By Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile JACKSON, Wyo. \u2014 Christian Vivet stood beside his camper at a riverside campground in central Wyoming\u2019s Sinks Canyon State Park, peering through binoculars at the limestone cliffs above \u2014 a landscape vastly different from his home state of Florida. He had traveled to this relatively obscure campground with his wife and dog as part of a 10-week road trip through the western U.S. Unlike the hordes of people who have reportedly taken up domestic camper travel as a new adaptation to COVID-19, it\u2019s an annual pilgrimage for the Vivets, who run a French bistro on a small Gulf Coast island. They shut down during the slow summer season, he said, and head to the mountains. \u201cWe do it every year,\u201d he said. But in 2020, they left a bit earlier as their state became a hotspot of virus infections. And as they traveled the campgrounds of the country, he said, they encountered many newbie campers. \u201cThere\u2019s a lot of what I would call amateurs,\u201d he said, chuckling. \u201cYou see that when it\u2019s time to do some mundane task \u2026 for example emptying your holding tanks or backing up into a tight spot. That\u2019s how you can tell they are occasional campers.\u201d It doesn\u2019t bother him much. And Wyoming, he said, is an appealing destination in the current crisis. \u201cWe\u2019re not traveling because of COVID, but it\u2019s nice to be in places like here where social distancing is pretty easy to accomplish,\u201d he said. Vivet is not alone in his assessment. Visitors have flocked to Wyoming\u2019s public lands this summer \u2014\u00a0from state parks to national forests, reservoirs to private campgrounds. Experts consider outdoor spaces relatively safe from disease transmission, a fact that appears to be accelerating a yearslong trend across the West of increased usage. In a state where the economy is reeling from COVID-19 shutdowns and mineral industry declines, many welcome visitors. But, officials say, campers don\u2019t necessarily bring the same economic boost as other types of tourists. And crowds in the wilderness also create their share of management headaches \u2014 some with potentially major consequences. \u2018Really unprecedented\u2019 As COVID-19 shut down schools and businesses, triggered travel restrictions and made popular indoor pastimes, many in rural regions headed into their backyards. Some city dwellers, meanwhile, struck out for less-peopled areas. \u201cYou are seeing that in RV sales, mountain bike sales \u2026 a lot of it\u2019s obviously related to COVID, because I think people are starting to understand more that the outdoors is a pretty safe place to be,\u201d Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation Manager Chris Floyd said in a July interview. \u201cSo they are dispersing and recreating more and trying to get outside.\u201d As a result, outdoor visitation has soared in Wyoming this summer. State parks, which phased their reopenings, recorded record visitations even in April and May, the early days of the pandemic. In June, when state park campgrounds opened back up to non-residents, numbers skyrocketed. At Curt Gowdy State Park, traffic counters tallied 97,432 visitors in June of 2020 \u2014 a 130% increase over June 2019\u2019s number of 42,327, Floyd said. Glendo State Park saw 111,322 visitors, up 20% from June 2019. Guernsey was up 19% in June 2020, Hawk Springs up 34% and Sinks Canyon up 58%, Floyd said. Over the July Fourth weekend, he added, every state park campground was fully booked. \u201cIt\u2019s really unprecedented,\u201d Floyd said. \u201cWe\u2019ve never really seen this level of use.\u201d Some 43.9% of reservations made between June 1 and July 19 were from out-of-state campers, Floyd said. On the national forests, where camping is often more dispersed and reservations aren\u2019t always required, metrics are harder to pin down, but managers report heavy use. Shoshone National Forest Public Information Officer Kristie Salzmann said she doesn\u2019t know the exact reasons why people are flooding national forest land, but \u201con the Shoshone we are seeing a high level of visitorship. \u201cMost of our campgrounds are full every weekend,\u201d Salzmann said in late July. \u201cSome of those don\u2019t normally see capacity all year. So we do know there are more people visiting our national forest right now.\u201d The situation is similar on the Bighorn National Forest, according to Public Affairs Officer Sara Evans Kirol. \u201cPersonal observations by professionals reported people started recreating earlier this year and in places that are not typically visited,\u201d she wrote in an email to WyoFile. \u201cThis has continued throughout the season and we have seen an increase in trail use, dispersed camping, and other recreation. Most of our facilities have been at full or nearly full capacity (campgrounds and picnic areas) for most of the summer.\u201d Visitors are saying \u201cthey have less options for vacations this year, so have decided to visit a national forest, many for the first time,\u201d Kirol said. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks started the season slowly with phased reopenings \u2014 but the numbers have caught up as the summer progressed. \u201cThe last two weeks of June, it really took off,\u201d Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said of park visitation there. Vehicular traffic in July was \u201cwell over 100% every day but four \u2026 It\u2019s been very busy.