly changing weather can be challenging; snow and ice may still cover sections of road; be prepared to encounter bears, bison, elk, wolves and other wildlife; stay out of closed areas; know that no services are available; don’t count on cell phone coverage and be prepared to take care of yourself for an extended period of time if something goes wrong.
(It’s worth noting that those tips also apply to just about any other month in the park, too.)
As the park gets more and more crowded in the summer, offering a couple extra weeks in the spring might provide some new opportunities for people to see the park with fewer crowds. While a weather-dependent soft opening might not draw a lot of tourists — because who wants to book a family vacation to Yellowstone in April that could be ruined at the last minute? — there could be a new niche for people seeking a little more adventure.
Yellowstone’s annual opening is always worth celebrating, but we wouldn’t mind celebrating a little earlier.