Banner Year For National Parks

National parks had a banner year in 2016 as visitation numbers set a record for the third consecutive year.

More than 325 million people headed outdoors to celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the Park Service turned a century old, there were 16 free entrance days for visitors to enjoy America’s Best Idea.

The exact number of fee-free days varies from year to year: Combine great scenery and history with great savings and visit a national park for free on one of 10 fee free days in 2017.

The winners? Without December numbers, which haven’t come in yet, the Grand Canyon had 5.9 million visitors, Yellowstone came in at 4.3 million visitors, Rocky Mountain National Park had 4.5 million, and Zion National Park rounded out the top five with 4.3 million visitors.

The increasing visitation numbers creates a good news-bad news scenario for the National Park Service, park managers, and rangers and begs the question: Are national parks being loved to death?

Clingmans Dome,Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingmans Dome,Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They praise the increased interest but are struggling to preserve iconic mountains, slot canyons, and wildlife habitat for future generations. The National Park Service budget has remained basically flat, leaving parks to grapple with the problems without higher staffing levels.

At many parks, visitors waited an hour or more in line to get through entrance gates and then spent the day trying to outmaneuver fellow visitors for parking spots and room on popular trails. They left behind enormous amounts of trash and sometimes, human waste.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encountering a crowded, Disneyland-like situation when people were expecting peaceful serenity can lead to aggression and bad decisions. As the level of visitor frustration increases, they take it out on each other and sometimes they take it out on the park, according to a spokesperson.

And with increased number of visitors comes more trail erosion, more trash, and longer lines, leading Zion and Yellowstone to reassess their crowd control plans. Zion National Park has seen its visitor count nearly double since 2010 and is actually considering implementing daily visitor limits. Rocky Mountain National Park may limit the number of cars on two popular roads during summer in the park for the first time in its 101-year history.

Cramming all those people into the narrow confines of Zion where most visitors want to see the same iconic slot canyons and trails has led to many days with hour-long waits to get into the park, lots that fill up by 9 a.m., and over-crowded shuttles.

One employee spent her entire summer hiking every day to the popular Angels Landing trail to clean and put more toilet paper in two portable toilets designed for 40 visits daily that had 200, according to a park’s spokesperson.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia and Tennessee. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia and Tennessee. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

June through August and the month of October are the busiest months of the year at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you can spend a lot of time looking at a bumper in front of you especially if traveling on weekends.

The National Park System includes more than 84 million acres and is comprised of 413 sites with 28 different designations, including national park, national historical park, national monument, national recreation area, national battlefield, and national seashore. Collectively, these sites contain more than 18,000 miles of trails, 27,000 historic and prehistoric structures, 247 species of threatened and endangered species, and 167 million museum items.

There is at least one national park in every state.

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to national parks, the National Park Service works with tribes, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and businesses across the country to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities.

Programs such as the National Register of Historic Places, National Heritage Areas, National Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Historic Landmarks, National Trails, and the Rivers, Trails, Conservation Assistance Program revitalize communities, preserve local history, celebrate local heritage, and provide places for children and families to get outside, be active, and have fun.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

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