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'Yellowstone Flush': Traffic at Yellowstone National Park

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia (obscured) watch the eruption of the Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: A new visitors center opens in Yellowstone National Park next week. And it's a good thing, too, 'cause the world's first national park set a record for visitors last month. Summertime is traditionally the high season for most parks. But at Yellowstone in particular, a day in the wilderness is starting to look a lot like rush hour in mid-town.

Jackie Yamanaka of Yellowstone Public Radio in Northern Wyoming has the story.


Jackie Yamanaka: There are five different entrances into Yellowstone. But visitors all want to go to one place -- Old Faithful.

Richard and Debbie Leonard drove their minivan from Ocala, Fla. to see the geyser.

Richard Leonard: It was the first stop. It was amazing. I told my wife I had trouble keeping it together for a while.

Debbie Leonard: The beauty. Just raw emotion.

At the height of the summer season, about 4,000 people watch each time Old Faithful erupts.

Man 1: So when is Old Faithful?

Woman 1: Soon...

The geyser shoots water into the air about every 90 minutes. Once the show is over, most people head for their cars. Yellowstone planner Eleanor Clark calls it the "Yellowstone Flush."

Eleanor Clark: The exiting traffic is very urban-like. The volumes are just immense to have that many people exiting all at once.

Tourists hop back on to narrow, single-lane roads. This can cause traffic delays especially when wildlife, like this herd of elk, graze along the road.

Clark: And now we have got somebody who's decided to turn. So this will take quite a while. On the other hand, it's a great opportunity. Look at these little babies. They still have their spots. They're darling.

Tourists think nothing of stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures. Lee Whittlesey is Yellowstone's historian.

Lee Whittlesey: What a lot of visitors see when they come here is what seems to them to be packed roadsides. Cars lined up often from a bison-jam or an elk-jam or a bear-jam where people stack up to look at animals.

When you finally do arrive at your next destination, you might not find a parking spot. The last major parking update came in the 1960s when there were no large RVs. It creates a problem for folks like Mike Barrow from Sequim, Wash.

Yamanaka: Is this your vehicle here? Why don't you describe it?

Mike Barrow: Well, it's a Dodge Ram, quad cab, 4x4, dually with an 11-½ ft Artic Fox Camper and with three pygmy kayaks on top.

And he's towing a small SUV behind all of that. Barrow is travelling with Steve Singhose. Singhose wishes the park had a shuttle service.

Steve Singhose: We would be on that, especially if they had a bike rack. We saw they had bike trails there on the Old Faithful grounds. If we could have taken our bikes there and we could have enjoyed the Old Faithful experience.

Yellowstone officials are considering this idea and ways to make bicycling safer. Park Planner Eleanor Clark says some roads are too narrow for both cars and bikes.

Clark: Winnebago mirrors stick out far enough that they can actually hit bikers.

One way to do deal with this is to widen the roads. Of course, that construction would cause additional delays. Yellowstone's Historian Lee Whittlesey says the frequent traffic backups lead to long travel times. But it also leads to the longest average visitor stay of any of the national parks. He says at other parks the average tourist is there for only half a day.

Whittlesey: You go to Mount Rushmore, you see the big heads, you get your ice cream cone and your curios, and you're out of there.

It's different in Yellowstone, where a typical visitor stays almost two days, meaning more business in the park and for the small communities just outside its gates.

In Yellowstone National Park, I'm Jackie Yamanaka for Marketplace.

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