Devils Tower experienced a record 2021, and officials are planning for a future of increased tourism
Visitation to Devils Tower has steadily increased over the past decade, with official Park Service statistics indicating that 2021 had the highest number of visitors to date in the monument’s 116-year history.
According to official statistics, 550,712 people arrived through the park’s entry gate in 2021. The trend began in January, which was also that month’s largest visitation to date as well, with 4,438 visitors. Though this January was not a record-setting month, park officials believe 2022 will be another record-setting year.
“I would say yes, we will continue to hit record numbers,” said Curlinda Blacksheep, Supervisory Ranger for Interpretation and Education at Devils Tower. “We’re still in a pandemic, people are looking for something to do, right after a quarantine they want to do something with family outdoors, and the national parks are great places to get outdoors and do something where it’s a little bit safer.”
While park staff are generally excited that more people are choosing to visit, it brings issues that must be addressed in both the short and long-term.
“Everything at the park is aging prematurely because it wasn’t built for this number of people,” said Amnesty Kochanowski, Superintendent of Devils Tower.
The park’s infrastructure, some of which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, hasn’t been significantly updated since. According to the Devils Tower website, the visitor center, built in 1935, was constructed when yearly visitation was approximately 20,000, a figure that was eclipsed 25 times over in 2021.
“Devils Tower is not unique in the Park Service, we cannot keep up with the assets we have,” Kochanowski said. “At the Tower, we have about $6 million in deferred maintenance, and we’re putting energy and financial backing into improving that. For example, our water and wastewater systems are archaic.”
But even despite a lack of federal funding for infrastructure projects, there are projects in the works that will help with the maintenance issues.
“We have a project in a couple years from now to modernize those [wastewater and sewer systems],” she stated. “Because they can’t keep up with 550,000 users.”
Road and building improvements are slated to take place this year as well as in coming years.
Increased visitation has created logistical problems as well. A major aspect of this is dealing with a greater number of cars, trucks, and RV’s.
“Most times if they only have their vehicle and all the parking spaces are full at the top, they will be circling for anywhere up to like 30 minutes just to find a good spot,” said Blacksheep. “The increase in visitation is making it more evident that something has to be done for it.”
If there is a positive regarding traffic, it’s that the length of time the average visitor spends allows for much greater turnover than other park service units.
Innovative ways to deal with increased traffic, that was backing up onto the entrance road and on to Highway 24, were thought of by a park employee. This includes collecting entrance fees when visitors exit the park, only stopping briefly upon entering to get a park newspaper, map, and other materials, Kochanowski said.
“We have other pilots we’ll continue to employ this summer, so we’re hiring seasonal staff—parking attendants to keep the flow going,” Kochanowski said. “And it was really interesting by reversing fee collection, it in part pushed the issue into the park, rather than outside our boundaries—it allows us to keep traffic moving.”
Even with improved efficiency, Kochanowski said there’s only so much that can be done to deal with the park’s overloaded infrastructure. This included protecting natural and cultural resources, both of which have been impacted by increased visitation.
“Really for about the past two years, we had a large construction project that the main objective was to increase accessibility at the visitor center on that most popular trail and in parking lots,” she said. “It increased our parking capacity slightly, but obviously not enough, so really our focus is to ensure visitors have a[n] exceptional experience and protect the resources, and some are getting degraded.”
The feasibility of a pilot shuttle is currently being considered.
“We’re trying our dangest to have a pilot shuttle in summer of 2023, and we’re in the infancy of working on what and how that would actually come to fruition,” Kochanowski said. “In the Park Service funding stream, we secured some funding for a small pilot—by no means will it shuttle all 550,000 that probably will come next year, but a smaller portion to evaluate the feasibility of a longer-term shuttle.”
Guarding against destructive behaviors are part of the park’s mission to balance visitation with preservation.
“Educating, maybe reiterating, why national parks exist and creating stewards [is important],” she stated. “So sometimes people come here, and they don’t know wilderness or outdoor ethics. They might be playing music on a Bluetooth speaker pretty loud on the trail. That is worrisome but it’s also an opportunity.”
Additionally, visitor behavior towards other visitors has been noted.
“Unfortunately, and I attribute it somewhat to the pandemic, we witnessed an uptick in disrespectful behavior, people vying for that one visible parking spot and just being rude to each other,” Kochanowski said. “What was heartwarming though, once people get out of their vehicle, their whole demeanor changes and I think it’s the power of being outside and near and in the presence of the Tower—it just brings things into perspective.”
Though there are no official statistics, park staff have noticed what seems to be an uptick of animal-vehicle collisions in the park’s boundaries.
“Anecdotally, staff have noticed more vehicle-wildlife interactions,” Kochanowski said. “The speed limit in the entire park is 25 miles per hour or less [but] people go faster though and aren’t maybe paying attention, so more with deer than prairie dogs.”
When visitors choose to take to the trails, there are several major options that they can take advantage of during their visit. The most popular is less than a two-mile trail, Kochanowski stated. Climbers represent an even smaller number.
“Climbers need to register to get a permit, it’s free to get a permit, and about one percent of visitors rock climb, so last year, that would have been just over 5,000,” she said.
Staffing for peak tourist seasons is a significant focus for park employees.
“This time of the year we have about 10 [employees] and then at the height of summer, 30 to 35 employees total,” Kochanowski stated. “Right now, jobs are open for working at the entrance station, and we’re not having great luck with some of our maintenance positions.”
Those interested in working at Devils Tower for seasonal positions are encouraged to contact Kochanowski directly at: (307) 467-5283 ext. 635 or email@example.com.