The stampede into national parks

Ready to get back into nature, visitors are overwhelming some U.S. national parks. Smart planning can help improve the experience.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/FILE
Visitors hike the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park, Utah.

'There is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires,” wrote that ultimate advocate for nature, Henry David Thoreau, in his famous 1862 essay, “Walking.”

After being cooped up by COVID-19, and largely denied the ability to travel overseas, Americans have taken to their national parks this summer in huge numbers to find some of that wilderness inspiration. But instead they’ve often confronted crowded trails, traffic jams, and parking nightmares. 

Maine’s Acadia National Park, for example, hosted nearly 1.2 million visitors through June of this year, a 33% jump over the same period in 2019, just prior to the pandemic. In response, some of the most popular national parks have been forced to close their gates early in the day.

Concerns that U.S. national parks are being “loved to death” have been raised for years. But 2021 seems to be emphatically underlining them.

“Watching the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain [in Acadia] is a wonderful experience,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine at a Senate subcommittee hearing on overcrowded parks in late July. “Staring at the taillights of the car in front of you as you are trying to get up the mountain and find a parking place? Not so much.”

The growth in visitor numbers poses “one of the greatest challenges [the National Park Service] has ever faced,” Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, told the hearing.

U.S. national parks – “America’s Best Idea,” as Ken Burns referred to them in his 2009 documentary series – are doing what they were intended to do: provide memorable encounters with the often spectacular beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Especially now, visitors can hardly be blamed for wanting to take a deep breath and soak it all in.

So to accommodate the crush, parks have been responding with innovative solutions. Visitors are being reminded that the worst crowding is happening at just a couple of dozen iconic places (think Yellowstone, Zion, the Grand Canyon, etc.) in a system of more than 400 parks. Visiting a lesser-known park may provide a little more elbow room.

Parks are employing timed-entry reservation systems and shuttle services to cut the number of vehicles clogging their roads. And nearby businesses, which depend on park tourism, are jumping in to share their local knowledge and help visitors plan a more pleasant stay.

National park crowding may ease in the future as other travel options open up. But lessons learned now can help parks improve visitor experiences. 

As Yogi Berra, famous for his twisted aphorisms, would have put it, the last thing that should be said of these treasures is “It’s too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore.”

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