Vehicles queued for admission to Yellowstone National Park in 2016, the busiest year in park history. In 2021 closed accommodations caused people to pass through park gates more frequently, fouling the people-counting methodology and overcounting tourists by nearly 1 million. (National Park Service/Courtesy)

The raw data for numbers of tourists in Yellowstone National Park during 2021 tell a story of unprecedented crowding. 

Even excluding the not-yet-counted tens of thousands of folks who traveled to the 2.2-million-acre national park during December, there were 4.8-plus million recreational visits — a 13% pop, on the surface, over the prior busiest year, 2016. 

But it turns out that those numbers are misleading, and add up to nearly 1 million fewer visitors than previously believed. 

“The 4.8 million visits this year is a pretty deceiving number,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said.

What happened, Sholly explained to WyoFile, was a shift in how tourists were traveling in and out of the world’s first national park, which threw off Yellowstone’s methodology for counting heads. Because of COVID-19 and related staffing shortages, about 20% of the beds in the park were unavailable. 

“That 20% [of people] left the park,” Sholly said. “They came back two or three times, and got counted two or three times instead of once.” 

Yellowstone staff discovered the discrepancy poring over the visitation data, the park’s superintendent said. All told, there were 350,000 more vehicles than expected reentering the park, but each rig — and its occupants — reentered an average of 2.6 times. 

The methodology-induced error inflated the tourist headcount by about 900,000 people, he said.

“This isn’t going to be an issue for most parks,” Sholly said. “I’m not a huge fan of the way we count visits. It’s just the system we’ve used for decades.” 

Snip 900,000 overcounted visitors from 4.8 million, and 150-year-old Yellowstone still had one of its six busiest years ever. 

Although the corrected number for 2021 will be slightly down from Yellowstone’s 2016 peak, the overall long-term trajectory is nothing but up. Yellowstone notched its first million-visitor year in 1948, Sholly said, and hit 2 million in 1965. The 3-million-visitor threshold was surpassed in 1992. Four million was topped in 2015. 

“Despite the anomaly,” Sholly said, “I do think the overall trend is going to continue to go upwards.” 

Ed — This story was updated to further clarify the difference between visits and visitors.

Mike Koshmrl

Mike Koshmrl reports from Jackson on state politics and Wyoming's natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures...

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  1. The parks have no idea how to count people correctly. Never have. It is all a statistical wild guess. The old ways of making estimates might have been meaningful in the context of looking at changes from year to year. But, that’s open to debate as people recreate differently, as COVID washed over us, as family units changed, and as more locals are in the park more often. And what they count isn’t always what you really need, or want, to know: unique visits, unique visitors, all visits, etc.

    With license plate readers it would be fairly easy to make unique car counts but rental cars would need to be adjusted for.

    Cell phone data – unique ids pinging networks – suggests that Jackson had about 50,000 unique phone hits per day during July and August (60,000 near July 4th). See: https://image.tetonmediaworks.com/Yh2AhFA.LYMx~1b74/w:724/h:416/q:55/https://buckrail.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Screen-Shot-2021-07-20-at-1.48.34-PM.png

    GTNP had over 5 million ‘visitors’ (recreational and non-recreational) according to this report:

    https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/SSRSReports/Park%20Specific%20Reports/Monthly%20Public%20Use?Park=GRTE

    I find it really hard to believe that 5 million people came through Jackson/GTNP in 2021, if that is what they are saying.

    You can find the link to GTNP’s counting methods are near the bottom of this page: https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/Reports/Park/GRTE

    Other useful link:
    https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/