Data Dump: Our crowded national parks (again)
2021 is another record-setting year for visitation, but some parks saw declines
The 2021 data are in and the trend is clear: The West’s most popular national parks are getting more and more populated—with visitors. Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks crushed previous visitation records, as did Zion, Capitol Reef, and Arches. Perhaps most alarming (to me, at least), is that Canyonlands National Park—once considered a place to escape the crowds—was inundated with nearly 1 million visitors, a 17 percent increase over the previous high-mark set in 2016. Meanwhile, Zion National Park eclipsed the 5-million mark.
I should point out that these numbers don’t necessarily show how many people visited these places, but rather how many times people passed through an entrance gate or some other point. Yellowstone officials, for example, told WyoFile that 2021’s official count was skewed by the fact that 20 percent of the in-park accommodations were closed due to COVID-19, meaning more people left and re-entered the park—and were thus counted more than once—than in previous years.
But as anyone who visited Yellowstone or any of the other popular parks this summer can attest, the places were darned crowded no matter how you count. Grand Teton National Park saw an average of 27,000 visits per day in July, for example; that number, and the impact of it, does not change if those people left one day and returned the next. Zion saw
Sens. Steve Daines and Angus King, from Montana and Maine, respectively, just introduced the Gateway Community and Recreation Enhancement Act, “to address the growing problem of park overcrowding and boost awareness of lesser-visited recreation areas.” It includes a smart-phone app that supposedly will be able to track real-time crowd levels at popular parks and federal lands and send folks to “alternative recreation destinations.”
May I suggest you send them all to Disneyland? Just kidding. Sort of.
I’ve already weighed in on the notion of shifting the masses from popular parks to lesser-known ones, but I’ll say it again: I think it’s a terrible idea and that it won’t work, anyway. People flock to Zion not just to visit any public lands, but to wade through The Narrows, hike Angel Landing trail, and gaze upon the soaring rock walls before luxuriating in Springdale’s amenities. Do you really think folks will change their travel plans just because an app tells them they may have to wait in line? And if an app could track crowds in real-time—a stretch, given that it takes weeks for the parks to compile monthly visitation numbers—would we really want to send the hordes of humanity to some other land to mess it up?
That’s enough ranting. Here are the numbers from select parks, in chart form, in no particular order. All of the stats are from the National Park Service. Make of them what you will. (If you have problems seeing the graphs in the email please go to LandDesk.org for high res versions).
In related news, Outforia, an outdoor news aggregator, has compiled a list of the nation’s deadliest and most dangerous national parks. The Grand Canyon tops the list, with other Western parks making the top ten. Check it out.
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