Natalie Ware takes in the sunset at Glendo State Park. (Aleah Ware/The Nature Conservancy of Wyoming)

Visitation to Wyoming’s state parks dipped slightly in 2021, but the system’s managers — heeding a five-year trend — are still preparing for high traffic as the summer season approaches.

Wyoming’s 12 state parks saw 5.4 million visits in 2021, according to department visitation reports. That’s a 4% decrease from 2020’s record-breaking 5.6 million, but still 26% above the five-year average of 4.3 million.

“What we’re seeing for industry trends suggests that we’re going to see another similar year in 2022,” State Parks & Outdoor Recreation Office Deputy Director Nick Neylon said. “We’re expecting to be in that exact same range.”

Neylon checked summer reservations in early May for the popular Curt Gowdy State Park, he said, “and it’s like 97% full for the summer, it’s crazy … Buffalo Bill [State Park] will be the same way.”

To brace for the crowds, the state agency is planning to make permanent some capacity-expansion projects and has tweaked policies in an effort to reduce no-show reservations and ensure users can find spots to pop tents.

Upward trend and state investment

Visitation to Wyoming’s state parks soared in 2020, a trend many attributed to a confluence of COVID-19 travel patterns and the growing popularity of outdoor recreation.

Visitation slowed at some of the hardest-hit pandemic destinations last year, but numbers still reflect a growing strain on the system. With 394,000 visits in 2021, Boysen State Park near Shoshoni saw a 5% decrease from 2020, for example, but a 125% increase over the five-year average.

Mountain biking is popular in Curt Gowdy State Park, which has experienced significant visitation in recent years. (Wyoming State Parks)

Not all parks followed this trend. The state’s most visited park, Hot Springs in Thermopolis, saw 1.76 million visitors, down 7% from 2020 as well as 7% below the five-year average.

The state has emphasized the value of outdoor recreation and tourism as mechanisms to diversify the economy. In a May 10 meeting, Darin Westby, who directs the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, told the Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources committee state parks’ economic impact is growing.

“The park side is coming in just about double what we were back in 2009,” Westby said. Data from 2019, he said, showed “$210 million of direct economic impact, which is pretty significant.”

Since 2019, he noted, “we’ve bumped up that visitation almost another million. So … our impact is a lot more than $210 million.”

In the same meeting, Deputy Director of Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites, and Trails Dave Glenn pointed to how investment in outdoor recreation at state parks has drawn crowds. “In 2006 we started building trails at Curt Gowdy State Park,” Glenn said. “Our visitation was roughly 50,000 people during that time. Last year, our visitation was 518,000 people, and roughly 60% of those people were coming to Curt Gowdy for the use of the trails.”

Crowd capacity

Some growing pains — such as packed campgrounds and strains on staff — have accompanied the swift rise in visitation.

State Parks used federal CARES dollars to add temporary campsites in parks like Buffalo Bill, Boysen, Glendo and Keyhole last year. “We’ve got permission to go ahead and make those permanent, and that will help at those places,” Neylon said.

But harder-hit places, Neylon said, need careful consideration. “Curt Gowdy is an issue,” he said. “It’s over-loved. And we’re looking at ways to potentially expand the park.”

Vans and trailers park at campsites in the Lower Wind River Campground in Boysen State Park in May 2021. (Kathy Lichtendahl)

Wyoming has $14 million in Office of Tourism and federal pandemic-relief funds to use for outdoor recreation projects. The state will use some of the funds to make the temporary sights permanent, Neylon said, and is determining how to allocate the rest.

State Parks has also tweaked its reservation systems to reduce the number of no-shows, which was leaving campsites unavailable but unused.

“That’s a big problem, something we get a lot of complaints about,” Neylon said.

In 2021 the department eliminated a cancellation fee as a way to encourage people to actually cancel their reservation so the site can be released for other users. The department also implemented a policy to limit and eventually eliminate the ability of repeated no-shows to make reservations, Neylon said. “So we’re going to continue to enforce that strongly.”

For the coming summer, Neylon said, users should not expect any major changes.

“Our customers have been through enough changes with the reservation system over the last couple of years, and we made a conscious effort to not implement any other big changes this year just to give everybody a breather and allow them to enjoy the summer without having to worry about adapting to our system,” he said.

Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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  1. It seems Agencies always release information similar to this when, there is a high probability they will fail on providing service even at
    the minimum level.

  2. “Neylon’s statement Curt Gowdy is over-loved” is an accurate statement. Two issues I think need addressing. The motorized bicycle/aka electric bicycles on the same trails as hikers. Families with little children are utilizing the same trails that now allow electric bicycles this is a disaster waiting to happen. Not all individuals who use electric bicycles have the skill level to be sharing hiking / electric bicycle trails.
    Second concern is the amount of trash that is generated by the four groups of Curt Gowdy users hikers/bicyclists/campers /and boating traffic. Please pick up and secure your trash (yes we do have windy days) and stop the graffiti on the trees and rocks. The bear proof dumpsters are a nice added addition for this years tourist season. I would like to see a few more in place for the winter fishing season use also.
    Quotes by Conor Knighton ‘If you believe nature has a soul, it feels like it must be bound up in the bark and sap of our forests – even regular pines and aspen trees outlast us.’ Respect the boundless beauty that has been given to us as caretakers; let’s keep our Wyoming park(s) in pristine condition available for future generations to enjoy ‘take only memories and leave only footprints’. Thank you

  3. The reservation system needs a lot of work. Many off holiday weekends were booked solid…..until you actually showed up and noted the number of vacant sites over the weekend. Figure if you book 6 weekends, don’t show for 3, you still have your reservation privileges. It’s not very well thought out. And if you get an annual pass, you are only out your $4 reservation fee for whatever you didn’t show for. .

  4. The change to no-shows and rereleasing the campsite was a needed improvement. Thank you for responding to the comments you were given. I’d like to see a number of sites being reserved for Wyoming residents since we are overrun with Colorado visitors.