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Are Car Campers An Endangered Species in National Parks?


Glacier Basin is a popular campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. photo.

Generations of Americans got their first taste of national parks via car camping, that venerable tradition of driving to a park and setting up a tent or two in a roadside campground. That genre of park visitation seems to be slipping these days, though, and at least one car-camping aficionado blames it on economics -- there's more money to be made in lodgings than campgrounds.

That's the point driven home in a recent story in the Los Angeles Times by Eric Bailey.

The past quarter of a century has seen a shift in lodging tastes — and as baby boomers have given way to Generations X and Y, the number of tent and RV campers in national parks across the U.S. has dropped 44%. Meanwhile, the number of visitors in fixed-roof park lodgings has barely changed at all.

The camping decline comes amid debate over how to balance nature's needs with the recreational agenda of national park visitors. (Brian) Ouzounian believes Yosemite's planning efforts "have profit motives written all over them." The valley now has nearly three times more lodging units than campsites, and in that he sees a socioeconomic plot, a push to place more valley visitors in expensive accommodations.

Campers, he says, are the underdogs: "We're at the bottom of the food chain. You've got a camping culture that's more than a century old, but the park service really doesn't want to hear from us."

If Mr. Ouzounian is right, that the Park Service is going along with the move to boost lodging at the expense of campgrounds, perhaps that could be linked to the soft visitation numbers the national park system has witnessed in recent years. More so, such a move possibly could result in a disparity of economic diversity of park visitors, as those of lower incomes who rely on, and even prefer, car camping are effectively squeezed out of the parks.

For his part, Mr. Ouzounian is pushing a campaign to draw Congress' attention to this perceived slight.

His latest effort is an online petition calling for the return of (Yosemite's) flood-closed campsites. His goal is to send the thoughts of 10,000 campers to Congress. At last count, he had collected more than 700 signatures and testimonials from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.

Diane Mello wrote that camping provides a more "intimate" Yosemite experience than hunkering down in a hotel room. Joel Swan of Illinois spoke of the slippery slope if the National Park Service discriminates against those of modest means. Richard Conklin suggested that "John Muir is turning over in his grave."


The quote in Kurt's piece says that tent and RV Camping 'in the National Parks' is down 44%. There weren't floods in all of them. The floods and the reduction in campsites was only in Yosemite Valley, not even in the rest of Yosemite. One of the largest campgrounds in the western U. S. is in Tuolumne Meadows in the Yosemite high country.

I got it -- turn the golf course into more camping space. They can keep one hole as a driving range for historical purposes and the people clamoring for tent space will have somewhere to go.

-- Jon Merryman

A no-registration-required of the same LA Times article (i think...) is


Tent camping is not down 44%. It is at the same level as before, with about 90% occupancy. The flood just reduced the number of tent camping sites available, so the total number of nights is down. Never trust a statistics, before you have seen how it was made.

The best memories of life come from camping. I have been in all of the lower 48 states and across Canada. It would have neverbeen possible for my family to afford to travel like that without a tent as lodging.

We would just load up and go. Buy an annual National Park Pass and you never knew where you could visit tomorrow or next week.

I now find it harder to find places that accept tents. They have expensive lodges that I can't afford or RV only sites.

I have wanted to take off and share some of my favorite places with my nices and nephew but can not afford to do so. I have three tents ranging in size from 2 man to 10 man but have trouble finding places to just visit without having to make reservations or have an RV.

They are still my Parks!

I understood your point perfectly well. My point is that it's an irrelevant connection to be making. Whether people should or shouldn't be frugal is one thing; the reasons why prices are raised are something else. Whether you've misspent your money or not and happen to be poor, you have reason to be upset if public goods are out of reach because someone decided to raise prices. How you do or don't spend money is an entirely different issue; and as I said in a couple of responses, it may ironically be an issue that relates to the way people with means spend their money (when people create new markets for designer coffee, cars, trams, hotels, and wifi in national parks, those create costly infrastructure realities for everyone; but as long as we pick on the relatively insignificant spending choices of the poorest people, we're not going to realize why supposedly public services continue to cost more and more to maintain).

As an individual, I can say, "Gee, I could have gone to Yellowstone and camped if only I hadn't bought those damn designer coffees." Of course, that's doubtful (as the numbers show, those below the poverty level don't have the discretionary funds needed to make do). But, I don't fight that point. I fight the claim that people who are now in the predicament of not being able to afford a campsite, a tent, and all the goodies that go along with camping (which, I agree with the poster above is not really an activity for most poor people - the costs of the equipment alone kept me from it for many years), don't have legitimate reason to complain when someone raises prices - regardless of how they spent their money.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World


My point about certain quote/unquote "lower income" families and their willingness to spend $5 on a cup of coffee was this: The price of coffee as a raw commodity for sure has nothing to do with camping, but what people will pay for someone else to brew it and put cream in it might. Perhaps those who are willing to pay $5 for coffee that could be made for 1/10th of that price (or less) at home, might not mind (or notice!) if campground fees were bumped a bit. Even if they did notice, if they knew it was in the best long-term interests of the park and park service, perhaps they might not even complain about it. Chances are they would complain, though, and not see the irony of gladly spending $5 on coffee, but not wanting to pay a nickel more to help preserve a great way of visiting parks.

Arizona has had extreme fire regulation due to drought here.

my sentiments also

If I could use the ground I would not need to use the Lodges, but when I use the ground to sleep on in the morning I wonder if I had slept in it and this was the resurrection and I was having to pay for my transgressions with the pain.

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