Though growing visitation to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks has led to overflowing parking lots and traffic snarls, superintendents say visitor patterns and geography make transitioning to shuttle systems unlikely anytime soon.

Citing separate studies, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly and GTNP Superintendent Chip Jenkins recently said parkwide shuttle systems don’t make sense for the popular northwestern Wyoming destinations. That’s because visitors often drive in one entrance and out another and the costs of shuttling them would be huge, among other reasons.

“I don’t foresee anytime in the future a parkwide shuttle system,” Sholly said. A shuttle system, he said, is “not going to solve everything” related to congestion. 

Their stances cast doubt on one of the tools people have looked to mitigate the effects of crowds in the parks’ most popular spots. 

Grand Teton 

Rising visitation has stressed parts of both parks as maintenance budgets, aging infrastructure and staff numbers lag behind the growth. Visitation was relatively steady for much of the 1990s-2000s, but that began to change in the mid-2010s, fueled by factors such as the 2016 “Find Your Park” campaign, the growth in outdoor recreation participation and the 2017 solar eclipse. The pandemic only accelerated the trend.

In GTNP, for example, 2021 brought a record-breaking 3.9 million visits — a 50% increase from a decade earlier. 

In response, the park has been experimenting by limiting vehicles at crowded lots and requiring camping reservations. The park in 2021 studied traffic patterns, trail-use numbers and visitor experiences. Grand Teton shared an executive summary of the report in late February. 

In a press call about that study, Superintendent Jenkins stressed that 91% of vehicles that enter the park stop at least once somewhere in the park, and most make multiple stops. 

A line of visitors queues up for boat rides in Grand Teton National Park. (J. Bonney/National Park Service)

“The way that people come and visit Grand Teton is not really what many people expect,” Jenkins said. “It’s very complicated. There’s not necessarily a normal pattern. And what we really learned is that visitation is highly dispersed, highly varied and that there is no dominant travel pattern.”

That reality, Jenkins said, “sets up a really interesting … both question and dilemma for us.”

If the park were to shift away from private transportation, he said, it would strip people of the autonomy to visit the way they appear to enjoy. “Driving in their private vehicle affords them that opportunity to continue this kind of visitor experience,” he said. 

Only about 5% of visitors are local residents, Jenkins said, who use the park differently from out-of-towners; locals tend to drive directly to their destination, while visitors meander and stop at turnouts to take in the scenery. In addition, the study shows visitors enter from various areas — from Dubois, Jackson and Yellowstone, for example.  

There have been calls to expand the regional transit system into the park, Jenkins said, and the park is open to exploring the feasibility with stakeholders. 

But the idea of an alternative transportation system, he said, would entail either having to “fundamentally change the kind of experience people had, or you would have to have such a web of connections that it’s a pretty complex system.” 

Not only would a shuttle system be insufficient to fix the park’s traffic problems, he continued, “conversely, it might create a whole bunch of other problems.

“And while there are many people who have ideas and thoughts about what solutions might be to problems,” he said, “part of what we’re trying to figure out is … exactly what the problems are.” 

The data will help the park understand what is happening in the park as visitation mounts, Jenkins said. The park already identified several places — such as Jenny Lake, Lupine Meadows and Taggart Lake — where parking demand exceeds spaces, and will “continue to experiment” with alternatives. 

A shuttle may still come to the park, though from another source. The Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit operates a robust transit system in the Jackson area that includes in-town and commuter rides. 

“The START board, and, you know, many citizens, including the county commission, have long talked about service up to the park, and that now is one of our top priorities,” board Chair Jared Smith said. “But we also acknowledge that it’s very challenging to come up with viable solutions” given the park’s use patterns. 

START hopes to identify funding to do pilot or demonstration projects in the near future that would provide service to the park, he said.


Yellowstone National Park entered 2022 intending to celebrate its 150-year anniversary, but historic floods in June threw a wrench into those plans, wiping out roads and forcing closures. Visits dropped 32% from the record 4.9-million tally of 2021.

