The National Parks Saw Record Crowds in 2021: Where Do We Go From Here?

More people than ever are venturing to national parks. Can the system adapt?

Since the pandemic began, people have been taking to the national parks in droves searching for a safe vacation in the face of travel restrictions and cruise outbreaks. And while travelers generally stayed in parks closer to home in 2020, 2021 saw a resurgence in national park travel as visitation numbers soared.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the final numbers are not yet available for all national parks, what we do know is illuminating. Great Smoky Mountains National Park set a new record of 14.1 million visitors in 2021, 1.5 million more visitors than its previous record in 2019, and a 57 percent increase in visitation from a decade ago.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yellowstone broke its annual visitation record with 4,860,537 recreation visits in 2021, up 28 percent from 2020 (3,806,306 visits), making it the busiest year on record. Visitations for May, June, July, August, and September were the busiest on record. July was also the most-visited month on record in Yellowstone’s history and the first time visitation exceeded 1 million visits in a single month.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All-time visitation records were broken at four of Utah’s five national parks in 2021.

Related: Reservations and Permits Required at Some National Parks in 2022

There were at least 11 million visitors at Utah’s five national parks in 2021—far exceeding the 7.7 million recorded visitors in 2020.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More parks will likely see their visitation records fall as the National Park Service (NPS) finishes its 2021 tally.

The conflict between visitor accessibility and protecting natural integrity in the parks is an old one and park administrators have had to balance the impacts of tourists against their mandate to preserve the parks since the beginnings of the NPS. Park officials are increasingly showing a willingness to embrace non-traditional solutions in handling it.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most visible ways parks are curbing congestion is by instituting timed-entry systems. Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Acadia are using them and Arches have announced a timed entry ticket pilot program this year. These are helpful for capping visitation to a sustainable, fixed level and making sure visitors aren’t elbowing for room at popular areas. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unfortunately, it also creates new problems about accessibility and visitor experience. Park visitors have been outraged to travel thousands of miles and spend money on lodging/travel fees only to be denied access to the park after not securing a reservation.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reservation systems aren’t the only proposed solution to crowded parks, however. Sen. Angus King, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, sees it as a supply-demand problem. The supply of national parks is inadequate to meet the burgeoning demand. Therefore, we should create more national parks. This concept was fleshed in a New York Times opinion piece by Albuquerque freelance journalist Kyle Paoletta who wrote: 

“Going to a national park in 2021 doesn’t mean losing yourself in nature. It means inching along behind a long line of minivans and RVs on the way to an already full parking lot…The best way to rebalance the scale? We need more national parks.”

Related: National Parks Have a Problem. They Are Too Popular.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paoletta makes some good points. He argues that limiting visitation to a place like Arches will only push the crowds onto nearby public lands that aren’t equipped to handle them, a phenomenon we’re already witnessing. And, setting aside more public lands while providing a framework for better managing recreation and tourism on those lands is a good idea.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But turning around and designating those relatively unknown areas as national parks—thereby increasing visitation—will only bring more impacts, more infrastructure, and will do little to alleviate crowding at other parks. 

More national parks won’t magically fix crowds if there’s a lack of funding especially since park funding has decreased while visitation has increased.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jonathan Thompson at The Land Desk also notes that large crowds are heading to specific parks, not spreading out evenly throughout the entire system. Instead of designating more parks, he says, Congress should increase funding for them to help mitigate damage from crowding. That would provide more money for additional staff to educate and control crowds, for shuttle systems like Zion’s that are effectively reducing traffic, and for building more campgrounds and toilets inside or outside park boundaries.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

King seems to believe that Americans are inclined to visit national parks, in general, rather than specific parks. If that were true, then every national park in the nation would be overrun with visitors. Yet Carlsbad Caverns National Park was far busier in the 1970s and 1980s than it is now and visitation has plateaued or even declined over the past couple of decades at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and at Mesa Verde, Olympic, Petrified Forest, Guadalupe Mountains, and Kings Canyon National Parks

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People keep coming to the popular places in increasing numbers despite the fact that they could be visiting far less crowded national parks nearby.

