Arches National Park had to close its gate more than 120 times this summer when parking lots filled up creating a safety hazard for emergency vehicles. Yellowstone National Park reached 1 million visitors in July for the first time in its history. At Zion National Park, the wait to hike Angels Landing was a Disneyland-long four hours. And with the visitors came graffiti, trash, and reckless behavior.
It’s no secret that this summer has been the busiest summer ever. Preliminary visitation statistics show that the most popular 12 to 15 national parks are seeing record numbers.
On Facebook, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged visitors to have backup plans when arranging a trip and included information on lesser-known parks with equally stunning sights and hikes.
“Travel off the beaten path,” the NPS wrote. “There are more than 400 national parks across the country. We love exploring the lesser-known ones. They can be a great option for travelers looking for all the beauty of nature, hiking trails, and rich history, with fewer crowds and lines.”
Have a plan…and a backup plan…Check
Pack your patience…Working on it.
Don’t pet the fluffy cows…
Summer is here and a little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises when visiting a park are happy ones. To help everyone have a great experience, National Park Service rangers have shared their top 10 insider tips to #PlanLikeAParkRanger.
The record-setting crowds of people surging into public lands this summer have set off new challenges for park managers. They are using counterintuitive tricks like encouraging selfies in one place to prevent them in another and they are rolling out algorithms and autonomous vehicles to manage the throngs of recreation-seekers.
They are also acknowledging a hard truth: perhaps there simply isn’t enough space at America’s most iconic attractions for everyone who wants to visit them. In an earlier post, I provided a framework for adding more national parks.
One of the biggest issues facing parks is the many visitors all aiming to get the perfect photo. At popular spots in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, some have even fallen to their deaths in the process prompting the NPS to create a guide for safe selfie-taking. And in 2018, the tourism board in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, made an unusual request to visitors heading toward Grand Teton National Park after local trails were overrun with photo-tourists: stop geotagging photos.
Enter the selfie station: a humble wooden stand in front of a stunning vista, ready to hold a camera for a safe and easy photo experience. They are part of an effort to corral people’s natural desire to take photos and to promote less-well-known areas.
Tom Hazelton, who leads Iowa’s County Conservation System, has overseen the installation of more than a hundred selfie stations in his state. Some of the stations celebrate quirky parts of history like the first train robbery west of the Mississippi while others point people to a lake, vista, or nature center they might not otherwise come across. Similar efforts exist in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
This is Iowa’s third season using the sturdy, cedar stations and they installed another 15 during the past few months. They are getting used and they are low maintenance and easy to build: the signs are $30 and the wood is another $60.
Another tactic to reduce the strain on parks is to cut the number of visitors permitted to enter them in the first place. The NPS oversees a total of 423 protected places that include national seashores, national lakeshores, national recreation areas, and national monuments, among others. Popular places like the summit of Haleakala on Maui or Muir Woods in California require timed entry slots available on Recreation.gov. More public lands are turning to such systems to reduce the number of visitors in one part of a park especially as the pandemic trimmed staffing numbers.
The Recreation.gov program uses algorithms to show where there might be less-trafficked attractions in the vicinity that you’re searching in real-time. The Park Service also launched an app with tools to explore more than 400 NPS sites. You can download content from entire parks for offline use. It’s especially handy if you’re exploring remote areas in parks or concerned about data limits. And it can point visitors to other potential public lands outside the parks.
In the future, the Park Service is focusing on rolling out predictive technologies that will allow people to anticipate crowds and plan accordingly. They are taking tools used in urban planning and congestion planning and repurposing them for recreation and parks. That could mean a future where a hiker scans a QR code to check-in at a trailhead sending information back to when the trails are most clogged with people. That way, the next group could be advised to wait an hour or come another time to take the same adventure. It also could mean that traffic is routed to less popular areas of the parks.
To cut down on traffic, some parks are experimenting with autonomous cars. The Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina tested out a driverless shuttle this summer and Yellowstone is also trying a shuttle. That park is expected to run out of space for additional cars by 2023. The idea is to stop people driving between the sights in the Canyon Village area—the area around the famous Yellowstone River and Tower Waterfall—and get them in the driverless shuttle instead.
Despite the crowds and the traffic and noise, the park service says it’s a good thing that more people are getting out to experience parks and public lands. The Park Service wants people to have exceptional experiences and they’re looking at ways to enhance opportunities for people to plan to have the best experience and stay safe.
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