Visitation up and down at North Dakota’s top tourist spot

BISMARCK, N.D. – Visitation to North Dakota’s No. 1 tourist attraction fell last year, but it wasn’t all because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park saw about 558,000 visitors in 2020, the fewest since 2013. Visitation fell 20% from 2019, but some months last year spiked substantially over the previous year — including December, which saw a 173% jump. Visitation is measured in an algorithm counting people who stop in visitor centres combined with an average of people in vehicles.

Park Superintendent Wendy Ross sees “so many variables, especially this past year.”

“I don’t put much stock in the fact that we were down 20%; in fact, I’m a little surprised we weren’t down more, but it was a very busy year. It felt like a ‘normal’ year,” Ross said. Annual visitation averaged about 700,000 people from 2015-19.

The emerging pandemic and reduced oil and gas activity likely brought more people to the park in February, March and April, according to Ross. Visitation in February and March leapt 253% and 106%, respectively, over the same months in 2019, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

Former U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in March temporarily suspended all national park entrance fees to support social distancing and to ease people’s access to the outdoors in the early months of the pandemic.

“I’m sure that contributed,” Ross said.

She also points to low gas prices in North Dakota, which were down to $1.63 per gallon at one point last spring and averaged $2.02 from February to August.

The park also had good weather and warm winter temperatures, she added. As recently as Jan. 1, a man who came from Georgia hiked the park’s petrified forest trail in short sleeves, she said.

Summer visitation was down about 17% for June, July and August, but still was “extremely high,” Ross said. The park’s South Unit visitor centre saw 1,400 to 1,800 people per day.

The park did see some closures in 2020. For several weeks last spring, it was closed for health and safety amid more visitation than the park’s small staff could handle, and to prepare for summer.

For much of the year, the park’s campgrounds also were closed while awaiting new restroom facilities, which were delayed due to supply chain issues amid the pandemic but were installed late last year. Campgrounds are open now. Ross said the closure might have contributed to the lower visitation, but the park also promoted backcountry camping.

Several miles of the park’s South Unit scenic loop drive have been closed for close to two years due to road failures, including a slump due to erosion. Motorists must drive out and back from Badlands Overlook in the South Unit.

Repairs to the 6-mile stretch of road are estimated to cost $39 million; they’re prioritized for funding from the federal Restore Our Parks Act of 2020.

The park held no evening programs or nature hikes due to the pandemic but did do outreach with schools through distance learning and outside activities.

Ross sees 2021 shaping up to be a “really good year,” with the planned Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library having “piqued people’s interest,” and people continuing national park tours they began amid the pandemic.

Locals also have “reconnected” with the park, she said, and the Maah Daah Hey Trail, which threads the Badlands, also draws visitors.

“People are looking for activity right now,” Ross said. “They’re looking for different things to do in the outdoors, beautiful places to go, and if you have the services and you are adhering to those (federal pandemic) guidelines providing a safe experience for people, people are going to come.”



Throughout the pandemic, the park followed state and federal coronavirus public health guidance. It has had no COVID-19 cases among staff, “which is remarkable,” Ross said.

Visitation last month is up 226% from January 2020.

The park has consistently been the state’s top tourist attraction, partly due to the number of nonresident visitors, state Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman said.

In 2019, the most recent figures available, park visitors spent $44.3 million, 98.7% of which was from nonlocal visitors for expenses such as lodging, restaurants, gas and retail.

Otte Coleman expects 2020 spending fell, which she attributes at least in part to the park’s spring closure and campground closure.

She pointed out that state parks saw record numbers for camping. North Dakota has “owned that safe, worry-free, uncrowded adventure,” she said.

“We haven’t reinvented ourselves so that we’re pandemic-friendly. This is true to our core and it’s what we have,” she said.

Retail last year was down about 20% at the Western Edge Books, Artwork, Music business in Medora, owner Doug Ellison said. But his and his wife’s Amble Inn managed to keep its five rooms full last year, he added.

“We weren’t sure we were going to have a summer season at all last year, so we were just happy to get what we got, I guess,” Ellison said.

“The big dynamic that was missing” was Canadian visitors, due to the pandemic-related international border closure, he said. Otherwise, the mixture of visitors was typical of in- and out-of-state, he said.

He’s joked with bookstore visitors that 2020 “was one for the history books, but I sort of think we’re all tired of making history and we need a break.”