Is Winter in Yellowstone National Park Losing Its Allure?

Is a winter trip to Yellowstone National Park losing its lustre, or did economies drive down visitation this past winter? Xanterra Parks & Resorts photo.

For decades winter visitation to Yellowstone National Park has been a lifesaver for the December-March economies of gateway towns such as West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Cooke City in Montana, and Jackson and even Cody in Wyoming.

The allure of cruising through the park on snowmobiles or in a snowcoach or visiting the backcountry on skis or snowshoes has funneled millions of dollars into those communities. So should there be any long-term concern that this past winter's visitation is down more than 13 percent?

Preliminary numbers show that the total number of Yellowstone visitors for December 2008 through March 2009 was 86,793, down 13.2 percent from the 99,975 visitors recorded for the 2007-08 winter season. An average of 205 snowmobiles and 29 snowcoaches a day entered the park during winter 2008-2009. That compares to an average of 294 snowmobiles and 35 snowcoaches a day during winter 2007-2008.

The number of people driving through the park’s North Entrance from December through March totaled 47,259; down slightly from 50,175 the previous year.

Park managers believe a lack of early season snowfall and continued legal uncertainty surrounding over-snow travel at the beginning of the season, coupled with the weak economy, all contributed to the decline in winter visitor numbers. But they're quick to point out that winter visitation to the park is minute when compared to summer tourism.

In a release park officials say winter visitation represents a small but important portion of Yellowstone’s annual visitation, which again topped the 3-million mark in 2008. During the peak of summer, more people visit the park in just four days than visit during the months of December through March combined.

Despite a recent U.S. Commerce Department report showing that nationwide travel spending was down 22 percent during the last quarter of 2008, a staff analysis of impacts on park visitation during previous recessions shows economic downturns have had a limited impact on annual visitation to Yellowstone. History also indicates that even though Yellowstone visitation has declined some at the onset of previous recessions, as the economy has recovered, visitor numbers have bounced back to equal or exceed pre-recession levels.

While downplaying this winter's decline in traffic, Yellowstone officials, with an eye on marketing, are quick to point out what a great value visiting the park can be.

"The National Park Service Office of Tourism is relatively upbeat about summer travel to the national parks; noting that during tough economic times many families decide to take shorter trips to authentic, domestic destinations such as Yellowstone," they said in a release.

"Visiting the national parks remains a good value. A seven-day pass good for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton is just $25; a pass good for entrance to any national park for an entire year is just $80. Many travel costs have declined, with gasoline prices currently half what they were last summer. Overnight stays in Yellowstone are available for as little as $12 a night at some park campgrounds, and special lodging rates are being offered on rooms in the park and in nearby communities."


What? No mention that the earthquake cluster in December / January was causing people to cancel their vacation plans. (This according to the Xanterra rep that took my reservation.)

I LOVED my week in Yellowstone this February. It felt like we were the only people in this vast wilderness. While snowmobiling with our guide and the three other people we rarely saw anyone else (except at the bathrooms and warming huts.)

Good note, Anon. Totally forgot about some part because earthquake swarms aren't THAT uncommon in the park, in part because, well, because I forgot;-) But it is interesting that Xanterra's rep mentioned that to you...

My wife & I visited Yellowstone in February. We traveled with a photography group sponsored through the Yellowstone Association and traveled by snow coach. It was an enthralling experience and I can recommend a visit to all photographers!

I was there in mid-March and greatly enjoyed it. Regardless of the season, it is a fantastic place for any nature lover to visit.

On a previously sore spot, todays' Billings Gazette has a story about this topic. They also state that it cost the NPS $325,000.00 to keep the Cody route open this winter and ONLY 97 snowmobiles entered the park through that route ! Hate to open old wounds but that is an extremely ridiculous amount of wasted money that could be put to better use in Yellowstone in my opinion.

What's interesting to me is that vehicular traffic was reported up for most of the winter until this last report; I wonder if that's a strong sign of the economy's bite. Or, perhaps, it meant I visited Yellowstone (via an entrance - I skied into the park a few other times) less during the last period! LOL

On Cody, the right wing newspaper in Cody has a different take on the issue, not surprisingly - see - "East gate numbers will rebound in time"

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I live in Montana, love the outdoors and winter, and rarely go to Yellowstone. Plain and simple it's the snowmobiles. Sure they're fun and a source of revenue, but much like smoking in bars, the people that aren't into the smell and the noise are going to stay away. I'm more inclined to go snowshoeing or xc skiing, and the last thing I want to see is a line of stinky zoom zoomers.

We cancelled our plans after the earthquake reports.

While I agree about the snowmobiles, there's a lot of good skiing and snowshoeing in Yellowstone that keeps you pretty far from snowmobiles. We really love skiing in the park; the snow is often so much better than it is - say, in the Bozeman area, where the winter was awfully mild.

As far as earthquake reports ... it was stunning just how many people came to my own Web site when that started happening, even though to most locals, it was barely news, barely talked about, and barely mentioned at any length in local press. The reason, of course, is that people with experience could see that there was a hysteria that went beyond any sensible risk analysis of the situation, and people are fascinated by disasters and dooms day scenarios. However, based on the number of people that showed such an interest in this during the few weeks that the swarm was going strong, I'm not surprised if that hurt numbers. It would also explain why automobile traffic remained strong while tourist travel (that relies much more on snowmobiles and snowcoaches) was weaker; it wouldn't explain why car traffic got weaker as the winter went on (that seems to me to be the economy more than anything).

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

My husband and I have visited yellowstone many times, in all seasons. By far, our favorite time is winter. We get very little snow where we live, and it is such a treat to have ALL that snow! The uncrowded conditions (except for bison and elk), the thermal features, and landscapes are all superb during that season. However, we have decided not to visit during winter for the past several years. Not because of earthquake scares, but because we do not want to be required to snowmobile with a guide. We always have rented 4-cycle engine snowmobiles (much less stinky and noisy), always stay on marked trails, are courteous to other visitors and wildlife, and we obey all other rules and speed limits. I believe there are other people like us, and I think that in addition to other factors already mentioned, the required use of guides may deter many visitors. Perhaps some of the money wasted by keeping the Cody route open could be put to better use in heightened enforcement of the existing rules. Also, it would make sense if ONLY 4-cycle engines were allowed in the park.