Yellowstone tops 3 million summer visitors for third straight year

For the third straight year, Yellowstone National Park has seen more than 3 million visitors pass through its gates during the summer months alone. Those lofty numbers come despite a colder than normal start to the season and a host of unique PR challenges that could have easily discouraged travelers from visiting.

Winter in the western U.S. was a long and cold one, with heavy snow lasting well into the spring. When the roads into Yellowstone opened in May, there was still plenty of snow and ice throughout the park. That resulted in a slower than normal start to the travel season, although June, July, and August, traditionally the three busiest months of the year, rebounded nicely.

It was a challenging summer for visitors to America’s first national park. Avalanches and rock slides closed roads early on, making travel difficult. Later forest fires were a small, but potential danger, and in July, a grizzly bear attacked and killed a hiker. That tragedy was the first of its kind inside Yellowstone in more than 25 years.

Despite those challenges however, visitors still flocked to the park, with more than 900,000 in July alone. Those impressive numbers prove that the national parks remain a popular option for travelers looking to explore the best outdoor destinations in the U.S.

Visit Yellowstone with Ken Burns this winter

Filmmaker Ken Burns and his longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan have partnered with travel company Tauck to create a series of classic travel itineraries based around his films. These trips, entitled Ken Burns American Journeys, offer travelers the opportunity to experience Civil War battlegrounds, jazz festivals, and, of course, national parks from the unique perspective of Burns himself.

In January of 2012, Tauck will give travelers a once in a lifetime chance to meet both Burns and Duncan, in one of the most magical environments possible – Yellowstone National Park. Highlights of the trip will include a visit to Lamar Valley, home to one of the most diverse displays of wildlife in North America, and an excursion to the Geyser Basin to explore Yellowstone’s famous geothermal activity. Visitors will also have the opportunity to visit the park’s interior via snowcoach, soak in the hot springs of Mammoth, and enjoy a keynote address from Burns himself. For more information on this itinerary, including pricing and dates, click here.

For those unable to make that trip, Tauck is offering another winter Yellowstone option as well. The nine-day Wonderland: Yellowstone in Winter itinerary has six departures spread out across January, February, and March, and features much of the same activities above, minus the famous documentarian.

Burns’ fabulous six-part series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is a love letter to the amazing places that make up the national park system in the U.S. The filmmaker’s appreciation for the parks comes through in these itineraries from Tauck as well, with Yellowstone being right at the top of the list. Fans of the national parks and Burns won’t want to miss out on the opportunity to visit Yellowstone with the man himself.

This past January I was fortunate enough to visit Yellowstone in the winter myself, and I can tell you that it truly is an amazing experience. Even if you’ve been to the park before, if you haven’t visited in winter, you really haven’t seen what Yellowstone has to offer. The quiet solitude gives the world’s first national park a peaceful tranquility and the pristine snow makes it even more beautiful than it is in the summer. The fact that practically no-one visits during the colder months doesn’t hurt either.

Forest fires impact national parks

While parts of the eastern United States continue to struggle with too much water in the wake of Hurricane Irene’s passing, out west the dry conditions have led to forest fires that are having an impact on two of the nation’s most popular national parks.

Late last week, a fire sparked up on the edge of Yosemite National Park when a motor home caught fire. The blaze quickly spread to the Stanislaus National Forest, which borders Yosemite, closing down a popular road leading into the park itself. Over the course of the past five days, the fire has consumed more than 4775 acres, and while firefighters feel they have it under control, the park’s rough terrain hasn’t made the battle an easy one.

Fortunately, most visitors to Yosemite haven’t been effected by the blaze at all. In fact, park officials say that none of the park’s trademark vistas have been obscured by smoke, although nearby Merced River Canyon has seen its walls blackened by the fire. The park itself remains open, although visitors will want to check the status of Highway 140 before using that entrance.

Meanwhile, lighting strikes were responsible for igniting five forest fires in Yellowstone National Park last week as well. The fires were discovered throughout the day on Thursday after a storm passed through the area the night before. Park Service firefighters reacted quickly to each of the blazes, and they were contained before the flames could spread too widely. Yellowstone remains at a “very high” risk for wildfires at the moment however, and heading into the long Labor Day weekend, there are some concerns about more fires springing up.
Yellowstone was of course the site of one of the largest and most devastating forest fires in U.S. history, when more than 793,000 acres were consumed by flames in 1988. The remnants of that wildfire are still evident today, but it has also brought renewed life to the park’s ecosystem as well. While it is a long, slow process for the forest to rebuild itself, it is amazing to see plants and animals return to the park as the natural ecological forces take over.

If your Labor Day plans include camping in a local, state, or national park, be sure to check-in with park rangers to find out of their are any fire restrictions in effect. Campfires, grills, or camping stoves can all be very dangerous during the late summer.

You can also check to find the status on the most recent wildfires in your area as well.

[Photo credit: AP Photo/The Reporter via Rick Roach]

Summer campsites available in Yellowstone

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park this summer have an unexpected option when it comes to choosing where to stay. Typically this time of year the park’s campsites are booked solid and impossible to get into without a reservation made months in advance. But unusually heavy spring snows has led to a high number of cancellations and a low level of occupancy, meaning there are plenty of campsites available heading into the busy late summer season.

This past winter was an unusually harsh and long one, with record setting snows across the western United States. Those snows continued into the spring, and cooler than normal temperatures kept the ground covered for far longer than was expected. But the warm weather has arrived at last, and the snows have now given way to the brilliantly colored wildflowers and green meadows of summer. Those views, combined with Yellowstone’s trademark wildlife viewing, have reminded travelers why the park is amongst the most popular in the U.S.

Thanks to the unpredictable spring weather, visitors who had been planning to camp inside Yellowstone elected to make other plans for their accommodations. This has opened up the availability of campsites, particularly for August and September. Park officials report that visitors who would like to camp, either in a tent or an RV, will likely have no problems staying in the park for the remainder of the summer.

Yellowstone has always been one of the crown jewels of the American national park system and the experience is made all the better when visitors can stay inside the park itself. It seems that the weather this year has made that a more viable option than ever, and summer is a great time to camp in the world’s first national park.

To book a campsite, cabin, or lodge inside of Yellowstone click here.

Yellowstone in pictures: 2011

Yellowstone is a wild place of fire and ice. The first son of the United States national parks system, and the first national park in the entire world, is a rich ecosystem of wild creatures and geothermal wonders. With snow capped peaks and alien-looking hot springs, Yellowstone’s diversity prompts millions to visit the high altitude Serengeti yearly.

While Old Faithful performs on schedule every hour or so, much of the park changes year over year. Hotbeds of geothermal activity spread and recede. The animals behave unpredictably, taking cues from weather, water level, and crowds. In one year a visitor may see only a handful of bison, but the next year, thousands may come into view at the same location on the same day. And the holy grail of Yellowstone, a bear sighting, is likely in some years and near impossible in others. (Check out these tips to safely exist among bears in the wild) This dynamism provides a unique experience even for repeat visitors.

From stopping at Bison traffic jams to kneeling quietly at a shady brook to watch a mossy antlered moose cooling off, Yellowstone provides a glimpse into what the United States looked like before being settled from coast to coast. Every American should feel obligated to visit two places in their lifetime: Yellowstone Park and New York City. One shows what we are, the other, what we were. Check out this gallery of Yellowstone beauty.


All photography by Justin Delaney