In a normal year, more than 4 million people flock to Yellowstone National Park, half of them during the summer months. They fill visitor centers, gift shops and lodges, which are staffed by thousands of workers who come from all over the world and live within the park. And they pack boardwalks to gaze at Old Faithful, one of the world’s largest predictable erupting geysers, and Grand Prismatic, a widely recognizable neon blue, yellow and orange hot spring.
America’s first national park features more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails and some 300 backcountry campsites, but it is those magnificent geological features that draw most visitors, creating bottlenecks that can be an annoyance in peak season. But this year, as parks open back up amid a still-unfolding pandemic, they present serious risks.
“How do we successfully manage 11,000 people on a boardwalk at Old Faithful every day?” Cameron Sholly, Yellowstone’s superintendent, asked during an April 21 conference call. At that point, it was a hypothetical. This week, Yellowstone partially reopened for the first time since March. Pictures quickly surfaced of crowds of out-of-state visitors gathered in close proximity. Memorial Day weekend is typically the start to summer, which means it will only get tougher.
Mike Keller, general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges, estimated only 10 to 15 of the approximately 140 visitors he observed at Old Faithful at one point on Thursday morning were wearing protective masks. The cold and rain kept bigger crowds at bay that day, but the three-day holiday weekend is expected to draw scores of visitors to Yellowstone and other national parks.
It’s the kind of situation that advocacy groups like the National Parks Conservation Association hoped to avoid, urging the Trump administration to close parks and not reopen them until it could guarantee the safety of visitors and staff.
“We get it, people feel like they want to be outside,” said...