Christian Vivet stood beside his camper at a riverside campground in central Wyoming’s Sinks Canyon State Park, peering through binoculars at the limestone cliffs above — a landscape vastly different from his home state of Florida.
He had traveled to this relatively obscure campground with his wife and dog as part of a 10-week road trip through the western U.S. Unlike the hordes of people who have reportedly taken up domestic camper travel as a new adaptation to COVID-19, it’s an annual pilgrimage for the Vivets, who run a French bistro on a small Gulf Coast island. They shut down during the slow summer season, he said, and head to the mountains.
“We do it every year,” he said.
But in 2020, they left a bit earlier as their state became a hotspot of virus infections. And as they traveled the campgrounds of the country, he said, they encountered many newbie campers.
“There’s a lot of what I would call amateurs,” he said, chuckling. “You see that when it’s time to do some mundane task … for example emptying your holding tanks or backing up into a tight spot. That’s how you can tell they are occasional campers.”
It doesn’t bother him much. And Wyoming, he said, is an appealing destination in the current crisis.
“We’re not traveling because of COVID, but it’s nice to be in places like here where social distancing is pretty easy to accomplish,” he said.
Vivet is not alone in his assessment. Visitors have flocked to Wyoming’s public lands this summer — from state parks to national forests, reservoirs to private campgrounds. Experts consider outdoor spaces relatively safe from disease transmission, a fact that appears to be accelerating a yearslong trend across the West of increased usage.
In a state where the economy is reeling from COVID-19 shutdowns and mineral industry declines, many welcome visitors. But, officials say, campers don’t necessarily bring the same economic boost as other types of tourists. And crowds in the wilderness also create their share of management headaches — some with potentially major consequences.
As COVID-19 shut down schools and businesses, triggered travel restrictions and made popular indoor pastimes, many in rural regions headed into their backyards. Some city dwellers, meanwhile, struck out for less-peopled areas.
“You are seeing that in RV sales, mountain bike sales … a lot of it’s obviously related to COVID, because I think people are starting to understand more that the outdoors is a pretty safe place to be,” Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation Manager Chris Floyd said in a July interview. “So they are dispersing and recreating more and trying to get outside.”
As a result, outdoor visitation has soared in Wyoming this summer. State parks, which phased their reopenings, recorded record visitations even in April and May, the early days of the pandemic. In June, when state park campgrounds opened back up to non-residents, numbers skyrocketed.
At Curt Gowdy State Park, traffic counters tallied 97,432 visitors in June of 2020 — a 130% increase over June 2019’s number of 42,327, Floyd said. Glendo State Park saw 111,322 visitors, up 20% from June 2019. Guernsey was up 19% in June 2020, Hawk Springs up 34% and Sinks Canyon up 58%, Floyd said. Over the July Fourth weekend, he added, every state park campground was fully booked.
“It’s really unprecedented,” Floyd said. “We’ve never really seen this level of use.”
Some 43.9% of reservations made between June 1 and July 19 were from out-of-state campers, Floyd said.
On the national forests, where camping is often more dispersed and reservations aren’t always required, metrics are harder to pin down, but managers report heavy use.
Shoshone National Forest Public Information Officer Kristie Salzmann said she doesn’t know the exact reasons why people are flooding national forest land, but “on the Shoshone we are seeing a high level of visitorship.
“Most of our campgrounds are full every weekend,” Salzmann said in late July. “Some of those don’t normally see capacity all year. So we do know there are more people visiting our national forest right now.”
The situation is similar on the Bighorn National Forest, according to Public Affairs Officer Sara Evans Kirol. “Personal observations by professionals reported people started recreating earlier this year and in places that are not typically visited,” she wrote in an email to WyoFile. “This has continued throughout the season and we have seen an increase in trail use, dispersed camping, and other recreation. Most of our facilities have been at full or nearly full capacity (campgrounds and picnic areas) for most of the summer.”
Visitors are saying “they have less options for vacations this year, so have decided to visit a national forest, many for the first time,” Kirol said.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks started the season slowly with phased reopenings — but the numbers have caught up as the summer progressed.
“The last two weeks of June, it really took off,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said of park visitation there. Vehicular traffic in July was “well over 100% every day but four … It’s been very busy.”
While Yellowstone visits were up 2% over 2019 in July, Grand Teton’s were down 3%. But July still brought the fourth highest number of recreational visits on record for that month, 755,762, according to GTNP.
