Yellowstone National Park

Visitors explore Yellowstone National Park’s Midway Geyser basin in July.

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Yellowstone National Park reported last month was its busiest September on record, evidence that a rapid uptick in visits starting this July has carried over.

The park recorded approximately 837,000 recreation visits this September. The number of visits increased 21% from September 2019 and 15.6% from the park’s second busiest September in 2018, when the park saw about 724,000 visits.

The climb in visits reflects a trend that began a little more than a month after the park’s five entrances reopened to visitors. All entrances were closed from March 24 to May 18 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After Wyoming opened its two entrances to Yellowstone in mid-May, the park was initially quiet. Approximately 46,000 visits were recorded that month, an approximate 90% decline in the number of visits recorded the May prior.

The decline carried over to June, when Montana opened its three entrances to the park. Just under 574,000 recreation visits were recorded that month, 26.6% fewer than the June prior. Despite the decrease, visits were picking up.

This July, the trend reversed. Yellowstone recorded approximately 2.1% more visits in July 2020 than in July 2019.

Visits escalated in August. The park reported August 2020 was its second busiest on record. The busiest was August 2017, when a total solar eclipse contributed to around 916,000 visits.

Because of closures due to the pandemic, total visits to Yellowstone in 2020 are still down 11% from this time last year, officials wrote.

Officials track recreation visits by counting vehicles that enter the park at its five entrances. Those who camp or stay in hotels outside of the park due to coronavirus-related closures may be counted more than once.

Sara Fleming, a spokesperson for the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, said the park’s high visitation in late summer and early fall manifested in more business for tourism-based industries in the town.

Businesses in Gardiner suffered when the pandemic forced the park to close its borders. They suffered again on July 14 when a fire ripped through downtown Gardiner. However, in the months after the event, rafting companies, horseback riding companies and tour guides saw much higher demand than what they would normally see.

“I’m happy businesses were able to utilize the boon in industries,” Fleming said. “High visitation compounded with COVID and limited resources. It was a season where businesses worked really hard.”

Fleming said the demographics among tourists also changed this summer, with more young people between the ages of 20 and 50 stopping by than in summers past.

“This summer has been a summer of many unknowns,” she said. “We don’t know what the winter will hold, but I’m sure we’ll continue to adapt.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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