\u201d While Yellowstone visits were up 2% over 2019 in July, Grand Teton\u2019s were down 3%. But July still brought the fourth highest number of recreational visits on record for that month, 755,762, according to GTNP. \u201cMost hiking trails in the park have increased daily traffic and all campgrounds in the park are filling earlier each day when comparing this summer to previous years,\u201d reads a GTNP press release. \u201cIn general, hiking use in the park has increased approximately 13% and camping in concession-operated campgrounds increased 2% with backcountry camping up 13% in July 2020 compared to July 2019.\u201d And in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, where accommodations have been limited by COVID-19 closures of lodging and campgrounds, there have been fewer places to stay the night. Those diminishing options could also be contributing to a high number of visitors flooding nearby areas in search of a place to stay. Management issues The Bridger-Teton National Forest has experienced well-publicized issues with surging camping demand this summer, including illegal campsites, fire restriction violations and a disregard of Leave No Trace principles. \u201cAcross the forest patrollers have seen a huge increase in newly created dispersed sites and fire rings in areas that are not on durable surfaces,\u201d read a July 25 Facebook post from the BTNF. \u201cThis can cause long term resource damage to our public lands and is a potential fire hazard.\u201d In response to another land-use concern \u2014 overstays \u2014 the forest implemented a special order on Aug. 6 mandating that campers move at least 5 air miles away after camping for the maximum 14 days at many sites. The order was drafted to address the problem of people \u201cresiding\u201d on the land, according to the BTNF. \u201cThe Forest has stay limits and prohibits residency because when people don\u2019t move frequently enough, the land has little time to recover, heal and regenerate,\u201d Forest Supervisor Tricia O\u2019Connor said in a release. \u201cResiding and exceeding stay limits creates problems with sanitation, human waste, trash and campfires during fire restrictions.\u201d An abandoned campfire has been blamed for at least one wildfire this summer, the Hudson Meadow Fire on the Shoshone National Forest. And managers echo similar problems across the state. On the Bighorn National Forest, officials have seen more litter, human waste, dumping of gray\/black water, abandoned campfires, fireworks violations, wildlife conflicts and complaints about no camping spots, Kirol wrote. \u201cWe are reaching out to both the new and experienced users about being prepared \u2014 \u2018know before you go\u2019 and \u2018leave not trace\u2019 \u2014 before they head out to their public lands,\u201d she wrote. Tourism effects\u00a0 Amid the barrage of blows to the state\u2019s economy, the spike in outdoor visits is a rare bit of good news, said Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. And Wyoming hasn\u2019t had to reinvent itself to try to attract visitors. \u201cThe great outdoors and open spaces has always been our wheelhouse,\u201d she said. \u201cCOVID or no COVID, that\u2019s a really strong pillar that sits really at the heart of who we are.\u201d Still, more traditional tourist businesses like hotels, restaurants and shops \u2014 which were anticipating a banner year in 2020 \u2014 have been deeply impacted by shutdowns, restrictions and cancelled travel plans, she said, and more campers are unlikely to make up the difference. That\u2019s because RV users and campers are typically self-contained, she said. They often cook for themselves and don\u2019t go into town, whereas visitors who stay in hotels are more likely to eat at restaurants and participate in in-town activities. According to a report prepared for the Office of Tourism, Wyoming visitors who stayed in public and private campgrounds spent $811 million, or about 20% of all visitor spending in 2019. Visitors who stayed in commercial lodging, meanwhile, spent $2.2 billion \u2014 or 57% of all visitor spending. \u201cWe might be setting ourselves up for disappointment if we think camping will save\u201d summer tourism, Shober said. But, \u201cwe need what we can get.\u201d Crowds escaping crowds? The Anderson family had also pulled their rig \u2014 a truck camper laden with mountain bikes \u2014 into Sinks Canyon State Park to camp in late July. Hailing from Denver, they were en route to Montana for a trip they had planned well before the pandemic. Sinks was a perfect midpoint for an overnight stay, Stacy Anderson said. \u201cWe\u2019re big campers. We\u2019ve had this thing for 13 years,\u201d Anderson said, gesturing at the camper. Anderson said the pastime has exploded in the Centennial State. \u201cBeing from Colorado, I know that everybody that I know that has never camped in their life is now camping,\u201d she said. All across public lands, \u201ceven in wilderness,\u201d sites are more crowded, she said. And she gets why. \u201cI think because people can\u2019t go anywhere, they are using the beautiful state they live in \u2026 to try to find stuff to do,\u201d she said. A few campsites down, Susan and Michael Madigan, who are from Steamboat, Colorado, echoed that. Their hometown has been overrun by visitors this summer, they said. \u201cIt\u2019s unbelievable,\u201d Michael Madigan said. \u201cMore tourists, more campers than we\u2019ve ever seen. So we wanted to get away.\u201d The Madigans visit Susan\u2019s parents in the Lander area each summer. So it wasn\u2019t novel. But it may become more of the norm. \u201cI think if we do travel, it\u2019ll be camping,\u201d Susan Madigan said. In a post-pandemic world, that may mean a new norm for public lands across Wyoming as well.