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Geyser watch at Yellowstone National Park

Geyser watch at Yellowstone National Park

After a slow start to the year, Yellowstone National Park is on pace to set a new annual visitation record, according to the Billings (Mont.) Gazette.

Just-released visitor numbers from July show that more than 900,000 people entered the park that borders Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The figure is up 11.4% from July 2008 and tops the previous all-time record for July of 847,000 visitors that was set in 1995.

“We expected a good year,” said Al Nash, Yellowstone’s chief of public affairs. “No one would’ve expected a record year.”

Nash credited the rise to a decrease in gas prices, which rose above $4 a gallon last July. This year, the average is around $2.50 a gallon. National parks also have been heavily promoted in the national press as less costly places for Americans strapped by an economic downturn.

To help out, the National Park Service has offered free entrance for three weekends, the last of which is Aug. 15-16.

Any entrance

All five of Yellowstone’s entrances reported an increase in the number of visitors compared to a year ago. The West Entrance remains the park’s busiest, with more than 385,000 visitors in July compared to 337,000 a year ago. The greatest percentage increase in visitation was recorded through the East Entrance, up 15.1% from July 2008.

July is typically the park’s peak month for visitation, followed by August, June, September and May. The average visitation per day in July was 29,000 people.

“That July saw an 11% increase over the previous year is certainly not something we would’ve predicted,” Nash said. “It’s the biggest visitation month ever, period.”

Record pace

This is the second record-setting month for the park this year. Visitation in June was just under 644,000, well above the previous record of 609,000 visitors in June 2007.

For the first seven months of the year, over 1.9 million people have visited Yellowstone. That’s up 100,000 from the previous record of 1.8 million recorded in 2007. With August and September, two more boom months, yet to come, the park could break the annual visitation record of 3.15 million set in 2007.

“We still have two of our four biggest visitation months ahead of us,” Nash said.

Although road work has been ongoing and will close the park’s route between Madison Junction and Norris beginning Aug. 17 and extending through December, Nash didn’t think that has or will hurt tourism.

Lack of snow and lawsuits led to confusion about the winter season last year, which could have hurt winter tourism in the park. Visitation for the first three months of this year was down from 2008, especially in February which saw a drop of more than 15%.

“Winter’s important, but it is a small component when compared to the summer’s impact,” Nash said. “But I don’t want to downplay winter.”