After facing significant opposition to temporary campsites proposed near Bartlett Lane in the South Fork last summer, Buffalo Bill State Park has shifted its focus for how it will handle higher traffic volumes by making changes to existing campgrounds.
One major change being considered at the park is the installation of 11 small cabin units at the Sheep Mountain day-use area, Stagecoach Campground (formerly known as South Shore Boat Ramp) and Shreve Lodge.
The cabins, known as “camp shacks,” are funded with CARES Act funds for a cost of $278,400. Statewide, $1.02 million has been dedicated to building 40 cabins. At nearby Boysen State Park 12 shacks are planned.
At Buffalo Bill there will be eight large camp shacks, sized 10-by-20 feet, and three smaller units with a size of 8-by-12. The cabins are spartan, lacking electricity and water, but feature bunk beds, a table, chairs and a nightstand.
Last year, 56 temporary RV campsites and 18 tent-only campsites were also added to the park as part of the expansion. The park now offers nearly double as many total campsites at 173.
Brooks Jordan, Big Horn district manager for Wyoming State Parks, said at a Park County commissioner meeting Feb. 1 the Buffalo Bill expansion was triggered by a more than 35% increase in visitation at the park, stemming from what he believes is pandemic-related outdoor recreation and travel – a documented national trend.
Commissioner Lee Livingston asked Jordan at the meeting whether he sees this trend as more of a short-term, “artificial bump,” to which Jordan and Dan Marty, Buffalo Bill superintendent, said they do not, comparing the spike to the recent real estate boom.
“It was something that was long overdue,” Jordan said. “It was certainly kickstarted by the pandemic.
“We don’t necessarily see a downturn in the future.”
Marty said even before COVID-19, the park routinely sold out when it only had 99 campsites.
Wyoming residents can book reservations up to 120 days in advance, while non-residents can only do so for 113 days. There are also 16 sites that can only be booked in a 14-day window, and 78 campsites that are first-come first-serve.
Prior to 2020, only about one third of the park could be reserved in advance, Marty said. In 2020, the park went to 100% reservations, a feature he said increased traffic.
“People plan ahead,” he said.
But the low proportion of Wyoming travelers in his campground bothered him, only amounting to about 30-40% of visitors.
“I want to see more Wyoming folks in Wyoming State Parks,” he said.
To help fix the disparity, he said he added 14-day window reservation sites, which have been particularly popular during the core summer months.
“I know I can still keep them full,” he said.
Following a statewide trend
On a statewide level, Jordan said the majority of expansion projects are coming in the form of more traditional state park uses like new campsites for both RVs and tents.
“I’m sure one of your concerns is state government impeding into private (business),” Marty said to the commissioners. “That’s one of mine as an administrator as well.”
But he also said there is a “surplus” of people visiting the area, exceeding the volume that current lodging owners can handle. Marty also contrasted his product from the private industry, saying the experience at Buffalo Bill is much different than one would have at a lodge up the North Fork or at an RV park in town.
Jordan said Marty reached out to more than 10 North Fork and Cody business owners.
“Maybe somewhat surprisingly, most of the feedback we have received has been positive,” Jordan said, later clarifying most of the feedback was more neutral.
Marty said in a Monday phone interview he did hear some concerns about the expansion possibly diluting RV traffic for other businesses, and government competing with private business. He said he did reach out to two businesses in particularly close proximity to the park, East Yellowstone Cabins and Tipis (Wheels of Wonderment) and Cutthroat Ranch, and received positive feedback from both.
Livingston said the last time cabins were proposed at the park, “there were pitchforks and torches,” when it came to public feedback.
Jordan said pricing has not yet been determined for the cabins and they are “gathering market data and working with community stakeholders to determine a price that’s affordable yet fits in with the local market.”
He said they would be available roughly May-October.
Currently the shacks are being staged in the Shreve Lodging parking lot, but Jordan and Marty said they won’t be installed until the public is further engaged about their proposed use, and the cabins can be moved to another state park if the public voices opposition or traffic volumes drop in the long term. The cabins sit on struts and can easily be transported.
“We will not put them in regardless (of public opinion),” Jordan said.
He said due to there being a “short turnaround” time between when state parks were allocated CARES funds and when funds had to be spent, the state went ahead with building the cabins before gauging public input.
Last August, Buffalo Bill State Park canceled its project to add 40 camping sites to Bartlett Lane, a move Marty said would’ve added more first-come first-serve options for residents. At that time, Jordan said the public found the North Fork Campground and Stagecoach Campground as two places that would be better places for temporary campsites.
Jordan said permanent campsites could still be added on Bartlett Lane as part of the park’s upcoming master plan, which would still seek input from stakeholders like the commissioners, Park County Outdoor Recreation Collaborative and the general public before being implemented. He said a request for proposal will be announced this week to hire a consultant to help develop the master plan, a process he said will begin this summer and is expected to take 6-9 months.
“I would like to see the state stand by its word and let the public participate in the process,” said South Fork resident Patti Umphlett, who was a leader in the pushback against the Bartlett Lane campsites. Umphlett said she is not opposed to Buffalo Bill expanding campsites in the other parts of the park.
Park County Commissioner Lloyd Thiel said he had received a complaint from Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Commissioner Donald Schmalz, the board’s representative for the Big Horn Basin, saying that he was being kept out of the loop when it came to the park’s expansion plans. Schmalz made similar claims regarding the Bartlett Lane project.
“We keep him in the loop on a weekly basis,” Jordan said. “We’ve always made an effort to invite him and keep him involved.”
To contact Marty about the cabins, call (307) 587-9227.