Related: National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

With that in mind, I have an alternate proposal: Let the crowds go to Zion, Arches, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone since that’s what they want. Meanwhile, increase funding for all the parks to help mitigate damage and to control the crowds.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion already has a shuttle system to its most popular areas to alleviate car traffic. Arches could do the same, shutting off the entire park to private, motorized vehicles and ferrying visitors via bus from Moab to the park. RVs with campground reservations at Devils Garden would be the lone exemption.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enact permit systems with limits for more remote, fragile areas of the parks. If park campgrounds can’t handle demand, then build more (supply and demand) either inside or just outside the parks’ boundaries. If park staff can’t handle the numbers, then hire more people. 

The NPS currently manages 423 sites with 15 percent of them—or 63—classified as national parks. Altogether, the agency controls more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories—a mass of land that’s more than twice the size of Florida.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In recent years, rebranding existing NPS properties into national parks has become increasingly popular as many lawmakers regard name changes as an easy way to boost tourism in their communities.

A 2018 study by the research group Headwaters Economics found that eight national monuments that had been redesignated as national parks saw their attendance increase by an average of 21 percent within five years. Since then, lawmakers have embraced the idea.

In 2019, President Trump signed a spending bill that included a provision to change the name of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to Indiana Dunes National Park, making it the country’s 61st national park.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 62nd national park was created the same year when Congress designated White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico as White Sands National Park.

And most recently, New River Gorge National River in West Virginia became the 63rd national park when Congress voted last year to change its name to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

New River National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the NPS confronts the reality that there isn’t enough room in the parks for everyone who wants to visit them, they’re also learning that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for addressing the problem, either.

Read Next: My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

Worth Pondering…

In the end, we only conserve what we love.

We only love what we understand.

We will understand what we are taught.

—Baba Dioum, Senegalese poet

The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

When an ad campaign is too successful

As red-rock meccas like Moab, Zion, and Arches become overrun with visitors, I have to wonder if Utah’s celebrated Mighty Five ad campaign worked too well—and who gets to decide when a destination is “at capacity”.

The Mighty Five campaign was a smash. The number of visitors to the five parks jumped 12 percent in 2014, 14 percent in 2015, and 20 percent in 2016, leaping from 6.3 million to over 10 million in just three years.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the Memorial Day weekend of 2015, nearly 3,000 cars descended on Arches National Park for their dose of Wow. All 875 parking places were taken with scores more vehicles scattered in a haphazard unplanned way. The line to the entrance booth spilled back half a mile blocking Highway 191. The state highway patrol took the unprecedented step of closing it effectively shutting down the park. Hundreds of rebuffed visitors drove 30 miles to Canyonlands where they waited an hour in a two-mile line of cars. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since then, Arches has been swamped often enough to shut its gate at least nine times including the most recent Labor Day weekend. Meanwhile, in Zion, hikers wait 90 minutes to board a shuttle and an additional two to four hours to climb the switchbacks of Angels Landing. There, visitors sometimes find outhouses shuttered with the following sign: “Due to extreme use, these toilets have reached capacity.”

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When word trickled back in that the ads had worked too well, the Office of Tourism responded. In 2016, it tweaked the campaign, calling it the Road to Mighty and highlighting lesser-known state parks and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The strategy appeared to work. Visits to the Mighty Five flattened growing only 4 percent in 2017 and a little more than 1 percent in 2018 while the state parks saw double-digit jumps. Just as Road to Mighty hit the airwaves in January 2017 Bears Ears National Monument was created. 

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And in 2018, the Office of Tourism massaged the campaign again, calling it Between the Mighty and adding Bears Ears to its destinations. Many questioned if overcrowding could be addressed by sending tourists elsewhere. Comments like “They ruined the parks, and now they want to ruin the places in between” were not uncommon.

By 8:20 a.m. the Delicate Arch parking lot often reached capacity. This mob scene was nothing like the Mighty Five commercials. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 4.5 million annual visitors, Zion is by far the most packed of the Utah parks (and was the fourth most visited U.S. national park in 2018). The horror stories about and the crowds are all true. 