A crowd waits with cameras at the ready for Old Faithful to erupt in May 2019. (Arthur T. LaBar/FlickrCC)

Still, Sholly expects numbers to rebound fairly quickly back to the “normal range” of about 4 million and continue to grow. Though the flood diverted park officials’ attention last year, the park has not stopped thinking about how to solve challenges around managing growth, he said. 

To that end, a transit feasibility study was completed in late 2022. Though alternative transportation is “consistently pointed to by park visitors and employees, the public and key stakeholder groups,” it reads, those options have been minimally explored in previous reviews. The study aimed to do that — with a focus on whether transit services for the busy Old Faithful-Madison corridor and Canyon Village areas are feasible, and “whether transit would significantly reduce traffic congestion, improve visitor mobility, and address key park concerns.”

The study found that several concepts — such as closing certain zones to all but pedestrian/bike/transit traffic — would result in less congestion and/or more parking. But they would also bring major infrastructure, staffing and overhead costs, and none of the concepts met park “achievability criteria.” 

“At least in this park, it’s unclear exactly how positively impacting that would be on traffic and congestion and things like that,” Sholly said of a shuttle system, especially compared to the cost of the investment, which he called “monumental.”

The park’s size, with five entrances and roughly 500 miles of road, would further complicate the logistics of shuttle travel planning, he said.

While it was a valuable exercise, Sholly said, the study also underscored that shuttles alone won’t solve all the congestion problems — especially without a guarantee that people will use them. 

Yellowstone piloted a driverless shuttle in Canyon Village in 2021, seen here next to a historic version of a shuttle. Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said he expects the park to continue to explore the feasibility of this kind of technology. (Yellowstone National Park/Flickr)

The study added that “congestion could be also controlled by just managed access, regardless of whether there was transit service.” 

Sometimes, Sholly said, measures aimed at alleviating the problems only compound them. When the park added a temporary parking lot near Midway Geyser Basin in 2017, for example, it didn’t add trash cans and bathrooms. “So what we’ve seen in our monitoring … is a lot more litter, human waste, social trails, things like that.”

The park is planning to replace that temporary lot with a permanent one that could only be used through a “timed-entry system,” he said. That process will be open to the public, he said. 

Glimpse into the future 

Visitation to both parks slowed in 2022, a trend likely influenced by flooding. Even without the disaster, however, a nearly universal slowing of visitation across Wyoming public lands indicates it likely would have been a softer year. 

Jenkins and Sholly believe visitation growth will generally continue, though not as dramatically as 2021. In some respects, Jenkins said, that anomaly was a gift, because “we have a glimpse of the future.”

Visitors swarm Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park during a normal season. (Neal Herbert/NPS)

Much of this conversation, Sholly said, centers around the question of what number triggers action to prevent resource impacts or reduce congestion. “And that’s not an exact science.”

As visitation increases, he said, “I have no doubt some of those actions will have to get more aggressive. But I don’t think right this second we’re at a point where we need to cap visitation, and also I can’t tell you exactly where that threshold is.” 

It’s going to take thoughtful conversations that include stakeholders, including gateway communities like Cody and Jackson, Sholly said. “We’ve got significant issues, in certain parts of the park at certain times of the year, that need to be addressed. But they need to be addressed strategically.” 

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Jared Smith’s name.

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. It’s surprising that the issue of gigantic tour buses filled with dozens of tourists isn’t being addressed; this is an increasingly undesirable & unpleasant consequence: Limit the access tour buses have by issuing a limited number of reservation passes each day, late May through mid-September. Limiting large tour buses will help preserve the wilderness feeling of being in the park for most families, in my opinion.

  2. It is interesting that neither you nor the speakers spoke of the unintended consequences of failing to plan for mass transit alternatives to visitors to both parks. Was any benchmarking done to learn where public transportation works inside National Parks (e.g.) Yosemite?
    Is either park studying mortality rates of flora and fauna by pollution from fossil fuels and Climate Change.
    What has growth done to the natural resources which feed the parks and their surrounding areas?
    How is the pollution that leaves both parks other than burying it out of sight?
    Far too many questions remain unasked as leadership shrugs its shoulders and passes on aggressive studies that would promote the interests of the 5% of visitors who live near and support the economic development of our region as well as two of the greatest gems in the National Park system.

