Montana is known for having some of the top spots in the world for outdoor recreation, and demand for access to these stunning natural areas has only grown in recent years. Inside national parks in particular, you’ll find beautiful spaces, but also unprecedented numbers of people eager to experience the same natural wonders. What does that mean for visitors? Here’s what visitation looked like in 2021, and what to expect with similar numbers in the future.
Yellowstone hit records all around in 2021, with the highest number of visitors ever recorded at 4,860,537 through the gates. July in particular was hopping, with the highest number of monthly visitors ever in the park, breaking 1 million in a single month.
Glacier was right there with it, even with its new ticketed entry system in place. The park reached 3,081,656 in visitors for 2021, which was second only behind the record high they hit with 3,305,512 in 2017.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an obvious driver of this increase in outdoor recreation. When indoor activities are closed, it just makes sense to get outside and breathe in some fresh air. But the rising trend has been in place since long before the start of the pandemic.
In 2019, pre-pandemic, Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, acting intermountain regional director for the NPS, pointed out some potential drivers for increased visitation in a statement. He indicated the economic resurgence following the 2008 recession, which allowed more people to return to travel. He also pointed out the rise of social media, which makes it easier than ever to find some of the most scenic spots, while drawing more attention to them. This, along with other PR efforts and general interest in the outdoors and numerous other factors, have helped draw people into parks in record numbers.
More people generally means more love for parks, which turns into stewardship that can help support public lands well into the future. As millions of people by national park passes, that money goes back into maintaining the parks. And many of the small gateway communities around the parks rely on the economic jolt of a busy summer season. From the visitor perspective, more people mean more services, easier access to amenities, and a higher likelihood of sustainable options like public transit and shuttles to get you around the park.
On the other hand, high visitation rates can cause problems from a park management perspective. It looks like more waste in trash cans and toilets, more litter and more pollution with crowded roads and parking lots. As a visitor, that all impacts your experience too. When you’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors, battling for parking spots, and seeing the scattering trash below the guardrail at the lookout, it isn’t quite the remote experience you might have imagined.
You can do your part to help protect these natural areas when you visit. When you recreate in national parks, be sure to follow Leave No Trace ethics, and dispose of trash and waste properly. You can also give back in other ways. Whether you donate to a park foundation or give your time for a volunteer day, you can help promote sustainability in these important park resources. Advocate for funding increases for public lands when you see them come up in your state and federal elections. And in general, be nice to people and to the environment when you hang out in national parks and gateway communities.
Combine your park stewardship with a sustainable accommodation in the gateway to Montana’s top national parks. Highline Adventures properties emphasize care for the planet, along with comfort when you stay near Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Book your stay to access the wilds of Montana’s national parks.