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twenty years ago, the park made the visionary decision to shut Zion Canyon to cars. Everyone leaves their cars at the visitor center, the campgrounds, or the town of Springdale and takes a shuttle to the trailheads for Angels Landing and the Narrows. So there are no traffic jams, no RVs circling for a space.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Better than any front-country park in the entire nation, Zion has realized Ed Abbey’s dream of carlessness: “You’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk,” he pleaded, “better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus.”

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I don’t want to just be a curmudgeon who mourns the passage of time and fights any change to the way things were. I will never be young again, I get that. But maybe, one way we tap into the eternal is to see how that which is not made by human hand will outlast us all, just as it preceded us. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By doing just about nothing here in the wilderness beyond, the tourism folks appear to have done it right. As I looked around and found no trails, no rangers, nowhere to go other than this dirt lot, I wondered if this “park” might more accurately be called a scenic overlook or a campsite. Do humans need to change this landscape to make it more attractive, more fun?

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With talk of “destination development” and “destination management,” civilization forges ahead, until one day this last remaining strip of wilderness will cease to be sacred—and will become a Brand. 

I hope to God it fails.

Worth Pondering…

From Zion God shines forth, perfect in beauty.

—Psalm 50:2

Overtourism and Undertourism in 2019

Celebrating the “Undertouristed” places for RV travel in 2019

If there was a competition for the Word of the Year in tourism, a serious contender would be “overtourism”.

From Barcelona to Bali, the Indian Ocean to the Adriatic, 2018 was the year that people in the world’s most coveted, visited, and Instagrammed places said enough was enough.

There were protests in Barcelona and Mallorca. And the New Year began with Venice vowing to charge tourists for entry.

Let’s celebrate the alternatives in 2019—the undertouristed places that deserve more visitors and where the locals won’t take to the streets and forums to protest.

Let’s hear it for undertourism in America. From the rugged mountains to the giant forests to the vast desert, the RV traveler has it all.

Overtouristed: Charleston, South Carolina and Ashville, North Carolina and Zion National Park, Utah

Undertouristed: A sampling follows

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef received its name from the great white rock formations resembling the U.S. Capitol building and from the sheer cliffs that presented a barrier to early travelers.

However, it is the park’s multi-colored sandstone that earned it the nickname, “land of the sleeping rainbow”. The park runs along a huge buckle in the earth’s crust called the Waterpocket Fold. This noteworthy geologic feature is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Layer upon layer of rock folded over each other.

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Kentucky

The Bernheim Arboretum in Clermont (about 30 miles south of Louisville) includes 15,625 acres of fields and forests, as well as over 40 miles of hiking trails that weave their way through the forest and a bike route that winds along Long Lick Creek.

Whether it’s hiking one of the many trails, fishing in Lake Nevin, enjoying public art, reading under a tree, or taking advantage of one of the many informative programs, Bernheim offers visitors unique opportunities to connect with nature.

New River Gorge, West Virginia

A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep canyons, the New River is among the oldest rivers on the continent. The park encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River, is rich in cultural and natural history, and offers an abundance of scenic and recreational opportunities.

Hiking along the many park trails or biking along an old railroad grade, the visitor will be confronted with spectacular scenery. There are opportunities for extreme sports as well as a more relaxing experience.

Holmes County, Ohio

The Amish have established themselves in the Holmes County area, and it is estimated that one in every six Amish in the world live in this area. The Amish choose to live a simple way of life, which is clearly evident by the presence of horses and buggies, handmade quilts, and lack of electricity in Amish homes.

Entrepreneurial businesses owned by the Amish add to the friendly atmosphere along the byway while creating a welcome distance from the superstores of commercial America. The Swiss and German heritage of the early settlers in the county is evident in the many specialty cheese and meat products and delicious Swiss/Amish restaurants.

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

This pristine 680-square-mile wilderness is an ecological wonder. Wetlands provide a critical habitat for abundant wildlife and migratory birds. Take a walk on the 4,000-foot boardwalk and view the prairie from the observation tower. Visitor center offers displays and film. TAKE THE GUIDED BOAT TOUR. From the open, wet “prairies” of the east side to the forested cypress swamps on the west, Okefenokee is a mosaic of habitats, plants, and wildlife.

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden