Reservations keep campground calm, but over-tourism pushes in from all directions.
On Feb. 1, Missoula, Montana, natives Kurt and Stephanie Jagielow were glued to the Recreation.govreservation page, anxiously tapping the refresh button for a chance at a Jenny Lake campsite.
Six months later they rolled into the tent-only campground, having nabbed one of the most coveted sites in the United States.
“We knew we wanted a tent site,” Kurt Jagielow said. “We came for peace and quiet. Out here you can forget about town and work and life for a while.”
The couple is celebrating seven years together, and said the security of a reserved site allowed them to take vacation time with confidence. They also used the reservation system to secure the second-to-last site in Capitol Reef National Park during the worst of the pandemic.
This was their first visit to Grand Teton National Park, and as they unloaded their hatchback they couldn’t wait to explore the Jenny Lake trails.
With 51 tent-only sites, Jenny Lake Campground is a quiet oasis immediately adjacent to the park’s largest welcome center and a daily parking overflow stretching miles from the lake.
The National Park Service estimates that the Tetons saw a record 752,000 visitors in June 2021, and a camping increase of 36% compared to June 2019. All 51 of Jenny Lake’s sites have been full every day of the season.
Jenny Lake Campground was also named the No. 1 campground in America by The Dyrt, a camping review app and website.
Started by Oregon couple Sarah Smith and Kevin Long, The Dyrt is essentially Yelp for camping; vacationers post written reviews and photos of their sites to give future trip-planners booking confidence. It’s a service the couple wanted when planning their own trips, like their current multi-month excursion in a customized, Dyrt-branded sprinter van.
“We think it’s a life-changing experience, and we want to make it easier to go camping,” Long said on a recent Thursday as the couple strolled the Jenny Lake shoreline. When the pandemic pushed people outside, Dyrt’s 2020 revenue spiked to $1.4M, with 2021 projections to triple to over $4M, according to the Tilt.
“This thing started out of our living room. Now every 1 second a different camper is coming to The Dyrt,” Long said.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing for us,” Smith said.
Jenny Lake Campground, which serves as a launchpad for some of the best hikes in Teton park, has five stars on The Dyrt and reviews from seasoned travelers who call it a “spiritual experience” and write that they dozed next to a doe and a buck.
The campground is managed by Grand Teton Lodge Company, a Vail Resorts subsidiary, and hosted by a couple in their 60s, Joe and Rena Russell.
Rena is often the first face greeting folks before they set up shop. On a recent Thursday morning she was advising visitors about an active wasp nest that had sprung up between sites.
Last year they saw cars line up at 5 a.m. with eager visitors hoping to secure a first-come, first-served spot.
This winter, Grand Teton officials announced all of the park’s sites would be linked to Recreation.gov for a reservation system, which Russell said they have embraced.
“We think most campers enjoy the convenience of making the journey knowing they will have a place to camp when they arrive,” she said.
But for every one of those campers there are dozens more who show up without a plan.
Often they are referred to the Bridger-Teton National Forest or to the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, where Brian Gallagher, chairman of Teton Tourism Board, said the influx of ill-prepared visitors is putting pressure on the local workforce.
“Although we have never promoted summer,” he said, “we felt it was necessary to provide educational messaging this year, like we did last year with COVID, about how to successfully visit Jackson given unprecedented volume and the fact that many are experiencing our natural environment for the first time.”
The message is simple: Plan ahead, stay on the trails, give wildlife space and put out your campfire.
But it’s also a sign of broader concern.
“Overall, we need to get more sophisticated with our approach to tourism in Teton County,” Gallagher said. “Our measures of success cannot be occupancy rates and tax dollars collected as they are not representative of the full picture.
“We need to measure success considering the quality of the visitor experience, the quality of life of the people who live here and the health of our environment in addition to the health of our economy.”
Bridger-Teton, where much of the dispersed camping takes place, is already seeing environmental problems from overuse, said National Forest spokesperson Evan Guzik.
“The impact has been pretty evident,” he said. “No grass, no sage, litter and human waste.”
Rangers also report having to help first-time campers set up their tents. Guzik said there’s been minor improvement from campers using designated dispersed sites as opposed to making their own, but he added there needs to be better cooperation between land management agencies.
“The increased use we’re getting doesn’t stop at the forest boundary,” he said.
Those conversations could start as early as this fall, if and when the summer rush abates.
Teton park echoed the concern, with spokeswoman Denise Germann saying valley officials need to be “very thoughtful” in how they market the park.
“National parks are available to all Americans, they’re open to the world,” she said. “But we want people to be thoughtful.”
That means planning ahead, monitoring conditions and potentially avoiding peak visitation hours, Germann said, adding there’s no plan to cap visitation. The park has first opted to study its visitor behavior through flow studies and traffic data.
“We don’t quite understand the scope of the situation yet,” said one of the park’s social scientists, Jennifer Newton.
Specifically, Newton is studying the visitor use and experience in Colter Bay and on the Taggart and Lupine trails. Similar research from String and Leigh Lakes in 2017 led the park to iintroduce various visitor experience improvements.
Around the same time the park completed a massive Jenny Lake Renewal Project, which bolstered infrastructure in the front and backcountry to account for the area’s growing visitor numbers.
That project, which was supported by Grand Teton National Park Foundation, also brought Jenny Lake Campground its first hot showers, thanks to the renovation of a historic bathhouse built in the 1930s.
Mark Berry, who serves as vice president of the foundation, helped oversee the renewal project through years of planning and installation, and said it wasn’t a case of if you build it they will come.
“They were already here,” Berry said.
Instead, he thinks the timing was spot on. As soon as the Jenny Lake trails were renovated those routes saw record visitation. So far the improvements appear to be holding up, Berry said.
“That was a place that was very much worth the investment that so many donors put into it,” he said. “It’s the heart of the park; it’s a focal point for visitors who come here, and for good reason. It’s spectacular.”