“Most hiking trails in the park have increased daily traffic and all campgrounds in the park are filling earlier each day when comparing this summer to previous years,” reads a GTNP press release. “In general, hiking use in the park has increased approximately 13% and camping in concession-operated campgrounds increased 2% with backcountry camping up 13% in July 2020 compared to July 2019.”
And in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, where accommodations have been limited by COVID-19 closures of lodging and campgrounds, there have been fewer places to stay the night. Those diminishing options could also be contributing to a high number of visitors flooding nearby areas in search of a place to stay.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest has experienced well-publicized issues with surging camping demand this summer, including illegal campsites, fire restriction violations and a disregard of Leave No Trace principles.
“Across the forest patrollers have seen a huge increase in newly created dispersed sites and fire rings in areas that are not on durable surfaces,” read a July 25 Facebook post from the BTNF. “This can cause long term resource damage to our public lands and is a potential fire hazard.”
In response to another land-use concern — overstays — the forest implemented a special order on Aug. 6 mandating that campers move at least 5 air miles away after camping for the maximum 14 days at many sites. The order was drafted to address the problem of people “residing” on the land, according to the BTNF.
“The Forest has stay limits and prohibits residency because when people don’t move frequently enough, the land has little time to recover, heal and regenerate,” Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor said in a release. “Residing and exceeding stay limits creates problems with sanitation, human waste, trash and campfires during fire restrictions.”
An abandoned campfire has been blamed for at least one wildfire this summer, the Hudson Meadow Fire on the Shoshone National Forest. Teton Interagency Fire personnel had extinguished 179 unattended or abandoned campfires as of Aug. 18. And managers report similar other problems across the state.
On the Bighorn National Forest, officials have seen more litter, human waste, dumping of gray/black water, abandoned campfires, fireworks violations, wildlife conflicts and complaints about no camping spots, Kirol wrote.
“We are reaching out to both the new and experienced users about being prepared — ‘know before you go’ and ‘leave not trace’ — before they head out to their public lands,” she wrote.
Amid the barrage of blows to the state’s economy, the spike in outdoor visits is a rare bit of good news, said Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. And Wyoming hasn’t had to reinvent itself to try to attract visitors.
“The great outdoors and open spaces has always been our wheelhouse,” she said. “COVID or no COVID, that’s a really strong pillar that sits really at the heart of who we are.”
Still, more traditional tourist businesses like hotels, restaurants and shops — which were anticipating a banner year in 2020 — have been deeply impacted by shutdowns, restrictions and cancelled travel plans, she said, and more campers are unlikely to make up the difference.
That’s because RV users and campers are typically self-contained, she said. They often cook for themselves and don’t go into town, whereas visitors who stay in hotels are more likely to eat at restaurants and participate in in-town activities.
According to a report prepared for the Office of Tourism, Wyoming visitors who stayed in public and private campgrounds spent $811 million, or about 20% of all visitor spending in 2019. Visitors who stayed in commercial lodging, meanwhile, spent $2.2 billion — or 57% of all visitor spending.
“We might be setting ourselves up for disappointment if we think camping will save” summer tourism, Shober said. But, “we need what we can get.”
Crowds escaping crowds?
The Anderson family had also pulled their rig — a truck camper laden with mountain bikes — into Sinks Canyon State Park to camp in late July. Hailing from Denver, they were en route to Montana for a trip they had planned well before the pandemic. Sinks was a perfect midpoint for an overnight stay, Stacy Anderson said.
“We’re big campers. We’ve had this thing for 13 years,” Anderson said, gesturing at the camper.
Anderson said the pastime has exploded in the Centennial State.
“Being from Colorado, I know that everybody that I know that has never camped in their life is now camping,” she said. All across public lands, “even in wilderness,” sites are more crowded, she said. And she gets why.
“I think because people can’t go anywhere, they are using the beautiful state they live in … to try to find stuff to do,” she said.
A few campsites down, Susan and Michael Madigan, who are from Steamboat, Colorado, echoed that. Their hometown has been overrun by visitors this summer, they said.
“It’s unbelievable,” Michael Madigan said. “More tourists, more campers than we’ve ever seen. So we wanted to get away.”
The Madigans visit Susan’s parents in the Lander area each summer. So it wasn’t novel. But it may become more of the norm.
“I think if we do travel, it’ll be camping,” Susan Madigan said.
In a post-pandemic world, that may mean a new norm for public lands across Wyoming as well.