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2008 Visitation to the National Parks Up and Down, But Essentially Flat


Last year saw a 5 percent increase over 2007 levels in backcountry travel in the National Park System, according to the National Park Service. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Visitation to the National Park System in 2008 was, essentially, flat from the year before. There were spikes in some areas, and deep drops in others, but overall the 275 million visitors who were counted represented just 800,000 fewer than in 2007, according to preliminary data from the National Park Service.

Among the quirks that stand out in the visitation report (attached below):

* Yosemite National Park recorded an increase of nearly 61,000 backcountry travelers.

* Lake Mead National Recreation Area reported 66,300 more concessioner campground overnight stays and 40,100 more tent and RV overnight stays, but 22,900 fewer backcountry stays.

* Yellowstone National Park's concessioner-run campgrounds saw a 102,000 drop in overnight stays.

* Sixty-three percent of all 391 park units reported declines in RV overnight stays.

* Great Smoky Mountains National Park reported 15,100 fewer RV overnight stays.

* Channel Islands National Park reported 69,100 fewer group and boat overnight stays.

In general, there was no notable decline in concessionaire lodging numbers (3.59 million in 2007 vs 3.58 million in 2008), a 6 percent decline in concessionaire campground use (1.3 million vs. 1.22 million), a 5 percent decline in RV stays (2.1 million vs. 2 million), and a 5 percent increase in backcountry camping (1.7 million vs. 1.78 million).

(Editor's note: The preliminary report did not contain year-end visitation totals for individual parks. Additionally, the latest numbers have not yet been integrated into the Park Service's public use statistics web site.)

Dr. Jim Gramann, a professor in recreation, parks and tourism at Texas A&M University who since 2002 has also served as visiting chief social scientist for the National Park Service, was a bit surprised by the relatively level overall visitation trend.

"We thought that high fuel prices during the summer would lead to a more significant decline in visitation than has occurred in 2008," Dr. Gramann said from his College Station, Texas, office on Friday. "The visitation was relatively flat compared to last year (2007). Why that occurred, why there was not a greater decline in visitation, is something that we would have to look at in greater detail.

“One possible explanation is that people traveled shorter distances and so visitation to parks that were within a day’s travel to a major population center" might have gone up, he said.

And yet, that wasn't always the case, as evidenced by the decline in RV travel to Great Smoky, which normally has the largest visitation of any national park. Indeed, according to the NPS numbers Great Smoky saw a 238,000 overall decline in 2008 visitation, to 9,044,010.

Also down, by more than 1 million visitors, was traffic to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As for the various drops in campground stays, Dr. Gramann suggested that “it’s possible that as the population ages that people who used to tent camp are now looking for more comfortable amenities when they stay overnight.”

Park units reporting the greatest increases in traffic for 2008 were:

* Gateway National Recreation Area, up 618,000 over 2007 levels;

* Vietnam Veterans Memorial, up 610,000;

* Lincoln Memorial, up 465,000;

* Independence National Historical Park, up 371,000;

* Cuyahoga Valley National Park, up 342,000, and;

* Cape Cod National Seashore, up 293,000.

Dr. Gramann also pointed out that visitation to individual park units sometimes spikes due to special events, like a centennial, or drop due to weather, which was the case at the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway had weather-related road closures most notably in November, when traffic was down 102,000 over November 2007.

Ozark National Scenic Riverways saw two major storms in November that contributed to a 78,000 drop in visitation, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore saw November storms as well that contributed to a 40,000 drop in visitation.

Conversely, Biscayne National Park saw 34,000 more visitors in November 2008 than a year earlier, according to the report. Yosemite, in addition to its bullish backcountry numbers, also saw an increase of 13,500 in concessionaire lodging, 20,800 in campground tents, and 8,400 more RV visits.

Looking ahead to the 2009 travel season, the professor said it will be interesting to watch visitation. If fuel prices remain relatively low and there's a drop in visitation, it likely would be tied to the country's economic conditions, he said.

Dr. Gramann also will be watching international traffic, which has been somewhat strong in recent years due to favorable exchange rates. Economics could have a strong impact on that segment of park visitors, he said.


While I believe the increase of visitors to Cuyahoga Valley N.P., I have to wonder how they know. There is no entrance station to the park and there are no user fees. I hike there 3 or 4 times a week and yes, it was much more crowded than it has been in the past, although I think it's part of a longer term trend for the area. So many people!
It does seem to me that most of these drops are fuel cost related as evidenced by the lack of RV users.

Hey, what do you know, there can be good outcomes of a bad economy. Glad to see a decrease in the number of RVs, and an increase in back country use. I do believe Edward Abbey said it best:

"Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your wrinkled old dugs! You sir, squinting at the map with your radiator boiling over and your fuel pump vapor-locked, crawl out of that shiny hunk of GMC junk and take a walk-yes, leave the old lady and those squawling brats behind for awhile and take a long quiet walk straight into the canyons, get lost for awhile, come back when you damn well feel like it." -E.A.

"Sixty-three percent of all 391 park units reported declines in RV overnight stays."

I have my doubts about the validity of that statistic. Of the 391 units, how many have camping facilities at all? I'd be surprised if 50% of the 391 park units even record overnight RV stays. Think of all the urban and small rural parks: Independence, Klondike Gold Rush, Washita Battlefield, Montezuma Castle, Lewis & Clark, Vicksburg...

Interesting report. More definitive trends in visitation should become clearer this coming summer as the recession becomes firmly entrenched. Discretionary spending on nonessentials is usually one of the first victims of a major economic downturn. The more remote parks seem most likely to experience drops in visitor numbers. In addition to actual declines in disposable income, there is a natural tendency to "hunker down" and stay close to home in tough times.

Hobblefoot, information about how the National Park Service collects visitation information is available here:
Click on Cuyahoga Valley from the pull down menu, then select the How we Count report in the Cuyahoga Valley Reports menu.

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