    1. Yosemite is essentially a box canyon. The vast majority enter and exit through the western gates. There is a through road to the Eastern Sierras, but is not nearly as heavily used. Yosemite can therefore easily structure their public transit as round trips to the beginning location since visitors more rarely travel through the park to go elsewhere.

      Yellowstone is more frequently a through-way park as mentioned. My grandparents lived in Sheridan & Buffalo and we took camping trips almost every year from Southern California via Yellowstone & The Teatons. I’m 65 and have been back to Yellowstone many times since childhood. I’ve never entered and left the Parks the same way on the same trip. That means retraining visitors to consider the Parks a closed loop for planning purposes. Doing that will likely cause current through-way travelers to cut a day or more off their trips while the circumnavigate the park to continue what we’re previously through trips. Maybe that will decrease crowds in other neighboring parks, but it also increases days in gateway towns which may be overrun by the visitors who now start & their days in those gateways. More tourist dollars and more gateway development, but now spreading the problem out between several states.

  3. Rangers do a good job of keeping the herds on the roads and attractions so the backcountry is for themselves it’s nothing more then communist china.

  4. As tough as it is to say, I fear the only answer is to limit visitation and to require reservations to visit the park(s). In the “good ole’ days’, we could drive to the park and visit any site we chose, never having an issue finding parking. Our last trip to Yellowstone in 2021 was an eye opening experience. Parking lots jammed, bumper to bumper traffic, massive crowds at every site, etc. This virtually ruined what used to be an awesome experience. Unfortunately, the days of traveling and deciding at the last minute to visit a national park are a thing of the past. However, if reservations are required, the experience for those lucky enough to visit will be much better.

  5. Hard to believe that there isn’t an answer involving buses and shuttles. While I would hate to see permits and reducing numbers of people, that is where we are headed. Perhaps we just require permits if you want to drive your own vehicle???

  6. A couple of comments.
    If 4M visitors is the norm, there is an issue that the park is being managed for visitors instead of natural resources. Seems like 3M should be more realistic and manageable.
    However, I think all the studies and superintendents’ comments are just a prelude to the fact that they know limits to the number of visitors are the only solution and that is coming soon. They are just setting the stage for the inevitable by slowly and continually saying we don’t know what to do about all the traffic. They know what to do.

  7. I’m curious what other folks think about the obvious answer. Limit visitation. We seem to be the only country where everyone feels they have a “right.” In Africa for example, you make a reservation to go to a big game park. There are places you cannot travel without a guide. America is just a free for all.

  8. My memories of Yellowstone and Teton Park are vastly different. I visited both when I was a kid. I am now seventy-six years old. I remember counting bears and you would see over a hundred a trip. The bear frequented garbage dumps and we fed them out of the car window. I fished the lakes from a boat at the fishing bridge and on the shore of Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake. Over the years we would always visit Old Faithful and stay in a campground where they had cabins near fishing bridge. One day I started chasing ground squirrels and got lost. A man noticed me and asked me if I was lost and I told him no, but my grandpa is. We wandered through the campground till we found my grandpa who was frantically looking for me and thought I might have gotten eaten by a bear. At that time we once stayed in a cabin with knotty pine walls at Jackson lake lodge and I got to see the inside of the lodge overlooking the lake and I saw the spectacular view from the large window inside the lodge. My how things have changed.

    1. “ A man noticed me and asked me if I was lost and I told him no, but my grandpa is.” ~ Rick Sather

      That’s a great memory and funny story. Thanks for sharing.

  9. More is never enough. The old Paul Simon song Slip Sliding’ Away says it best:

    “We work our jobs
    Collect our pay
    Believe we’re gliding down the highway
    When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”